Monday, May 25, 2015

Prone to Wander (John 16:29-32)


When Robert Robinson was just an eight-year old boy in 1743, his father died, leaving his mother unable to care for the boy. By age 14, he was sent to London to apprentice as a barber. Young, mischievous, and with no supervision over his life, Robinson turned early to alcohol and fell into the company of street gangs. At age 17, he and his companions decided to attend the evangelistic meetings of the great preacher George Whitefield. Drunk and disillusioned, their purpose in attending was to ridicule the preacher and those who had gathered to hear him. But that night, as Whitefield preached from Matthew 3:7, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come,” Robinson came under conviction of his sinful lifestyle. For the next three years, he wrestled with his sense of guilt and his need for God. At the age of 20 he finally surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. As a new Christian, he began to cut his spiritual teeth under renowned preachers like John Gill and John Wesley. It was not long before he sensed that the Lord was calling him to preach, and in time he became a pastor. He was known to be a very gifted preacher and had a way with words. His most lasting legacy is in the form of a hymn that we sing often here: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

There is a familiar line in that hymn in which Robinson writes, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Sadly, the words became almost prophetic for Robinson. He began to flirt with theologically dangerous ideas, and eventually fell deeply into sin. Details of the rest of his life vary from source to source, but it is widely reported that he encountered a woman on a stagecoach one day who was reading a book of hymns. She shared with Robinson that “Come Thou Fount” was one of her favorites, and asked his opinion of it. He responded something to the effect of, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”

The historians are mixed about whether or not Robinson ever returned to walk in faithfulness with the Lord. But whether he did or did not, he was not the first, and certainly was not the last, high-profile Christian to fail miserably. We see it all too often. Recently I have spent some time with friends I have had in ministry for twenty years. In every conversation, there is news to share about a fellow pastor who has abandoned the faith, who has shipwrecked his ministry with some grievous sin, or who has simply walked away from serving the Lord. Some were among our mentors, others were our friends, our classmates, our colleagues. The prominent ones make the news with their scandals. Many more do not make the news, but their failures are just as significant. You have known them too. Pastors you held in high esteem, Christian laymen and women who were influential in your spiritual formation, godly family members and friends to whom you went for guidance in your Christian walk – undoubtedly you have seen some of them drift away from faithfulness to God and His word. The examples are too numerous to choose from, and the details are too painful to recount.

Like Robinson wrote, it seems that within us, we are all “prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love.” Now, you may want to say, “Not me! It will never happen to me!” That is exactly how Jesus’ first disciples felt when He spoke to them about their impending defection. And in our text today, He addresses this very thing with them. Here in the moment of their most confident assertion of faith in Him, Jesus grounds them in their own frailty and fickleness and warns them that within hours, every single one of them will forsake Him. It is a fitting message for believers like us, who on Sunday morning as we sit in church, feel as if we have perhaps arrived to the place above and beyond the temptation to fail or abandon the Lord. The words that Jesus speaks to His disciples provide us with two safeguards as we remember that we, like them, are prone to wander.

I. We must be humble in our orthodoxy (vv29-31)

Did you ever make a “lucky guess” about something? Sometimes we make guesses based on a hunch or on thorough, albeit flawed reasoning, and discover happily that our guess was correct. Philosophers in the field of Epistemology actually devote a lot of attention to how lucky guesses work. It’s called “the Gettier problem,” and it deals with how we can believe that something is true, and actually be correct, when we have no reason or flawed reasons for knowing it. It has been an issue of debate since the time of Plato, and even today, the issue remains largely unsettled. But we have all experienced it. Consider Groundhog Day. If the groundhog comes out and sees his shadow on February 2, then we say that we will have six more weeks of winter. Now, there is absolutely no correlation between a groundhog seeing his shadow and what the weather will be like over the next month and a half, but based on the groundhog and the shadow, we say that we believe certain things about the impending weather. And, in over a third of cases analyzed since 1887, the prediction has been correct!

There are numerous examples of how we come to the right conclusions on wrong information, and vice versa, but the point of it all is that we often do not know or understand nearly as much as we think we do. And this can be true especially when we are talking about spiritual things. When we are talking about the things of God, there is much that we can know with certainty because the Bible declares it plainly. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and believers who read it are illuminated by this same Holy Spirit so that we understand and form concrete convictions about many of the truths that are set forth therein. But there is a difference between concrete conviction and arrogant presumption. The Bible is completely true and trustworthy. Our inferences, interpretations, and applications of it are not. And this is why, even though we may be right about many things we claim to understand the Bible to teach, we must be humble in our assertions.

Notice this is the exact opposite of what we see in Jesus’ disciples here. Jesus had told them back in verse 12 that He had many more things to tell them, but they could not bear them at the present moment. In verse 25, He said that He had been speaking to them in “figurative language.” That’s not the best translation of the original wording, as it does not have to do with symbolism and imagery, but with mystery. He had been saying things to them that were beyond their intellectual and spiritual grasp. But Jesus said to them that an hour was coming in which He would speak to them in plain language. He was speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into all truth (16:13). The Spirit would not come until nearly two months later at Pentecost. But notice here that the disciples are so self-sure of their own understanding that they say, “Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech.” In other words, “We get it! Now we understand everything You are saying!” It is almost as if they are saying that they have no need for the future ministry of the Spirit to enlighten and illuminate them. They have finally got it all figured out for themselves.

They say, “Now we know that You know all things.” If they were so sharp, one has to wonder why it took them this long to figure that out. He had already proven Himself to know the unspoken thoughts of others, the places where certain things would be and take place, and the actions that others were going to take before they took them. Now, suddenly, the disciples are aware that He knows all things? That’s nothing to boast of; its almost an accidental admission of their density. And then they say that there is no longer “need for anyone to question You.” Jesus had said in verse 23 that a day was coming in which the disciples would no longer question Him about anything. He was speaking of the day when they were reunited with Him for eternity. But here it seems that they think they already possess such infinite knowledge. It as though they are saying, “Jesus you said one day we would need to ask anymore questions and that day is today! We know it all already!” I have known some Christians like this. I went to school with a lot of them, and had a number of them as students and church members over the years. I will let you in on a little secret, too – I have been one of these Christians who thinks they know it all. I tell people that I am not a know-it-all, but I used to be. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely think I am right on every point of Christian doctrine. But, ironically, at the same time, I know that I am wrong on some point. I have to be! I just don’t know where I am wrong. I want to know where I am wrong so I can fix it, because I want to be right! I think I am, but I know I’m not. And that realization produces humility in orthodoxy.

Friends, there really is such a thing as orthodoxy: having correct Christian belief and doctrine. The disciples were orthodox. Nearly everything they said here in our text is true. Jesus does know all things, and He did come from God. But though their conclusions were correct, they did not necessarily arrive at them the right way. We can do the same, and we can also take right information, handle it correctly, and come up with wrong conclusions. That is why, in our orthodoxy, we must be humble and confess that there is much about God that remains a mystery. I don’t mean we can’t know anything. We can, and we can know a lot, and we can be absolutely certain about the most important things we need to know, such as who Jesus is, what He has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and how we can know Him by faith in a relationship that leads to eternal life. But, because God is infinite and we are finite, there will always be a measure of mystery, and we have to be comfortable with that. We are growing, hopefully, into better and better understanding as the Spirit shapes our minds through the Word of God, but there will always be some measure of mystery, and that means we have to be humble.

We have to be humble when we approach the Bible. I don’t care how many times you have read the Bible, there will come a day when you are reading some portion of it and come across something that takes you completely by surprise. It will throw a monkey wrench into theology somewhere. Now, if you aren’t humble, you will say, “Well, that can’t be true, because I have already got this figured out, so this can’t mean what it says and I’m not sure it’s even true.” But if you are humble you will confess, “I thought I knew all I needed to know about this, but I don’t.” And you will wrestle with that text and you will examine your preconceived notions and you won’t rest until you have it nailed down, or else you come to rest in the mystery of it. This is why the great theologians of the Reformed tradition championed the notion of “the church reformed and always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.” We always need to approach the Word of God in humility and allow it to continue to shape our understanding of what we think we know.

But we also have to be humble when we dialog with other Christians. You are going to meet a Christian who has a different view of the end times, a different view about God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, a different view about the meaning and mode of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so on. If you are arrogant, you will say, “Well, I already know all there is to know about this, and you are just wrong.” We will call them liberals and heretics because they differ with us on a point of doctrine. If you are humble, you will say, “Let me hear you out on this. I know we can’t both be right – we may both be wrong, but we can’t both be right. And for all I know you could be right. So let me hear you put forth your case.” And you listen, and you compare what they are saying with what you believe and what you understand the Bible to teach, and sometimes your views on some things may change. Sometimes their views will change because of your interaction with them. But even if neither view changes, by being humble with that other Christian, you have allowed a relationship to develop that can strengthen the body of Christ and further the Kingdom of God in the world.

Jesus’ disciples were orthodox, but they were not humble in their orthodoxy. Therefore, when they confidently assert, “Now we know!” and “By this we believe,” Jesus said to them, “Do you now believe?” You need to hear that with a heavy dose of sarcasm, as if Jesus was saying, “Oh, do you now?” Remember, by their own mouths they have affirmed that Jesus knows all things. He knows what they do and do not believe. And He knows that their faith has not yet come anywhere the level of maturity that they think it has. We may arrogantly show off our orthodoxy for others and appear before them as confident and brilliant theologians, but the Lord sees every chink in our armor. He alone knows the true condition of our hearts. And though our arrogance may impress someone, it does not impress the Lord. He says in Isaiah 66:2, “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word.” Because we are prone to wander, we must be humble in our orthodoxy, humble before the Word, humble before one another, and humble before the Lord. That humility is a safeguard against our tendency to wander.

From this, we move into the very next verse and find another safeguard for our wandering tendencies.

II. We must be aware of our frailty (v32)

I will never forget the first bicycle I ever had. It was a white AMF with a paint job that looked just like Evel Kneival’s motorcycle. Never mind that it had training wheels on it when I first got it, when I got on that star-spangled seat, I became the man, the myth, and the legend. And like Evel Kneival, the handful of times that I tried to jump the ridge that ran through the field beside of our house, I usually ended up on my rear end. Evel Kneival never saw a challenge that he didn’t think he could master. Nevertheless, many of his attempts ended badly. Over the course of his career, he broke 433 bones and nearly died numerous times. In fact, if you just do a web-search for videos of Evel Kneival, you will find more clips of his crashes than his safe landings. It seems that he became more famous for his failures than his successes. And, sadly, there have been a host of Christians throughout history about whom we could say the same thing.

The Bible warns us repeatedly of our own frailty. Most clearly we are warned in 1 Corinthians 10:12, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Some of the Christians whom I have watched self-destruct were people who were most confident in their faith, most assured of their own sanctification, and ironically most judgmental of the failures of others. The fact is that none of us is above the possibility of failure. Jesus told these men who were His closest earthly companions that an hour was upon them when they would be scattered each to his own home and leave Him alone.

It had been foretold by the prophet Zechariah that the Shepherd would be struck and the sheep would be scattered. Jesus had told them just moments before as they partook of the Lord’s Supper that they would all fall away, in accordance with that prophecy (Mk 14:37). And moments from this point, it would happen. When the mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Bible says that “they all left Him and fled” (Mk 14:50). Every single one of them, from the always eager Peter to John, the writer of our Gospel who referred to himself as the one whom Jesus loved, and all the rest – they all forsook the Lord in this critical hour.

Now the word that is translated here as “home,” could also refer to “occupation,” and that may well be the better understanding of the sense here. After all, when we find the disciples later in John’s Gospel, they are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, just as many of them had been doing before they met Jesus. It is not just that they went back home to avoid their own arrest. They also had walked away from their calling to be fishers of men and witnesses for Christ, and had returned to their former careers. For a variety of reasons, we see staggering statistics of similar realities today. Studies have shown that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month in America; half of those starting out will be out of the ministry in five years; and only one in ten will endure to retirement. But it is not just pastors. Every day in America, 3,500 people leave the church of Jesus Christ for a variety of reasons. You have seen it happen with pastors and laypeople alike, sometimes the last people you thought it could happen to. I saw the moral self-destruction of one of my heroes in ministry a few years ago, and if you had asked me a year before that, I would have told you that I thought myself more likely to fail than this brother. It was heartbreaking and sobering, and his tarnished legacy stands as a constant reminder in my mind that every single one of us is subject, apart from the sustaining grace of God, to unthinkable failure.

Simply acknowledging that reality goes a long way in safeguarding us from spiritual shipwreck. If we know we are prone to wander, and know that we are not immune from disastrous defection, it drives us into deeper dependence on the Lord’s sustaining grace, and keeps us hungry for the Word and the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the very awareness of this and the serious concern that it should raise in our hearts is a strong evidence of the assurance of our salvation in Jesus Christ. If we did not truly believe in Him and long to be faithful to Him, then we would have no concern whatsoever about the possibility that we might abandon Him. The awareness of our own frailty causes us to recognize, like the hymnwriter said, that we are prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But it also causes us to pray as he did: “Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above.”

Now, friends, thus far as we talk about abandoning, defecting, shipwrecking and spiritual drifting, we are not entertaining any notion that a genuinely born-again follower of Jesus could ever be severed from Him by anything we could do, or anything that others can do to us. Jesus promised us that this was impossible and the Bible makes it clear throughout that those who belong to God by faith are eternally secure in their covenant relationship with Him. But this binding grace that secures us in that covenant relationship does not grant us a license to live any way we choose. There are consequences to our actions. One of the most severe consequences is that our defection from the faith may prove that we were not in fact genuinely born again. But if we are, then like these disciples, we have the assurance that the Lord Jesus will pursue us and restore us to faithfulness once again. That is what He did with these men, and that is what He will do with all who are genuinely His. But still, there will be consequences when we fail the Lord.

Our failures will affect ourselves and others in varying degrees of severity. I meet unbelievers and wayward Christians on a regular basis who hold up the sins of Christians they have known as the reason that they do not presently walk with God. That is serious. When King David committed the heinous act of adultery and murder in his sin with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan confronted him, saying, “By this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme!” (2 Sam 12:14). God forbid that anything that your or I should ever do or say would be used by someone else as an excuse from turning away from the Lord Jesus. It is a possibility, and one that we must never lose sight of.

But here is where we have to draw confidence from the sovereignty of God and the invincibility of His Kingdom. Jesus said to His disciples, “you [will] be scattered each to his own home, and … leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” You see, Jesus is saying here that His work in the world does not depend on the success or failure of any individual Christian, any specific church, or any singular group of Christians in the world. He is not alone, though these disciples all abandoned Him. He is not forsaken, though some prominent pastor is embroiled in a scandal. He is not hindered, though some congregation shuts its doors or an entire denomination defects into heresy. He says, even when all others abandon Him, He is not alone, for the Father is with Him. And God alone is a majority in all matters. He does not need us. He has chosen to use us by His grace, but it is not because His work cannot progress without us. We have to realize that because of our frailty, and because of God’s unlimited ability, none of us are indispensable to His Kingdom purposes. He will accomplish what He had come to do, with or without those eleven men who were just moments away from abandoning Him. Ultimately, it all rested upon Him alone anyway. And He was content and satisfied that, if no one else stood with Him, His Father was with Him as He completed the work for which He had come into the world – to accomplish and provide a rescue for sinners so that we might be reconciled to God. Friends, it is a terrible thing when Christians fail the Lord. It affects people deeply and it grieves the Lord. But it does not hinder His purpose. We have no leverage over Him, as if we can bribe Him by our obedience. He can advance His cause with or without us. It is by His grace and for our benefit that He invites us to be a part of it. But we are not indispensible.  

If we are all prone to wander in this way, frail creatures of dust regardless of how confident our assertions of orthodoxy may be, we may wonder then, to whom shall we look? Friends, we must learn to look to Jesus and Him alone. When temptations, sufferings, circumstances, oppression, and opposition beckon us to abandon Him, we must look to the One who endured all these things without failure in order that He may rescue us from the pride and frailty that will so easily undo us. Other Christians have failed you, undoubtedly, and they will again. You have failed others, and you will again. Like it or not, the fact is that we will all fail others at some point in our lives. But Jesus never fails us. His call was not for us to follow one another, but to follow Him. When all others abandoned Him, He remained steadfast with His Father, and as we look to Him in humility and recognition of our failures, we will do the same. And when we do not, we have the confidence that He is good and gracious and will restore us to Himself when we return to Him in repentance through the forgiveness of sin that is available to us through His shed blood.

I can’t recall where I first heard this quote, but I have found it to be true in my own life and experience. Someone said, “When I became a Christian, I stopped telling lies and started singing them.” We are often most like the disciples we see here in our text when we sing bold assertions of our steadfastness and faithfulness. Today, we will sing, “My Jesus I Love Thee.” Even as we sing those words, let us do so humbly, in full recognition of our own frailty. No matter what gusto we employ in singing these words, the reality is that we are prone to wander. But this does not hinder Him, and it does not negate the infinite love that He has for us. So, from that humble posture we can truly say, “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, tis now.”

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