Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Name of The Promise is Jesus - Matt 1:21-22

Audio available here.

Throughout the Bible we find that God’s people have chosen special and meaningful names for their children. That practice continues for many today. Before our children were ever born, God brought us through a difficult season of ministry through a study of the life of David, and we decided then that if God ever gave us a son, we would call him Solomon. As we considered names for Salem, I was in my third semester of Hebrew at Seminary, and having studied the significance of the word Shalom in some detail, we decided to use a derivative of that word for her name. In fact, both Solomon and Salem are derived from that important Hebrew word. Their names became the foundation of our prayers for our children. For Solomon, we have prayed the words of 1 Kings 10:24, “All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart.” And for Salem we have prayed the words of Psalm 76:2, “His tabernacle is in Salem.”

For some parents, the choosing of a name means making lists of choices, consulting books, and endless wrestling with possibilities. But for Joseph and Mary, there was no such process. They were not given the opportunity to choose the name of the child. God Himself chose this child’s name. This is fitting, for in reality, the child’s name was chosen by His true Father. And as with other children in the Bible, this child’s name communicated a divine message from God to humanity. God does not wait for the child to grow up and proclaim the message. The child is the message, and His name bears the message to humanity.

I. The Meaning of His Name

The angel told Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus.” It was a common name for Jewish children in that day. It is the Greek form of the Hebrew names Joshua and Hosea, two significant Old Testament figures. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, to disambiguate Him from the many others named Jesus at that time. But this Jesus was not just one among many. In fact, so significant was this Jesus, that shortly after His lifetime, the name ceased to be as popular. Some avoided the name out of reverence for this Jesus, and others out of contempt for Him.

The name means “Yahweh is salvation.” Yahweh is the pronunciation we give to the unpronounceable name of God that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. It is the name that communicates the essence of His nature and the name by which the people of His covenant know Him. Because of the commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain, pious Hebrew scholars inserted vowels into this name from the more generic word for Lord, Adonai, indicating to them as they come to this name in Scripture to not even utter it out of reverence for the name. The combination of this name with the vowels from Adonai give us the name Jehovah.
In the giving of this name to this child, God was announcing to the world that humanity could be reconciled to God and made right with Him. He was announcing the nature of God, that God is gracious and loving, and mighty to save. This is His nature. This is why it so serious a matter to take His name in vain and associate Him only with damning. His nature is to save, because of His mercy and grace. But when His offer of mercy and grace are refused, only then does He condemn, and He does so justly and righteously because He is infinitely holy. But we mustn’t separate His holiness and His mercy, and thereby to fail to understand His nature of reaching out to redeem fallen humanity.

There are people who think of God as a cosmic policeman who is bent on finding all the fun in the world and putting an end to it at once. There are people who think of God only in terms of His judgment, a vengeful being ready to pour out wrath upon human beings. There are those who think that He isn’t there at all, and if He is, we can know nothing about Him. But the meaning of the name Jesus proclaims a message to us about the nature of God: “Yahweh is Salvation.”

II. The Mission of His Name

The angel told Joseph to call the child Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.” This is the reason for calling Him Jesus. His name signifies His mission. His name means “salvation” because that is why He came – to save us from sin. From the earliest pages of Scripture when man first fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, God had promised to send a redeemer to bring salvation. In Genesis 3:15, He promised to bring forth one born of a woman who would crush the head of the serpent, indicating that He would destroy the power of Satan that had led humanity into sin. From that point on, the Scriptures reveal more and more about the coming of this Savior, the Messiah. We learn in Genesis 12 that He will be a descendant of Abraham; we learn in 2 Samuel 7 that He will be a descendant of David. We learn in Isaiah 7 that He will be born of a virgin, and in Micah 5 that He will be born in Bethlehem. And in Isaiah 53 we learn that He will bring salvation through His own suffering for the sins of the people. These, and many other Old Testament prophecies, point the way to the first Christmas when Jesus was born. It is as if the shadow of the cross loomed over the manger where He lay. Here was the one who would live the sinless life that completely satisfied the holy and righteous will of God. Here was the one who would be crucified, though He did not deserve it, that our sins might be punished in Him. He became our substitute in death, that we might be forgiven and who conquered death for us that we might be made righteous in Him and receive eternal life. Here was the one who would save us.

The salvation that Jesus has come to bring us is sufficient for all of humanity, but all of humanity will not receive it. Jesus has come, not to save all people, but to save His people, from their sins. Who are His people? His people are those who will come to Him in faith and trust and believe upon Him to save them. These are they who recognize that they are indeed sinners in need of a Savior, and who come to Him for that salvation. It may be very bad news to say that you are a sinner, but it is the best news of all to say that Jesus came to save just that sort of person. Not everyone is willing to admit that he or she is a sinner in need of saving. Now, just because they don’t admit it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. The Bible tells us that all human beings are born in a state of sinfulness, and human nature bears out the truth of it. Those who refuse to admit that they are sinners will seek neither Jesus nor His salvation and if they do not find salvation in Him, there is none elsewhere to be found.

The baby in the manger came into this world on a rescue mission. His name signifies that mission. His name means salvation, and through His life, death, and resurrection, He has come to provide it for sinners who turn to Him in repentance and in faith.

III. The Mystery of His Name

So far, we have said that the meaning of the name “Jesus” is “Yahweh is salvation.” And we have said that the reason He was given this name was that He would save His people from their sins. Now, if Yahweh, God, is the one who is salvation, and Jesus has come to save us, then who must Jesus be? Matthew tells us here, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL, which translated means, ‘GOD WITH US.’” The prophet is Isaiah, and the prophecy that is quoted here (in the capital letters) is Isaiah 7:14, spoken over 700 years before the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.

You see, our state of sinfulness is so great, that it requires God Himself to act on our behalf to save us. And He has done so. Here in the person of Jesus, God has come to dwell among His people in the flesh. He is “God with us,” Immanuel. He is not merely a good man, nor even a godly man. Jesus Christ is the God-Man, not half-God and half-man, but fully God, and in the miracle of the incarnation, fully man. God did not merely send a representative to us. He became one of us, so that He might live the life that we cannot live, that He might die the death we deserve, and purchase by His very own blood the salvation that we could never otherwise obtain.

I had a conversation with a Muslim man on one occasion, and he accused me of being an idolater because I worshiped a man as God. I explained my belief that Jesus was not just a man, but that in Him, God became a man. He said, “God cannot do that.” I said, “Can God do anything He wants to do?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Can he become a man?” He said, “No.” I said, “OK, let’s try this again: Can God do anything He wants to do?” Again he said yes. I said, “Then can God become a man?” And again He said no. This went on and on for some time, and ultimately it came down to the fact that my Muslim friend did not believe that God would ever want to become a man. He could not fathom that an infinitely holy God would ever desire to lower himself to humanity’s level. Why would God want to become a man? The only possible reason is that God loves us, and desires to save us from our sins.

God is holy and righteous and therefore must punish sin. But God is also loving and just and desires to save sinners so that they would not perish eternally. For a human being, this would pose a dilemma. How could we ever resolve the tension of that conundrum? But it is no dilemma for God. His thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours. For God, this would-be dilemma is resolved in one action planned out from the beginning. God would become one of us, satisfy His own demands on our behalf, receive our penalty in Himself on our behalf, and conquer death forever on our behalf, and offer the salvation that He has purchased for us to all who will come to Him by faith.

We find ourselves here three days after Christmas, and three days before New Year’s. And in a sense, that is a symbolic position. In reality, we are living between the first coming of Christ into the world, and the New Era that will be ushered in at His second coming. We do not know what 2009 will bring, much less what the time beyond that holds for us. But we know this: Because of what God has done for us in Christmas, we can have a brand new future that is secure and certain in His hands. Our past failures and sins can be put beneath the saving blood of Jesus and each new day offers us a clean start to live for Christ. The question is, before you can get ready for the New that God has in store for us in the coming year and those that will follow it if He prolongs the days, have you received the gift of His salvation? God is salvation. Jesus is God in the flesh who has came to save sinners. And the promise of God is that all sinners who turn to Him in repentance and faith and believe that He died on the cross for your sins and rose again will be forgiven and saved. That is God’s promise. And the name of the promise is Jesus.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Value of Hebrew and Greek to Clergymen

On a recent visit to my Alma Mater, Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute, I picked up from the library discard table a free copy of George Ricker Berry's The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament. In fairness, I should disclose the full title of the work: The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament With the Authorized Version Conveniently Presented in the Margins for Ready Reference and With the Various Readings of the Editions of Elzevir 1624, Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Alford, and Wordsworth, To Which Has Been Added A New Greek-English New Testament Lexicon Supplemented by a Chapter Elucidating the Synonyms of the New Testament, With a Complete Index to the Synonyms.

As I began to thumb through this sizeable volume, the first thing to catch my eye after the lengthy title was the valuable article found on the reverse of the title page where one would normally expect to find the copyright information. Indeed, the copyright information is there, on a tiny bottom line reading only, “Copyright, 1897, by Wilcox & Follett Co.” But the overwhelming bulk of the page is devoted to “The Value of Hebrew and Greek to Clergymen,” penned I suppose (but uncertainly) by Berry. The text follows:

The Value of HEBREW and GREEK to Clergymen.

1. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot understand the critical commentaries on the Scriptures, and a commentary that is not critical is of doubtful value.
2. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot satisfy yourself or those who look to you for help as to the changes which you will find in the Revised Old and New Testaments.
3. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot appreciate the critical discussions, now so frequent, relating to the books of the Old and New Testaments.
4. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot be certain, in a single instance, that in your sermon based on a Scripture text, you are presenting the correct teaching of that text.
5. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot be an independent student, or a reliable interpreter of the word of God.
6. As much knowledge of Hebrew can be secured, with the same method, under the same circumstances, by the same pupil, in one year, with the aid of the Interlinear Old Testament, as can be gained of Latin in three years. Greek, though somewhat more difficult, may be readily acquired within a brief period with the aid of the Interlinear New Testament (which combines a lexicon) and an elementary Greek grammar.
7. The Hebrew language has, in all, about 7,000 words, and these 1,000 occur in the Old Testament over 25 times each.
8. The Hebrew grammar has but one form for the Relative pronoun in all cases, numbers and genders; but three forms for the Demonstrative pronoun. The possible verbal forms are about 300 as compared with the 1,200 found in Greek. It has practically no declension.
9. Within ten years the average man wastes more time in fruitless reading and indifferent talk, than would be used in acquiring a good working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek that in turn would impart to his teaching that quality of independence and of reliability which so greatly enhances one’s power as a teacher.
10. There is not one minister in ten who might not if he but would, find time and opportunity for such study of Hebrew and Greek as would enable him to make a thoroughly practical use of it in his work as a Bible-preacher and Bible-teacher.

Words of Comfort / Isaiah 40:1-11

Audio here.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is listening to Handel’s Messiah. In fact, I am so fond of it that I listen to it year ‘round. In fact, I cannot read this passage without hearing in the back of my mind the orchestral sounds of the first four pieces from Messiah. The Minnesota Orchestra is advertising their upcoming performance of Messiah by saying, “The first words you hear in Handel's beloved oratorio are "Comfort ye!"—and in the middle of the hectic holidays, this phrase falls like balm on the soul.” There are many who find themselves in this day and time in need of just such a balm to be applied to their souls. We need to hear words of comfort. The economy is bleak, the political stability of our nation is uncertain, wars and violence mark the global landscape, the rise of crime and the environmental crises create fear, despair, and stress in our lives. Besides all this, the holiday season itself presents a heavy load of strain with all the preparations, the shopping, the gatherings, and the family dysfunction. For some there is sadness over past hurts that are accentuated at the holidays, or the grief that has come upon realizing that death has taken a loved one away from our holiday gatherings. In the midst of all of this, what we need is a message of comfort, to know that there is a God who cares about our pain, our heartache, our stress, and the general state of affairs in our lives and in the world, and that He will speak and act. We have just such a message in these words.

Isaiah the Prophet was God’s spokesman to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the latter half of the 700s BC. Throughout that time, the Assyrians repeatedly attempted to invade and conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Because of the wickedness and idolatry of the kings and people in the Northern Kingdom, God allowed them to be defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. This gave rise to even greater fears that the Southern Kingdom would be next. When the righteous king Hezekiah came to the throne in Judah around 716, he instituted many legal and spiritual reforms. He repaired and cleansed the Temple and called the nation to return to faithfulness to God.

Around 704, Hezekiah contracted an illness that threatened to end his life. The story of his sickness can be found in Isaiah 38. But Hezekiah turned to the Lord in prayer, and God answered and healed him. God promised to add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life. But God also declared that He would deliver the people of Judah from the threat of the Assyrians. However, it was not long after this that Hezekiah was tempted to turn away from simply trusting the Lord for protection. He entered into an alliance with the king of Babylon to take up arms together against Assyria. Isaiah learned of this and told Hezekiah that because of this, the Lord has declared that the people and all the possessions of the land will be taken away to Babylon (39:5-7). And in saying this, of course, Isaiah was clearly prophesying the Babylonian captivity that would eventually befall Judah.

Understandably, the realization that the nation faces certain destruction and deportation produced despair among the people. But immediately following the promise of judgment comes this message of comfort that we have read today. The judgment must and will come because of the unfaithfulness of the king and his people, but God says to the people that He is still “your God” He says in 40:1, and He still calls them “My people.” And speaking to them as if they are already in the captivity, for it is now fixed in His providence, God speaks comfort to the nation through His prophet. He says to the prophet, “Comfort, O comfort My people. Speak kindly to (literally, speak to the heart of) Jerusalem.” What are these words of comfort that God would have His prophet speak to His people in the midst of their despair? What are these words that we need to hear today? They are words of promise that began to come to pass as the people of Israel emerged from captivity in Babylon, and which continued to develop through the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and which await ultimate fulfillment in the day of His return when His everlasting Kingdom of righteousness will be fully consummated. What the people of Isaiah’s day looked forward to, we look back upon. What they were called to believe by faith that God would do, we can believe by faith that God has done, and as we do we find the same comfort in these words that they found applied like a balm to our souls.

We see first of all in this message that …

I. We are comforted by words of gracious salvation (v2)

Twice the Lord says to the prophet, “Comfort,” suggesting emotional intensity. But the words with which Isaiah is to comfort them are not his own words. He is to speak to them the word of God. The verb tense of the phrase, “says your God,” indicates that God is repeatedly saying these words of comfort. The prophet is commissioned to speak to the hearts of all who are in Jerusalem these words of comfort concerning God’s gracious salvation. It is as if God is inviting them to receive the love that He desires to mercifully shower on them. Isaiah is ordered to tell Jerusalem that “her warfare has ended.” The word translated warfare here can also mean hard service or duress. This of course refers to the Babylonian captivity which is to come upon them in their future. It has yet to happen, but even before it takes place, God comforts them by telling them that is over. For seventy years, the Israelites will be captive in Babylon, but all the while they will be comforted in knowing that it is not forever. The time of duress will come to an end, for God has declared it.

And Isaiah is also commanded to say to the hearts of those in Jerusalem, “that her iniquity has been removed.” The Babylonian captivity was going to come about because of the sins of the people. God’s patience with the idolatry, unfaithfulness, and disobedience of Judah would reach its limit and the Babylonians would become the tool the Lord would use to discipline them. So, while the captivity would occur because of their sin, God has told them in advance that this iniquity would be removed. The word used here has to do with satisfaction. It tells us in essence that the sins of the people have been paid for and that they payment has been accepted by God as satisfactory. Now, what is interesting about this idea is that this wording is used elsewhere in the Bible only of God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifices in Leviticus. But this sacrifice that Isaiah refers to for the sins of the people is not one that they have provided for themselves, but rather they have received this “of the Lord’s hand.” God has not responded to their sins with the justice they deserve, but has provided “double for all her sins.” They have received a double portion of grace. God has provided the sacrifice, and God has accepted the sacrifice that is the sufficient payment for their sins.

How has God done this? What blood sacrifice does God have in view that is both provided and received by Him? It is none other than the sacrifice of which Isaiah writes in Chapter 53. There we are told of the coming Servant of the Lord who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastened for our well-being, and scourged for our healing. Though the prophet says, “All of us like sheep have gone astray,” he also says that, “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Israel would await the coming of this suffering servant who would bear their sins. At this time of the year, we celebrate that He has come into the world, and it was for this purpose that He came – to bear the sins of humanity so that we may be saved from the judgment that our sins deserve. Israel would have been comforted to know that their captivity would not last forever, but would come to an end, and their sins would be paid for by God Himself. And regardless the conflict that we face today, the pain or hardship that we endure, we can be comforted as well by these words of gracious salvation—a salvation we do not deserve, but which God has provided abundantly by His grace for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to die for us.

There are more comforting words in this prophecy of Isaiah that we notice as well. In addition to the words of gracious salvation, …

II. We are comforted by words of revealed glory (vv3-5)

In some cultures, before a dignitary visits an outlying region, representatives are sent ahead to make sure that the roads are passable, that obstacles are removed, and that holes in the road are filled so that his travel will be along level ground. Here, Isaiah says that he has heard a voice crying out for just such a way to be prepared for a visitation that is to occur. But this is no earthly dignitary, but the King of Kings, the Lord Himself. “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.” And once the way is prepared for His coming, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.”
The people of Israel could cling to hope in the midst of hardship knowing that God Himself had promised to manifest Himself in their midst. This would comfort them in the dark days of their captivity, reminding them that the glory of the Lord would be revealed for all nations to see. The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” That expression, “the fullness of time,” indicates that it was the precisely perfect moment in human history and in the timetable of God. All the necessary preparations had been made for the entry of the Messiah into the world. In Jesus Christ, the glory of the Lord is revealed for all humanity to behold. The writer of Hebrews says that Christ is the radiance of God’s glory. In His birth, His life, His teachings, His death on the cross, His resurrection and ascension, the glory of God has been revealed. As the message of Christ goes forth into all the world, all flesh can behold the glory of God through the eye of faith. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4;6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Catch that – where do we find the knowledge of the glory of God? In the face of Christ! When the shepherds came from the field to look upon the babe in the manger, they were beholding the glory of God. When the wise men came later to the house where they dwelt, they knelt before the child in worship, for in Him was the glory of God made manifest. When Jesus was presented at the Temple, the old man Simeon took Him into his arms and cried out to God, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” And when He returns, all flesh will behold this glory together, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

No matter what darkness we face as we live in this fallen world, we can persevere for we know that God has made the brightness of His glory to shine upon us in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to dwell among us. He has placed His glory within us in the person of His Spirit, and He is coming again triumphantly to reveal His glory to all humanity. Do you find yourself on difficult days doubting that this is true? Well, there is no need to doubt it, the prophet has told us, “The mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”

And this brings us to the third point …

III. We are comforted by words of eternal truth (vv6-8)

Isaiah hears a voice saying, “Call out!” But the prophet knows not what to call out. And so the voice he hears tells him, “All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” That word translated as loveliness is sometimes translated goodness or even glory. It is the Hebrew word chesed which is used repeatedly in the OT to express the faithfulness and covenant love of God to His people. Well that sounds pretty good, right? Flowers are pretty. We like flowers. But it is not the beauty of the flower to which God likens the faithfulness or loveliness of humanity. It is another attribute of the flower that God speaks of. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades.” Yes, flowers, for all their beauty, are only a fleeting beauty. No sooner than they bloom but they begin to wither and fade. So it is with humanity and all the faithfulness that humanity can muster. It looks nice, but it is not lasting. Human beings and their deeds are temporary. We are frail, fallen, flawed, and fickle, like the tender petals of the flower. And just as God gives live by His Spirit, His ruach (the word translated as breath here), so He also brings an end to man’s days. Not many are the days of man upon the earth.

“But wait!”, we say. “I thought these were supposed to be words of comfort. This does not sound very comforting!” Indeed there is nothing we can say about the nature of humanity that is comforting. Comfort is not found in the nature of man, but rather in the nature of God. By His righteous nature, His words are true and trustworthy. Though mankind is fleeting, fading, fickle, frail and failing, the prophet must remind the people that “the word of our God stands forever!” Seventy years of time will elapse during the captivity of Babylon, and another 500 after that, in which Israel will wonder if the promises they have heard will come to pass. But God is not a man that He should lie. His word stands forever, and blessed are those who hold fast to those words patiently and persevere as they await the fulfillment of His Promise. The fact that God has spoken and that His Word stands forever is a great comfort to His people.

In God’s perfect time, not only would His word be fulfilled, His word would become Flesh. We are familiar with those words which open the Gospel According to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the birth of Jesus, all the promises and prophecies of what God would do for His people became incarnate. The hope of redemption, the hope of deliverance, of forgiveness of sin and the hope of salvation emerged from the virgin’s womb to be wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger. As the writer of Hebrews says, God, who had spoken in the past in various ways, had spoken fully and finally to man in the person of Jesus.

As we persevere in the life of faith awaiting Christ’s return, we find ourselves surrounded by those who seek to persuade us to abandon the promises of God to which we cling by faith. Peter writes in 2 Pet 3:4 that mockers will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” But if we will let our mind venture back to the manger, we will be reminded that God’s word stands forever. In the birth of the Christ of Christmas, we have the full assurance that every promise He has made will come to pass. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:10, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” We are comforted by this message that “the Word of our God stands forever.”

Finally, we look to verses 9-11, and find that, in addition to the comfort that we can have through the words of gracious salvation, the words of revealed glory, the words of eternal truth, …

IV. We are comforted by words of tender care (vv9-11)

In these verses the one who has been commissioned begins to commission others. You who believe God’s comforting words, announce them to others. Get yourself up on a high mountain and tell this good news so that everyone can hear it. Say to them, “Here is your God!” Literally, “Behold” or “Look!” “Here is God!” Though He is coming with a ruling arm, notice also that this same arm will gather those who are His close to His heart as He carries them like a shepherd. He has not born His arm for wrath, but for mercy. Notice the words of tender care in the imagery of this Shepherd. He tends His flock, He gathers His lambs, He carries them in His bosom, He gently leads the nursing ewes.

The imagery of sheep and Shepherd is used throughout the Bible. We are familiar with the tender words of His care found in Psalm 23. We have seen the words of Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We know the promise of the Lord Jesus, “I am the Good Shepherd.” We recall that when Jesus miraculously fed the multitude, that He looked upon them with compassion for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This is the state of humanity separated from God, wandering aimlessly through the world following only the destructive instincts of human nature. But Christ has come to gather His sheep in His arms and carry them close to His heart with tender care.

Do you find yourself fearful in this world? Confused, distressed, and in despair? Fear not! Enter into the fold of the Shepherd who loves you, who was born for you, who has laid down His life for the sheep. Look upon the child in Bethlehem’s manger and “Behold your God.” Hear this word of comfort and receive it, and then like the shepherds of Bethlehem, go out glorifying and praising God, go to the mountaintops and shout this message that God has come to us in the person of Jesus that we might be saved. He is coming again, and will bear His arm in judgment as a righteous ruler, but He has come first to bear the arm of a Shepherd. He calls us to come to Him like sheep and receive His mercy, His compassion, and the care of His tender affection.

Comfort, O Comfort My people, says your God. Speak kindly to them. Speak to their hearts. Call out to them. And what shall we call out to them that might comfort them? We point them to the babe in the manger and say “Behold your God!” And we speak words of gracious salvation, revealed glory, eternal truth, and tender care.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Keeping Christ in Christmas (2 John)

Audio available here.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season of four Sundays prior to Christmas in which Christians reflect on the first coming of Christ into the world, and spiritually prepare ourselves for His second coming. And this being the weekend after Thanksgiving, we find that the thoughts of most of those we know have turned toward the most prominent winter holiday. Most of those whom we know have already put an evergreen tree up in their home, and many have even decked the lawn with twinkling lights and assorted decorations. Friends have begun sending greeting cards and shopping for gifts that they will give to their loved ones. Many radio stations have interrupted their normal programming in exchange for a ‘round the clock fare of seasonal music. The airwaves are filled with songs like, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Let it Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” On television, we find holiday favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Christmas Story” (the movie about the Red Rider BB Gun), and various adaptations of the Nutcracker. And all of this has how much to do with the miracle of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ? Precisely zero percent.

In recent years, there has been an outcry of Christians against the widespread practice of taking Christ out of Christmas. Well meaning Christians have organized boycotts against stores which train their workers to say, “Happy Holidays” or display signs that say, “Seasons’ Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Yet in our own lives, we continue to engage in meaningless traditions that are every bit as devoid of Christ as those comparatively mundane gestures. This runs parallel to a similar trend among Christians who lobby to have the Ten Commandments displayed in classrooms and courthouses, when we do not even display them in Christian churches and homes. We are right to seek to keep Christ in Christmas, but we fail to be consistent in even our own practices. If we expect the culture to have a Christ-centered, Christ-saturated winter celebration, then we who are Christ’s followers must lead by example and keep Christ at the center of our Christmas celebrations as well. Does this mean that we should all have life-sized light up nativity scenes in our yards, give gifts of Bibles and cross-necklaces, and wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins on our lapels all season long? No, I believe that keeping Christ in Christmas is simpler than that.

In Second John, this tiny epistle to which we turn our attention today, the Apostle John gives us two specific admonitions for keeping Christ in Christmas. You see, the de-emphasizing of the Christmas miracle is not a new phenomenon. Within the first century of the Church’s history, a conflict arose within the church against those who sought to deny the miracle of the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is crucial to the Christian faith, for in it we set forth our belief that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and that He came into the world through the miracle of the virgin birth to save us from our sins. If He was not fully God and fully man, He could not atone for sin in His death on the cross. Apart from the miracle of the incarnation, there is no redemption for humanity, no hope for humanity beyond the grave, no Christianity and no Christmas. But some in the early church began to be influenced by the various philosophies of the surrounding culture and abandoned this belief that God became a man in the person of Jesus. It is these heretics whom John confronts in the letters of First and Second John, calling out their errors and strengthening the church against their false teachings.

Here in 2 John, the Apostle is writing the members of a church in a nearby area. He refers to the church as “The Chosen Lady,” and to the church’s members as “her children.” In keeping with this imagery, he concludes by passing along greetings from “the children of your chosen sister,” that is, members of the church where John is serving as “the elder,” or pastor. We know that John spent many years as the elder of a church in Ephesus. It was likely there that the conflict with these false teachers first arose, and now fearing that they will begin traveling far and wide teaching the same heresies, he writes to warn this neighboring congregation about it. In doing so, he gives two admonitions for continuing to walk in faithfulness to Christ. I believe that in our day, when it seems that the culture wants a Christmas without a Christ, and when so many of our own traditions have so little to do with the person of Jesus, that these admonitions will go far in helping us to keep Christ in Christmas. And they don’t cost a dime and are relatively stress free. Now there’s a Christmas present for us all.

I. Keeping Christ in Christmas Involves Watching Out For Subtle Deceptions (v7)

John reminds the church to which he is writing that there are many who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Now it is interesting to me that he does not say that these have “come in,” as if to suggest that they have attacked the church from the outside. Rather, he says they have “gone out into the world.” As 1 John indicated, these false teachers were originally a part of the church, but they mixed the pure message of Christ with the impurities of worldly philosophies. After causing disruption in the church and leading astray some of the faithful, they departed from the church to spread their errors elsewhere. In 1 John 2:19, he wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

And then notice that he also says of them that they are deceivers. In teaching this false message that denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, they seek to lead people away from the truth. In so doing, they become agents of him who was the first deceiver, Satan. In the form of the serpent, Satan deceived Eve in the garden, luring her into first doubting, and then disobeying God’s word. Here, John likens them to the ultimate deceiver and even refers to them as “Antichrist.” While we typically reserve that term for the end-time world ruler who will step onto the stage before the second coming of Christ, John has already declared that the spirit of the antichrist is already at work in the world. Before his statement about their going out from us in 1 Jn 2:19, he wrote in 1 Jn 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared.” And John went on to write just a few verses later, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” And then in 1 Jn 4, the apostle exhorts the believers, saying, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And the litmus test that John gives to those Christians as they faced the heresies of their day was this: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” So, by denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, these deceivers have put themselves in league with Satan, and have become forerunners to the antichrist who will come to deceive the nations at the end of time.

Now, think for a moment about this false teaching that these people were spreading. John says that they were denying that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. Today we find ourselves 20 centuries removed from the life and times of Jesus and one will not find anyone who denies that a person named Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. Much more impossible than that would it have been to find someone who denied His existence who lived within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. But it was not that they denied that Jesus lived. They denied that He was God incarnate. It appears that in John’s day there were various groups and individuals who had combined Christian doctrine with Greek paganism and invented new theories about the nature of Jesus. One of the central tenets of Greek Gnosticism and its forerunners was the belief that all matter is inherently evil. Therefore, in the minds of those who held these teachings it was unthinkable that God could take upon Himself literal human flesh. Some, who would become known as the Docetics, believed that Jesus only appeared to be human, but really wasn’t. He did not leave footprints in the sand where He walked, and if someone were to strike him, their hand would pass right through him. One of the most popular views of that day was the teaching of a man named Cerinthus. He taught that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but born in the normal biological way to Joseph and Mary. He was just a man. However, they taught that when Jesus was baptized by John, an emanation of God whom they spoke of as The Christ descended upon Him and gave Jesus divine power throughout His life. Then when Jesus’ sufferings began, the Christ departed from Jesus. Thus, there was the divine being, the Christ, who temporarily indwelled the sinful human being, Jesus, without ever commingling the two natures. This was a blatant and heretical denial of the central truth of Christianity that God became a man in the person of Jesus who was fully God and fully human.

John warns that anyone who was deceived by this error was in danger. He says in v8, “Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.” John and the other apostles and early missionaries have worked to establish worshiping communities of faithful followers of Christ, built upon the rock-solid teaching of who He is and what He has done for humanity. If they are led astray into these false teachings, all that they have worked for and accomplished will be destroyed. Those who have genuinely been saved will not lose their salvation, but will lose the fullness of the reward that they might otherwise receive for their faithful perseverance in the truth when they stand before Christ. Of course, the reality is also that many who are deceived by these false doctrines were never saved in the first place. Therefore John warns in v9 that anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ in all actuality does not have God. Right doctrine is a mark of the true believer. According to John, The one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. Those who resist the false teachings and endure in their allegiance to the truth about Jesus demonstrate themselves to be true children of God and followers of Christ.

So serious an issue is this that John goes on to say in v10-11, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting, for the one who gives him a greeting participates in evil things.” Of course, John is not saying here that we should have no contact with unbelievers, neither give them hospitality or even speak to them. Rather, the ones of which he speaks are those who claim to be coming in the name of Jesus and teaching truth about Jesus, but who in reality have abandoned Jesus in heresy. This is similar to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5. There Paul says, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually , I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” It is not possible to live in this world apart from unbelieving and immoral people, and in the Great Commission, Christ has called us to take the good news of salvation to them. But both John and Paul discourage us from associating with those who call themselves believers but who deny the truth and who live in open sin. By withdrawing fellowship from these, we make it clear to them and to others that we do not endorse their sin or their heresies, and we do so in hopes that they will come to repentance and return to right faith and right practice and be restored into Christian fellowship.

One of the leaders of the Church in the second century was a man named Irenaeus. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who had been a direct disciple of the apostle John who wrote these words. Irenaeus tells a story about John that illustrates this principle; a story which he claims he learned from Polycarp, who may have been an eyewitness of the event. John was going to a public bath one day in Ephesus when it was reported to him that Cerinthus, the one who had been teaching these false things about Jesus, was also there. And when John heard that Cerinthus was there, he did not say, “Well, let’s go have a cappuccino and share a conversation about our spiritual journeys.” John, the beloved apostle, exclaimed, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” So it seems on this matter, John practiced what he preached.

Now as we seek to apply this to our lives and particularly to this theme of keeping Christ in Christmas, there are few points I want to make. First, Christmas is about the miracle of the incarnation in which God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is an undeniable biblical teaching. And we must beware of any attempt to remove Christ from the centrality He deserves in this seasonal celebration. As various Christmas traditions are emphasized that bear no connection to Christ, subtle but certain deceptive denials of this fundamental truth occur. And those deceptions are found in surprising places. Remember that the heresy John was confronting arose within the church. So we must be careful that we keep Christ central in our church practices (not only at Christmas, but throughout the year) and in our personal lives as well. Christless Christmas and Christless Christianity destroy the witness of the church that has been two millennia in the making. While we may want to soften our convictions so as to not offend our unbelieving friends and relatives during the Christmas season, we must be more concerned about offending the God who has called us to persevere in truth! Christmas offers us an opportunity not so easily found at other times during the year to present a clear and bold testimony for Christ to our lost friends and loved ones. And if they are lost, they are already condemned in their unbelief as Jesus says in John 3:18. They aren’t going to be more lost because they get offended at our attempt to make Christ central in Christmas. But if there are those who claim to be Christian, and who deny the truth about Christ, we must be careful that we do not embrace them as brothers and sisters, thereby sending a convoluted message to those who genuinely do not know the truth. We must make clear where we stand on the issue of Jesus, and entrust the fallout to Him.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is about more than the songs we sing, the decorations we use, and the vocabulary we employ in our holiday greetings. It involves watching out for subtle deceptions.

II. Keeping Christ in Christmas Involves Walking in Biblical Truth (vv4-6)

When John wrote to this church, he called attention to the consistent demonstration of their faith in Christ. He says in v4, “I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth.” And “walking in truth,” he says, means that they are living obediently to the Father’s commandments. And as John has expressed in his first epistle and reiterates here in v6, love for God demonstrates itself in obedience to Him. No one can say that they love God if they disobey His commandments. There are many commandments of God found in the Scriptures, but Jesus said that all of them can be distilled into two: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. As we love God, we obey Him. We prove our love by our obedience, and our loving obedience to Him leads to loving one another. This is really the crux of the matter that John is pointing out here. In v5, he emphasizes that we in the church of Jesus Christ should love one another. So, “walking in truth,” is not merely about having correct knowledge, but also about living that truth out in a demonstration of love for God and for one another.

When people see these characteristics in the life of a Christian, they see the affect that Christ has on our lives, and they notice the difference. They don’t always understand the difference, and that is why we must always be prepared to give a verbal witness as well. As it is written in 1 Peter 3:15, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” According to Peter, godly living will cause people to notice a difference in your life, and they will want to know about that difference. But, a verbal witness alone, without being accompanied by a godly life under the Lordship of Christ, will not persuade anyone. They will only see a difference in your vocabulary, not your lifestyle. But when they see a life characterized by love for God and love for one another, they will take notice, and the door is opened for a verbal witness for Christ.

If you are a Christian, it will be no surprise to most people that you desire to emphasize Jesus at Christmastime. But what many of them may not expect to see is how you desire to keep Christ preeminent in your life throughout the year. If you want people to take you serious when you talk about Jesus at Christmas, they must know that you are serious about Jesus on the other 364 days of the year as well. After all, a Christianity that only expresses itself once a year in our lives is not very attractive to the world. They say that the Christmas shopping season began last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. That may be, but Christmas living is a year ‘round season. If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, walk in His truth year ‘round.

It all comes down to this: Christmas is be a celebration of the greatest miracle of all –God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ to live and die for us. By His death on the cross, our sins are forgiven. By His righteous life, we are made righteous in Him. He is the greatest gift ever given, God’s gift of love and grace to undeserving people such as we are. And when we walk in that truth throughout the year, being alert to the subtle deceptions that arise that would steer us away from that truth, Christ will be present in our Christmas, and throughout the year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Anyone Want to Get Expelled? Anyone? Anyone?

Are you tired of liberals being the only ones who make "in your face" documentaries? Me too. That is why I was so excited about Ben Stein's film "Expelled." Two can play at this game, and Ben has raised the stakes.

I did not see this film in the theaters, because frankly I do not enjoy going to theaters to see movies. I know, I am goofy, and I don't even own one of those whopper TVs that make the images larger than life. But I prefer watching films in my own home, in my comfortable chair where I have plenty of room and where I can talk in audible levels to my companions and eat whatever I want without being charged a week's pay for a snack. I also like having beverages in containers which are actually sized for the human hand to hold and being able to pause the movie when I need to. So for all these reasons, DVDs are for me. I rented it from Netflix, and then immediately purchased a copy of it so I can loan it out to others and watch it repeatedly. I also wanted to support the filmmakers and the organization from which I purchased it, Answers in Genesis.

I should say up front that I do not endorse the cut and paste tactics of contemporary documentaries. I know that some important material invariably ends up on the cutting room floor, and I am sure that Expelled's critics are being accurate when they say that statements were included out of context and selectively arranged to further the point of the filmmaker. I am also not an advocate of slippery-slope arguments, which this film certainly employs. But at least in this case, the shoe was on the other foot and the tactics were employed to further a far different cause than in Michael Moore's or Al Gore's films. Funny that critics did not seem so adamant about these same concerns when those films came out.

I will also lay all my cards on the table here. I am a 6-literal day, young earth Creationist, and unashamed to say so. I know that labels me as a neanderthal in the minds of some, but I do not lose sleep over their judgment of me. I prefer to prioritize what God thinks of my handling of His word. I may never be asked to teach in a secular university because of those views, but I would rather maintain my convictions with a clear conscience than to be conformed by the patterns of this world's thinking. A professor friend once told me that although he believed the text of Genesis lends itself to a 6-literal day, young earth interpretation, he could not hold that position because it would ruin his academic credentials. I think that is a crying shame, because on all accounts this was stated by a top-notch scholar.

Expelled is not a propaganda piece for young-earth Creationism. It is not even an attempt to prove the truth of Intelligent Design. Ben Stein is not a Christian, and it is fair to say that he is probably not a young-earther. Rather, in Expelled, Stein sets out to uncover a bias against all anti-Darwinian approaches to the study of origins in higher education. This is done by interviewing scholars who have lost their credentials because of their commitment to alternative explanations of origins and interviewing those who are leading the charge of the New Atheism like Richard Dawkins.

Undoubtedly influenced by his Jewish heritage, Stein demonstrates how Darwinian thinking has fueled the most horrid attrocity in recent human history: the Holocaust. It would be a slippery slope to argue that every Darwinian is pro-Hitler. While I would not want to go so far as to say that all Darwinians espouse genocide, the film helps viewers to see how this kind of thinking makes such tragedies possible, and in fact greatly influenced it in one historic case.

The real issue at stake in Expelled is academic freedom. This is a touchy subject for many. After all, Southern Baptists have not exactly been poster children for academic freedom. During the conservative resurgence, professors were fired from SBC seminaries for teaching doctrines contrary to the Baptist Faith & Message. However, these institutions are confessional schools, which are entrusted by the denomination to train up leaders for its constituent churches. Within the rather broad confines of the Baptist Faith and Message, there is room for much diversity in the classroom. In my courses at one of the SBC seminaries, I had professors who held to a variety of positions on many issues. Not all were young-earth creationists; not all were of a particular school of thought when it comes to Calvinism or Arminianism; etc. But there is and should be some expectation that professors in confessional schools will not teach contrary to the confession of faith that they have been consituted to uphold. However, most secular universities do not have a confessional basis, and therefore, each professor's work should be allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. Expelled even indicts Baylor, a historically Baptist college, for disallowing the teaching of anti-Darwinian theories.

I would recommend this film to anyone who is interested in origins, Darwinism, and Intelligent Design, as well as those who are involved as teachers, administrators and students in higher education. My hope is that it will embolden a new generation of scholars to stand up for their own convictions and publish well-defended scholarly works that uphold the integrity of Scripture and refute Darwinian evolution. I also hope that this film will spawn others to go public with their own experiences of educational biases, and raise an outcry against such hypocritical narrow-mindedness. Regardless of our presuppositions or commitments, education should always stand in opposition to such.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Praying through the Darkest Hour: Mark 14:32-42

Due to a technical glitch, the audio of this message contains a large gap that skips most of the first two points of the sermon. It is available for download here.

C. S. Lewis once set out to write a book on prayer, but quickly abandoned the effort for some unknown reason. Ten years later, he published Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, which was a collection of letters written in a fictitious dialogue between two friends on several issues, but as the subtitle suggests, chiefly on prayer. In that exchange, Lewis hints at perhaps why the earlier book was abandoned. He says, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it. Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well. But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence.” So, in Letters to Malcolm, Lewis can offer his ideas on prayer, not as instruction, but as if his reader were eavesdropping on a friendly conversation. Near the end of the book, he confesses, “by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has.” Think for a moment about Lewis’s statement. Isn’t that the case with most of us? We talk more about prayer than we actually pray? We tend to make it seem like it has a bigger part of our lives than it actually does. So he goes on to say, “Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.” Maybe C. S. Lewis and I are the only ones who feel that way, but I doubt it. We may be merely two of the small number of people who would actually admit it.

In our passage today, we find Jesus Christ on His knees with His Father agonizing in prayer in the face of death. Let the reality of this sink in. Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, fully divine and fully human. Skeptics and critics of the Christian faith who mock the doctrine of the Trinity often turn to this very passage to ask if Jesus was schizophrenic, just talking to the voices in His head in the garden? The relationships between the persons of the Trinity are mysterious. God is One, and He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not three Gods, but three distinct persons in one Triune Godhead. That’s a nearly unexplainable complexity, but we accept this reality about God because He has revealed it about Himself to us. And these three persons have perfect fellowship among themselves within the singular Godhead. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not different in nature as if one was greater than the other, but each is different in function. There is a willful submission on the part of the Son to the Father, and on the part of the Spirit to the Son. And God the Son, in the darkest hour of His earthly existence, is driven to prayer with God the Father.

Consider what the circumstance of this prayer is. In mere moments of time, Jesus will be betrayed by one of His own disciples, abandoned by the rest, unjustly condemned, physically tortured, and ultimately murdered in the most “cruel and unusual” form of capital punishment humanity has ever contrived. He is in the grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives known as Gethsemane. That word is Hebrew, and means “olive press,” the device by which olives were crushed by massive stones to produce olive oil. It is fitting that Jesus is in this place at this time, when He is consciously aware of the crushing weight under which He is being afflicted – the weight of the sins of humanity. And in the intensity of this moment, in the very face of death, God the Son is driven to prayer with God the Father.
Now, this being so, it is reasonable to make draw some preliminary conclusions. First, if Jesus Christ, who is the divine Son of God, a coequal, coeternal person of the Triune Godhead, needs to pray to His Father, then surely you and I need to all the more. And secondly, the circumstances in which Jesus turns to the Father in prayer are infinitely more severe than any circumstance ever faced by any other person. Therefore, in the midst of our own hardships, we must surely turn to God in prayer as well.

Mark describes Jesus in v33 as being very distressed and troubled. The Greek words used here are rare in the New Testament, and rightly so. The experience of Jesus at this moment is unprecedented and unsurpassed in human existence. Jesus said at this moment in v34, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death.” Notice here that the “death” of which He speaks is not His death on the cross. He speaks of the burden of His present grief as being nearly fatal. So great is the intensity of the pressure of this present hour, that it threatens to crush His very life. The reality of bearing the weight of the sins of humanity and being cut off from His Father as He bears the wrath of God on our behalf is a soul-crushing agony.

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a great difficulty, distressed, troubled, grieved with an intensity that we deem it inescapable and fatal? My point here is not to draw parallels between Jesus’ experience and our so-called Gethsemanes. You and I will never face a Gethsemane. Jesus faced it for us. Our miseries and calamities in life, regardless of their severity, will ever pale in comparison to this one. No, my point is rather to set forth the example of Jesus in His response to this hour. The greatest man, indeed the God-man, faced the greatest horror of history, and responded to it with prayer to His Father. Therefore, we, the lesser-beings that we are, can face our lesser-trials, in the same way. How shall we pray in the midst of life’s darkest hours? We find several patterns of prayer in this horrific episode from the life of the Lord Jesus that serve as a model for us as we pray through our own lives’ devastations. There are six of these patterns seen here.

I. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intensity (v35)

In most of the artwork I have seen depicting Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane, He is clothed in sparkling white linens, kneeling before a rock with His hands folded as He looks upward to God. This is not the picture I see in the description here in this text. Jesus proceeded a little beyond His disciples (Luke tells us, about a stone’s throw). And there He “fell to the ground and began to pray.” His concern was not for decorum or posture. The weight of the burden on His soul buckled His knees and He collapsed upon the dirt of that garden. Matthew tells us that He fell on His face! And laying in the dirt, He began to cry out to the Father. Luke tells us in his Gospel that, due to the agony of the circumstances, “He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” Now one may say that this is impossible to sweat blood, but remember two things. First, Luke is a physician, and he knows what is and is not medically possible; secondly, he says that His sweat became “like” drops of blood. NT Scholar Darrell Bock writes that this is a depiction “of Jesus’ emotional state as so intense that He perspired profusely as a result. The sweat beads multiplied on His body and fell like flowing clumps of blood and dropped to the earth.”

We often picture ourselves at prayer the way artists have pictured Jesus in Gethsemane. We envision that we must come before the Lord in clean clothes, in a comfortable posture, and reverently whisper our concerns to Him in a calm state. I believe that it is owing to this false notion of what prayer must involve that we do not more often carry our concerns to God. We feel like we have to clean ourselves up and calm ourselves down before we can talk to the Father. We don’t learn that from Jesus. What we see here is that there comes a time when all we can do is collapse before Him on our face in agony and cry out with sweat drops precipitating off of our bodies like clots of blood as we beseech the Father in intensity. In life’s darkest hour, we can pray in this way and know that God is not offended by our posture or our perspiration. He welcomes us to pray with intensity.

II. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with intimacy (v36)

As Jesus cries out in prayer, He calls upon “Abba! Father!” It is nearly unprecedented in all religious literature to address God in such terms. Until Jesus came and began to speak of God as Father, rarely would anyone presume to address God this way. But Jesus not only spoke to His Father this way, He even instructed His disciples to address God this way in prayer. What are the first words of what we commonly call “The Lord’s prayer”? “OUR FATHER.” But here, even more intimately, Jesus calls Him Abba. This is more intimate still. At the end of a long day, there is one word I long to hear more than any other. Almost without fail, the sound of my key sliding across the tumblers of the door lock at hour home is accompanied by two little voices calling out, “DADDY!” Whatever I have been through in the day fades as I drive home knowing that this will be the first sound I hear. That is what the word Abba is like. Biology can make a man a father. It is intimacy that makes him a daddy. And this is the kind of relationship Jesus has with His Father, and it this kind of relationship which He has made possible for us. Through the suffering of Jesus and His resurrection, those who receive Him are made to be the children of God. And Paul says in Romans 8 that we have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” In the darkest hour of life, Jesus is not praying to an impersonal force beyond the galaxies. He is talking to His Dad. And His Dad is the Daddy of all who have come to Him by faith in the Son. So you and I need never feel as if we have no one or nowhere to turn in the darkest hours of our lives. We can call out to God as a Daddy who loves us and is there for us at all times.

The Christian life is lived in the context of a spiritual family. We do not live it alone. We have a Father, a Daddy, who loves us. And we have brothers and sisters in this family. But sometimes those brothers and sisters fail us. Sometimes when we need them most, they aren’t there for us. Jesus understands that. He knows that the whole world is out to get Him, and as He goes to pray, He tells His disciples in v32, “Sit here until I have prayed.” He says in v34, “Remain here and keep watch.” But three times, He returns to find that they have fallen asleep at the very moment it seems that He needs them most. Like Peter, James, and John, our brothers and sisters will let us down. I will let you down. I probably have already, but just in case, I’m telling you now that I will. But Daddy never fails. In the darkest hour of our lives, though brothers and sisters fail us, our hope is not in them, it is in this Father who welcomes us to come before Him and cry out to Him intimately as our Daddy! We will not find Him asleep when we need Him most. We are never abandoned, never orphaned, never alone. Father is there for you, and you can come running into His arms crying out “Daddy!” in the darkest hour of your life just as Jesus did!

III. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with confidence (v36)

As Jesus prays, notice His words: “All things are possible for You.” He is confident that there is no situation which is out of God’s control, and there is nothing His Father cannot do. He is not ashamed to state the concerns of His heart to His Father, because He knows that God is able to do something about it. There is no question whether God can. The answer to any question that begins, “Can God …” is, “Yes!” God can. All things are possible for Him.

As I was growing up, I had a grandfatherly figure in my life that I affectionately called “Daddy Harrison.” He called me “J. R.” Daddy Harrison was a retired truck driver, a hard but tender hearted man. Daddy Harrison built every house he ever lived in, rebuilt every car he ever owned, grew or killed everything he ever ate, and fixed everything that was ever broken. No formal education, but he was the most brilliant man I ever knew. I spent the first half of my life in awe of him. And I will never forget the first time (and the only time) I saw him scratch his head and say, “J. R., I don’t think I can fix that.” In my mind, I had thought that everything was possible for Daddy Harrison, but on that disappointing day, I saw that there were some things even he couldn’t fix.

Sometimes, when we face the dark hours of life, we forget that our Heavenly Father has never said, “I don’t think I can fix that.” He has never scratched His head wondering what to do about something. He has never seen an impossibility. And so just as Jesus did, when He was facing a much darker hour than we will ever know, we too can say to our Father, “All things are possible for You!” We can pray in confidence knowing that our circumstances have not taken by surprise or exceeded His ability to intervene. Some of you this very moment are facing intense darkness in your lives. Can God do anything about it? He can. We can pray with confidence in the darkest hour of our lives.

IV. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with boldness (v36)

Sometimes, I think in genuine humility and piety, we mask our concerns in prayer and resort to vague expressions of reluctant indifference. We say things like, “Oh Lord, here’s the situation, and we just want your will to be done, whatever that is,” and never come right out with our own request. I am not criticizing that; I think the motive is good. But you will notice in our text that Jesus did not pray this way. In v35, we read that He was praying that if it were possible, the hour might pass by Him. He knew the hour was coming. He had foretold the disciples repeatedly that this hour was coming, and now it was upon them. And in His humanity, Jesus asks the Father if there may be any other way, so that the hour may pass by Him. As He cried out to the Father in the darkest hour of His life, He said, “Remove this cup from Me!”

What is this cup of which Jesus speaks? It is a recurring image in the OT prophets which depicts the judgment of God. That cup, which all of us deserve to drink for our sins, has been taken from our hands and handed to Jesus to drink on our behalf. It is this cup of which Jesus spoke when He rebuked the presumption of James and John, saying, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Indeed they are not. No man can bear his own sins, much less the sins of all humanity. But Jesus will, and in the hours prior to drinking that cup, He boldly says to the Father, “Remove this cup from Me!”

You and I will not, cannot, drink that cup, but Christ has taken it for us. And in His darkest hour as He utters this bold prayer, we learn from His example that we can make any request we desire to God. It does not always mean that God will answer in the way that we want Him to, but there is no request that we cannot bring before Him. He wants us to bear our hearts desires in His presence. And so in the darkest hours of our lives, we can pray with boldness as we make our requests known to Him.

V. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray in surrender (v36)

As Jesus asks the Father to take the cup away, He also expresses His humble submission to the primacy of the Father’s will. “Yet not what I will, but what You will.” He has made His request, and now accepts that the Father’s will may not involve the removal of the cup, but the drinking of it to the dregs. But Christ’s surrender is not a stoic acceptance of fate, it is a willing embrace of the Father’s will. Jesus’ will to obey the Father is greater and stronger than His will to avoid suffering.

Though this hour of Jesus’ life was far darker than any hour that you and I will ever face, we can pray through our seasons of darkness in the same way. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “It is not necessarily wrong to ask for something which God does not intend to do, so long as our hearts are prepared to submit to His will. With boldness we make our requests known, but in surrender we acknowledge that the Father’s will is superior to our own. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, but we must acknowledge that sometimes the answer is “No.” And just as every earthly parent realizes that it may be destructive to grant every wish of our children, so the Father must sometimes say No to His children for their own good, for the good of others, and for His own glory to be made manifest. And so we pray in surrender to His will, knowing that this is the sweetest surrender we could ever make. In the world’s eyes, surrender equals defeat. But in God’s eyes, our surrender is our victory, for as we embrace His will we do so in confidence that His will serves a far greater purpose than our own.

By embracing the Father’s will, Jesus foregoes His own comforts and accepts the suffering that must come in order to provide salvation for the world, and to be crowned with the glory of the resurrection. We can all rejoice that the Father did not let this cup pass from Jesus. Because Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross on our behalf, we have the promise of redemption, restoration, and resurrection. As we pray in surrender to the Father’s will, our finite understanding may not be able to fathom His purposes. But we embrace His will knowing that He is good and that He loves us. And if His will involves a season of suffering, we know that in the end, He is working all things together for the good of them who love Him and are called according to His purposes, and that He is bringing glory to Himself through our circumstances. What we want may be good, but what God wills is best. So even as God welcomes us to come boldly to the throne of grace, and to clearly state our petitions before Him, we can pray in surrender and say as Jesus said, “Yet not what I will, but what You will.”

VI. In the midst of life’s darkest hours, we can pray with persistence (v39)

As Jesus returned to prayer after finding His disciples asleep on the job, it is intriguing to me that that the text says He was “saying the same words.” Repeatedly, the Lord Jesus spoke to the Father about letting the hour pass and removing the cup. This was not just vain repetition of meaningless words, like Jesus warned against in Matthew 6 when He instructed His disciples how to pray. There Jesus had said, “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” There are some who have memorized certain forms of prayer and repeat them over and over again, but without any conscious reflection at each moment of what they are saying. And immediately after Jesus said this about meaningless repetition, He taught the disciples a model of how to pray in the words that we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And the ironic thing is that many have allowed that prayer to become a “meaningless repetition,” praying it while giving no thought to the words they are expressing. No, Jesus wasn’t just repeating a canned formulaic prayer in His persistent prayer here, even though He was “saying the same words.” Rather, He was praying as one who understood that God is sometimes moved by faithful persistence and perseverance in prayer.

In Luke 18:1-8, we read a parable that Jesus told to His followers in order to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart. In that parable, He tells of a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. And in the same city, there was a widow who needed the protection of the law from an oppressor. And Jesus says that this widow kept coming to the judge, saying, “Give me legal protection from my opponent.” For a while the judge was unwilling to respond to her requests, but after a while, he finally gave in. He said, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” Now the point of that parable is that if this unrighteous judge will respond to this widow in this way, Jesus says, “will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” But then He says, “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" In other words, will He find that people had enough faith to be that persistent in their prayers?

Jesus demonstrates persistence in prayer as He returns to solitude with His Father and prays, “saying the same thing.” Are we persistent in our prayers? Are we afraid to be persistent, thinking, “Well, I prayed about it once, so I guess I am done with that”? If Jesus taught us to be persistent in prayer, and demonstrated persistence in prayer in the midst of life’s dark hours, then we need not fear God turning a deaf ear to our persistent pleas. It may well be that God’s delay in answering is a test of our faith and our willingness to persist. Whatever the case, there is no shame in bringing the same request to the Lord in prayer time and time again until He makes His answer clear. In fact, there may be shame in not doing so. We can pray with persistence as we face the dark hours of life. Jesus did, and we can follow in His example.

As we conclude, let me say a few final thoughts. First, none of us will ever face an hour in life as dark as Gethsemane. But, we will all face dark hours of varying severity. It may well be that you are just coming out of a dark season, or that you are in the midst of one, or that you are about to enter one. But when the darkness falls in our lives, how will we respond? My friends, if Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, needed to pray through His own season of darkness, then may I suggest to us today that there is no other way for us to face ours. We have the words of the sleepy eyed witness, the Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 2:21, as he says, “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” And Peter says that Christ’s example includes this, that while suffering, He kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously. In the midst of the darkest hours of our lives, we can fall on our faces before a Father who loves us and pray intensely, intimately, confidently, boldly, surrenderedly, and persistently and trust that if He does not change the circumstance, He will change us in the midst of the circumstance, and bring good to us, blessings through us, and glory to Himself as a result.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Crisis of Confidence - Mark 14:27-31

Audio available here

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in a televised speech in which he spoke of a fundamental threat to American democracy. He referred to is as a crisis of confidence. He said, “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” Perhaps those words are even more applicable in this day of political and economic uncertainty than they were in 1979. But according to sociologists today, there is a greater crisis of confidence in our culture today. It is not a crisis of national confidence; perhaps we’ve given up on ever recovering that. They say that the crisis of our day is a crisis of self-confidence. Here I would agree with those sociologists. However, I would disagree with them over the nature of this crisis. They would say that the crisis is an overwhelming lack of self-confidence among people. I, on the other hand, would say that the greater crisis is that of an over-abundance of self-confidence. Americans are stereotypically rugged individualists. We are raised to value self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-esteem and self-effort. We read stories like, “The Little Engine that Could” to our children, instilling in them the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” This is why Paul says that the Gospel of Grace is a stumbling-block to so many – even God cannot help someone who is determined to do it on their own. We desire to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, not realizing that we are sinking barefooted in the quicksand of our own arrogance.

In our passage today, we find a dialog between Jesus and Peter as they walk from the Upper Room where they shared in the Last Supper to the Mount of Olives where Jesus will spend time in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. And we see in this interchange between them the dangers of self-confidence. I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that all self-confidence is a bad thing, but an unhealthy dose of it is spiritually dangerous and blinds us to the pitfalls that we may encounter. Dependence on ourselves will lead us into spiritual failure. And in our text today we discover the times when that may occur.

I. Self-confidence is dangerous when we make claims that contradict God’s Word (vv26-29).

Over 500 years earlier, the prophet Zechariah wrote: “Strike the shepherd that the sheep may be scattered.” Here Jesus applies that prophecy to the events that are going to soon take place in His life and that of His disciples. He says, “It is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’” Jesus gives fuller expression to the statement, indicating that the intent behind it was to say that someone calling themselves “I” would strike the shepherd, thus scattering the sheep.” Who is this “I”? While we are tempted to say that the death of Christ came about as a result of the evil schemes of man, and that is true to one extent, on the other hand, the ultimate agent of the death of Christ is the Father Himself. Isaiah 53, a prophecy written 200 years before that of Zechariah, makes this clear. There in Isaiah 53:6, the prophet declared this about the Messiah: “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” And in verse 10 the prophet said, “The LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” The impending death of Jesus was a fulfillment of God’s ultimate and eternal plan to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. He would strike the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, with the result being that at least for a brief season, the sheep would be scattered.

And on the basis of this ancient prophecy, Jesus made a very simple assertion: “You will all fall away.” And Peter makes a very simple assertion in return: “I will not.” Now, here’s the thing – they can’t both be right. Either they all (Peter included) will fall away, or they will not all fall away. If even one does not fall away, then Jesus’ words are not true. So, Peter can either believe Jesus or not. Now, if he doesn’t, then essentially what he is doing is calling Jesus a liar to His face. That may sound like a harsh charge, but that is what it is. Jesus says, “You will all fall away,” and Peter in essence says, “That is a lie.” The statement is a lie, the prophecy is a lie, the interpretation of the prophecy is a lie. These are bold claims on Peter’s part.

Would any of us be so bold as to look Jesus in the face and say, “You are a liar!”? Surely not us. But often times, our self-confidence leads us to make claims that contradict God’s Word, which is just as strong an offense as that. God’s word says that we are all sinners by nature, yet sometimes in our self-confidence we assert that we are really all good people by nature. We say, “Well, I think I have it all together pretty well, thank you very much.” But God says in His word, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” God’s word says that apart from Christ we can do nothing. His word says that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but sometimes our self-confidence says, “I can do some pretty impressive things on my own apart from Him.” His words says in James 3, “We all stumble in many ways.” But when our self-confidence claims that we will not stumble, we are in a state of spiritual danger.

These words of God which remind us of our limitations and frailties are not meant to lead us into depression and defeat, but rather to remind us of our constant need for God’s grace and help in our lives. And when we self-confidently begin to think that we can make it on our own, chugging away like that little engine that could, without the empowerment of divine grace, we are certain to fail spiritually. We must believe what Christ has said, and what the Bible has said about who we really are. Where the weaknesses of our natural abilities and innate strength are pointed out to us, we must believe what God has said. Where He promises us of the things that we can do when we abide in His grace, we must believe Him, and never think that we can attain those things in the powers of our flesh. Otherwise, just as Peter did, we call God a liar, if not by our words then by our actions and attitudes. Anytime our self-confidence causes us to make claims that contradict God’s word, we are in danger.

II. Self-confidence is dangerous when we measure ourselves against others (v29)

When Jesus said, “You will all fall away,” it seems that Peter looked around in the dimly lit night at the faces of the other disciples and said, “Even though all may fall away, yet I will not.” In other words, Peter is saying, “Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them do. But I am better than they are.” Yeah, what Jesus really needs is more followers who are just like Peter. Then He wouldn’t have to worry about everybody falling away. Or so Peter thinks.

And so may some of us think. So self-confident are we that we think we outshine everyone else. Someone else has an idea, well mine is better. Someone else attempts to do something for Christ, well I could do it better. Someone else fails the Lord, well, I would never do anything that bad! We tend to view sin like we view surgery. Do you know the difference between major and minor surgery? It is whether or not it is on you or on me. If you are having surgery, it’s a minor thing to someone else. Oh, but if I am having surgery, I think it is major, and I want you to think it is major. That’s the way we view sin. If someone else sins, that is a major sin. But my sins aren’t that major. In fact, one wonders if they can even be called sins at all. They are like sinlets, just tiny little things. Often we are so concentrated on the weaknesses and failures of others that we do not see the gravity of our own. This is the danger of comparing ourselves to others. Do you remember what Jesus said about this? He said in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”

Let’s suppose there was a contest to see who could jump farther. I might jump farther than some of you, and some of you might jump farther than me. But what if the goal of this contest was to jump all the way across the Atlantic Ocean? Then, it wouldn’t really matter how much farther we could outjump each other, because none of us are going to hit the mark. This is how it is when we compare ourselves with others. You might find some people out there of whom you can say, “Well, I am better than that person.” And you might find some of whom you can say, “They are better than me.” But when it comes to meeting God’s standard of righteousness, what does the Bible say? In Romans 3:23, it says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

What Peter does here, and what you and I often do when we compare ourselves to others, is to underestimate our own depravity. When you understand just how thoroughly infected and corrupted we all are by sin, we realize that there is NO sin that would be impossible for us to commit. Jesus says, “You will all fall away.” Peter says, “Not me. Everybody else probably will, but I won’t.” How can he be so sure? In fact, a good case can be made that even in saying this, he has already fallen away, for he has questioned the credibility of Christ’s words, and opted to trust in himself than in the necessary empowerment of God’s grace for our perseverance. We may point to the murderer and say, “Well, I’ve never killed anyone.” Well, maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t. And besides that, Jesus said that unbridled anger is tantamount to murder. We may point to the unfaithful husband or wife and say, “Well I’ve never committed adultery.” That is a good thing, but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t, and Jesus says that if you’ve ever looked upon someone with lust then we’ve already committed adultery with that person in our heart. So, with that in mind, can any of us really say, “What Jesus needs is more followers like me,” and look down our noses at others contemptuously? Let me answer that for you: No. We cannot.

Self-confidence can be a good thing at times, but at other times, it is very dangerous when it causes us to compare ourselves with others and boast of our own goodness as Peter does here.

III. Self-confidence is dangerous when we don’t know the circumstances we may face (vv30-31)

Remember that this conversation is set against the backdrop of Judas’ defection in the Upper Room. Jesus said, “One of you will betray me,” and at this point Judas has gone off to do just that. But now Jesus says, “All of you will fall away.” While Peter thinks that others perhaps could follow Judas’ example, he is self-confident that he would never do such a thing. But when Jesus speaks of “falling away,” it is not the same as the act of betrayal that Judas committed. The Greek word that is used here has the sense of “stumbling” or “falling.” Here it is used in the passive voice, meaning not that they will all willfully turn away from following Jesus, but that external factors will act upon them and cause them to fall away. It is not their willful intention that Jesus speaks of, but rather their personal weakness and failure to do as Jesus had admonished them in Mark 13:33, to take heed, keep on the alert, and be watchful. Isn’t this the way it usually is for us? Our great spiritual failures come rarely in moments of intentional, premeditated acts of rebellion. Rather, they more often come in momentary lapses of spiritual discipline, when we are caught off guard. We do not often leap into sin, but more often we “fall” or “stumble” into it, as we trip on the snares that have been set in our path by the world and the devil.

Jesus says, “You will all fall away.” But Peter insists, “I will not.” But Jesus knows things about what Peter will face that Peter doesn’t even know himself. In the Luke 22:31, Jesus informs Peter of a spiritual battle that is being waged on him that Peter has no idea of. Jesus tells him there that Satan has demanded to sift him like wheat. Peter has been singled out in the crosshairs of Satan’s artillery for a full-on attack. And because of the onslaught Peter is about to face, Jesus tells him, “Truly I say to you (that is an assertion of divine authority and truth), that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” But Peter is still engulfed in self-confidence. Notice the intensity of his response. He kept saying, repeating over and over, and even insistently. The Greek word used there means “exceedingly, or beyond measure.” Time and time again, Peter kept on saying, “I will not deny You.” He even says, “If I have to die with you, I will not deny You.” And everyone else was saying this too. Those are awfully bold claims considering that just 12 verses earlier, they all recognized the possibility that they could be the betrayer. But Christ has still spoken: You will all fall away,” and specifically to Peter, “even this very night … three times.”

Peter does not know what Christ knows. He does not know the intensity of hatred that the mob will bring against Jesus and his followers. He does not know the reality of what is about to transpire. He does not yet know how cozy one can get by the firepit in the courts of this world’s comforts. He does not yet truly know the cost of being a follower of Jesus, nor if he is willing to pay such a cost. But Jesus does. And on the basis of what Jesus knows, He can say with authority, “You will, and you will tonight, and you will three times.” For Peter, it is easy to make grandiose claims of heroics in the quiet comforts of the garden path with Jesus by his side. But what claims will he make when Christ is undergoing unjust cruelty and being identified with Him becomes a capital offense?

You know, we can make some pretty grand claims ourselves here in the comfortable confines of this sanctuary with our padded pews and plush carpet and the sunlight shimmering through the stained glass images of our favorite Bible stories. Someone has written, “When I became a Christian I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” Think about it, we sing, “I surrender all,” and then don’t trust God enough to tithe ten percent. We sing “I love to tell the story of Jesus and His love,” but we’re afraid we’ll offend somebody if we actually do. We are just like Peter. We make great claims when it is safe and comfortable, but when the circumstances around us begin to be a little more unpleasant, will we live up to those claims? When we make self-confident assertions in God’s presence of what we will or will not do, we have to remember that we do not know the circumstances we will face in the coming years, or even in the coming day, or even within the hour that we exit the sanctuary. But Jesus does. And when He warns us about the being presumptuous or overly self-confident, we must take His word seriously. We must bear in mind that we are dependent on God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit within us to accomplish anything of spiritual merit.

Let’s recap for a moment. Self-confidence can be spiritually dangerous for us when we make claims that contradict God’s word, when we measure ourselves against others, and when we don’t know that circumstances we may face. When Jesus warns, “You will all fall away,” we must be so self-confident to think, “It won’t happen to me.” The excessive insistence of Peter only accentuates the greatness of his failure that will occur just as Jesus has promised. But notice that the promise of falling away is not the only promise that Jesus states here. He also promises that He will rise from the dead. He will go to the cross for the failures of these disciples and for our failures as well. We will bear the full weight of humanity’s sin and receive the deluge of God’s judgment on that sin in His death. Yet, He will triumph in resurrected glory, and He will go ahead of them to Galilee. Going ahead of them indicates that He will continue to be their Shepherd even after He has been struck, and they have been scattered. And in Galilee where He first called them to His side, He will regather them to Himself and restore them to right fellowship with Him, and recommission them to His service. Their failure is not final. It is humbling and embarrassing. In fact, that is one of the indications that we have a true report here, for if the early church had concocted these stories, we would certainly not expect them to come up with such a humbling and embarrassing account. Their failure brings them to the realization of what Jesus says in John 15:5 – “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” But their failure is momentary. His grace is everlasting, and in Him they will be able to stand after they have been restored into the fold.

This should be of great encouragement to those of us who, like the original band of disciples, are committed by faith to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but who in moments of weakness fall away from our faithful walk with Him. We will never fall so far that He will not restore us as He leads us like a shepherd back into the fold of His loving arms. Have you failed Him? Me too. And I would venture to say that it is very probable, not to say absolutely certain, that we all will again. But from our failures, we learn the dangers of self-confidence, and we learn of our desperate dependence upon His grace and the power of His Spirit who is at work within us to face the pressures of life in this fallen world. And learning this, we recognize that our confidence is not in ourselves, but in Him. Let the world have its self-confidence, but let the church stand in Christ-confidence. Apart from Him we can do nothing. But we can do all things through Him who strengthens us.

In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, the Apostle Paul says this: For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, "LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD."