Wednesday, 14 November 2018

What does it mean to be born again? (John 3:1-21)

Two questions.  First question: ‘are you sure that you have eternal life?’  Second question: ‘if you died, and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?”, what would you say?’  Take a moment and think how you would answer each of these.
In this sermon we are looking at the question of what it means to be born again.  It does not matter whether you call yourself a ‘born again’ Christian or not, but it does matter that you have been born again.  You aren’t a Christian if you are not born again.
Becoming a Christian involves being born again (1-3)
The Pharisees were a religious movement that looked at the religion of their day and believed that it was weak.  They would not only seek to obey the rules, they would add to the rules.
The Pharisees are generally portrayed in a negative light in the gospels.  They try to trick Jesus.  Despite Jesus’ obvious goodness, they accuse him of evil.  Ultimately, they seek to have Jesus killed.
But Nicodemus comes across as a different kind of Pharisee.  He calls Jesus ‘rabbi’ (‘teacher’), although Jesus had not undergone formal training.  He is insightful, recognising that Jesus comes from God.  He is sincere.  He is respected, being called ‘Israel’s teacher’, and is a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He would have been a man of prayer.  He would have regularly been at meetings of worship.  Yet Jesus tells him, ’truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’     
What does it mean to see the kingdom of God?  Well, the Jews were waiting for God’s promised king.  Jesus is that king.  To see his kingdom involves being one of his people.  We might say that is what it really means to be a Christian.  What Jesus says is shocking!  A religious Jew would have expected to be one of the king’s people.  Jesus say only those who are born again are.
Can you see that your background, your baptism, your first communion, your reputation, your prayers or your church attendance don’t make you right with God?  Nicodemus was religious and devote.  Yet Jesus says, ‘truly, truly I say to you, unless you are born again, you will not see the kingdom of God’ (3).
Being born again is a work of God (4-8)
It is the most important thing in the world to know what it means to be born again.  Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue what it means.  He thinks that Jesus is speaking about physical birth.  ‘How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely, he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?’ (4).  
Jesus explains, ‘truly, truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ (5).  These words might seem confusing to us, but Nicodemus should have known what they mean.  You see Nicodemus was an expert on what we call the Old Testament.
In the book of Ezekiel God declares that a time is coming when, ‘I will sprinkle clean water and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Water is a picture of cleansing.  God promises to wash away all your sin.  When you are born again the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in your heart.  The Holy Spirit changes you from the inside out.  He causes you to desire to follow God and he enables you to live a life pleasing to God.  Being born again involves knowing God’s forgiveness and transformation.
A business man went to his pastor and said, ‘my wife is glad I have become a Christian.  My kids are glad.’  They saw the change that Jesus made in his life and they were impressed.  Forgiveness and change are the results of being born again.
A girl was always in trouble at school.  Her name was always being brought up at staff meetings.  But over the holidays she attended a Christian camp, where she was a handful for the leaders.  Yet she heard the good news about Jesus and it impacted her.  When she returned to school her name came up in the staff meeting.  However, this time the principle exclaimed, ‘what has happened to that girl?’  Forgiveness and transformation!        
Before we move on to see the role of the cross in all this, I want you to see the words the Spirit gives birth to spirit (6).  It is saying that just as we contributed nothing towards our physical birth, neither did we contribute to our spiritual birth.  We didn’t make our mother pregnant.  We didn’t produce our own food in the womb.  We didn’t do all the pushing and shoving of labour.  We were born by the efforts of another.  Similarly, it is the Holy Spirit who shows people that they are dead in rebellion and sin, who tells them that Jesus has taken the punishment for their sin, and who raises us from spiritual death.  If you are born again then you should be among the most grateful people in the world.
Being born again is a result of what Jesus did on the cross (9-15)
Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. ‘How can this be?’ (9). 
‘You’re Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand these things’ (10).  ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (14).  This is a reference to our Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9).
In the reading from Numbers, the people were dying as judgement for their rebellion against God.  Yet God graciously gave Moses a rescue plan.  All the people needed to do was look at the bronze snake that Moses lifted up and they would be healed.  That bronze snake pictured Jesus being lifted up on the cross.  We are dying in our sins but look to the Saviour.  Put your trust in him.  He died for people’s guilt.  He is the rescue plan we need.  He is the only way to we can have eternal life.
So why not choose life? (16-21)
Then comes what one of the most famous verses in the Bible.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (16).   The amazing thing about this verse is that in John’s writings the term ‘world’ doesn’t mean the planet or even people in general.  For John ‘the world’ specifically refers to society in rebellion against God.  God sent his Son for rebellious people like us who had done nothing to deserve his favour.  
‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God’ (18).  You are presented with a stark choice!  Jesus spoke plainly about the righteous and eternal judgement of hell.  You are invited to come to Jesus for life or you will spend eternity apart from him and all that is good.
So why aren’t people flocking to Jesus to experience forgiveness and transformation?  ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed’ (19-20).  By nature, we are rebels who don’t want to face the reality of our guilt.  We need to be asking God to change people’s hearts.  We should be thankful for the grace that ‘taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved’ (John Newton, ‘Amazing Grace’).   ‘But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be seen clearly that his works have been carried out in God’ (21).
I began by asking you two questions.  Let’s take them in turn.
‘Are you sure that you have eternal life?’  You can be sure!  ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’  Later in this gospel, Jesus will promise that he will not turn away anyone who comes to him (6:37)..  There is nothing in your life that he is not willing to forgive if you will bring your life to him.
‘If you died and God said to you, “why should I let you into my heaven?”  What would you say?’  Can you see that any answer that depends on you is the wrong answer?  ‘God, you should accept me because I am a nice person, because I pray, because I was baptised, because I go to church, because I have never been in trouble with the law.’  All the wrong answers!  Nicodemus was a nice, respected, religious, man and Jesus said, ‘you must be born again.’
If you are not sure that you are right with God, why don’t you pray with me?
‘Lord God, I offer no excuse for all the wrong that I have done.  I realise that there is a problem with my heart.  But I now see that you are a God who delights to forgive and want people to experience your mercy.  Please forgive me for trying to justify myself.  Please make me sincere as I ask you to take my past, present and future sin.  Please give me a heart that longs to follow you.  Please let me not be ashamed to tell people that I am born again.  Thank you. Amen.’

Thursday, 8 November 2018

The most important doctrine you have not heard of (Union with Christ)

What do you know about Union with Christ?  It is not something that we talk about much.  But it is actually central to our understanding of being a Christian.  In fact, the term ‘Christian’ is found only three times in the New Testament (and is used by those who look down on the faith), whereas believers are regularly described as being ‘in Christ’.  Union with Christ relates to terms like ‘in Christ’ and ‘Christ in us’.  It has been called the most important doctrine you have never heard of.  Once you begin to see it you will notice it all throughout the New Testament.  

This idea of Union with Christ has many aspects, so we are simply going to look at how Christ represents us before the Father, how Christ resides in our hearts and how Christ relates us to each other.
Christ represents us before the Father
One of the ways that we are ‘in Christ’ is that Jesus represents us before the Father.  The Father treats us as being perfectly righteous because Christ lived the perfectly righteous life on our behalf.  His obedient life has been credited to your account.  In him we are the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).  ‘By one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:19).
Even though we let God down every day, the Father accepts us as deserving children.  Our place in his family is not destroyed by our shortcomings.  So when you read the gospels and see Jesus act with compassion, love with grace, and delight to obey God you should be filled with gratitude.  You have benefitted from his perfect life.  Shortly before his death the theologian, Gresham Machen, sent a telegram to a friend saying, ‘I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.’   
Not only did Jesus represent us in his life, he represented us in his death.  Looking ahead to the cross, the prophet Isaiah declared, ‘the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6).  Peter explains that ‘he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24).  In Christ our sins have been washed away.  One writer points out that because we are in Christ ‘whatever is true of him is now true of us.  He died, we died. He is raised, we are (and will be) raised.  He is vindicated, we are vindicated.  He is loved, we are loved.  And so on, all because we are in him’ (Rory Shiner).  ‘God thought of us going through everything that Christ went through, because he was our representative’ (Grudem).
But you weren’t born in Christ.  You were born in Adam.  He was our first earthly father, and when he rebelled against God, we all fell into sin.  We were hostile to God and separated from God.  We have willing followed Adam’s way.  If you remain apart from Christ, you will die in your sins and be eternally condemned.  Have you turned to the one who promises never to cast away anyone who comes to him?  You won’t accidently end up in Christ, you must turn to him in faith.  
Christ is resident in our hearts
Paul tells the Galatians, ‘I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (2:20).  Through the Holy Spirit, the very Christ who is now seated at the Father’s side, dwells within you.  As the old children’s song says, ‘there’s a flag flying high in the castle of my heart because the king is in resident there.’
Our old self died with Christ and so we are no longer slaves of sin (Romans 6:6).  Christ now lives in you and he enables you to live the Christian life.  Apart from him you can do nothing (John 15:5).  While sin promises freedom, it leaves us ashamed and full of regret.  We need no longer live a life of defeat.  ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13).  One of the reasons we fall in the face of temptation is that we depend on our own strength rather than lean on Jesus.  When we sin, we think, ‘I am better than this’, but we are not.  We are helpless without Christ.  Only in him we can live the godly life (2 Timothy 3:12).
What difference does it make to you that Christ is in you when you are tempted?  What difference does it make that he has brought you at the price of his own blood?  What difference does it make that he sees what you see, hears what you hear and knows how you feel?  What difference does it make that God promises that you will never be tempted beyond what you can bear, and that when you are tempted, he will always provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13)?                      
Christ relates us to each other
When Saul of Tarsus persecuted the church, the risen Christ asked him, ‘why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9:4).  Jesus identifies himself with his people.  We are ‘one body in Christ, and individually members of one another’ (Romans 12:5).  Just as my mother expressed her one wish for her children was that we would get on with each other, Jesus prayed to his Father that ‘they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may be in us’ (John 17:21).  Do you want to please the one who lives in you?  Then love his people and be a part of his church!  Indeed, love for his people is one of the strongest evidences that Christ lives in you (1 John 4:20).
Because we are one in Christ there can be no place in the church for sexist jokes, racial prejudice or class snobbery.  ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).  Jesus promises that whenever we help the neediest brother or sister in Jesus, what we do we do for him (Matthew 25:40).  
The great London preacher, Charles Spurgeon, said, ‘there is no joy in this world like union with Christ.  The more we can feel it the happier we are.’  But how can we feel our union with Christ?
We can feel our union with Christ by remembering that in Christ we are understood.  The one who dwells within us is called sympathetic (Hebrews 4:14-16).  He was a man of sorrows familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  He knew what it was to learn obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).  He was tempted in every way, yet without sin.  He knows what it is to feel guilt, for he took our guilt upon his shoulders.  He was forsaken, so that we would never be forsaken (Psalm 22:1).   While he is not pleased when we fall into sin, his heart reaches out to us, he feels compassion for us, and he wants to help us get to our feet.
We can feel our union with Christ by realising that we are no longer helpless.  As we have seen, Christ in us means that we are no longer slaves to sin.  We become defeated when we think that we will never be able to break that habit.  But that is a lie.  In Christ we can overcome.  Don’t be intimidated by your temptations, but don’t be self-confident either (1 Cor. 10:12).  Depend on Christ in you, rather than proudly trying to prove your ability.  Seek God’s strength by cultivating a life of intimacy with Christ.
We can feel the impact of this truth by remembering that we are not hopeless.  I was reading a short biography of the Yugoslavian dictator, Tito.  It said that in his latter years he was aware of his mortality but could not face going to funerals.  He was scared of death.  As I pass through my middle-age I am trying to come to peace with the idea of one day I will die.  But we have nothing to fear if we are in Christ.  What shall separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus?  Not even death (Romans 8:38).  We die ‘in Christ’ and we shall ever be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
One theologian exclaimed that union with Christ is the Christian life.  It is the most important doctrine we have forgotten.  See this as the beginning of a journey where you come to see the idea of being in Christ and Christ being in you on every page of the New Testament.  For there ‘is no truth … more suited to impart confidence and strength, comfort and joy in the Lord than this one of union with Christ’ (John Murray).

Friday, 2 November 2018

The Practical Doctrine of the Trinity

When Ronan was about five he asked something like this: ‘If God is God and Jesus is God, does that mean there are two gods?’  I answered, ‘one day I am going to tell you something called the facts of life, but your mum is responsible for explaining the doctrine of the Trinity.’  It takes a child’s question to remind us how complicated the Trinity is!

The word I most commonly use when trying to explain the Trinity is ‘mystery’, but one of the words I want you to associate with the Trinity is ‘practical’.  I want you to see that the Trinity is the most practical idea in the whole world.

One God in three persons
We are not polytheists.  We do not believe in three gods.  We believe that there is only one true and living God.  This truth is expressed in what is called the shema: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4).  The Hebrew word translated ‘one’ actually refers to a unity rather than simply to a singularity.  This word is used of a bunch of grapes, and when Adam and Eve become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).  Hints of this idea of Trinity are found in the very first chapter of the Bible, when God says, ‘Let “us” make man in our image’ (Genesis 1:26).
No-one denies that the Father is God.  After all the apostle Paul uses the word ‘God’ as shorthand for the Father.  He writes about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 15:6, 2 Corinthians 1:3, Ephesians 1:3).  But there is a long history of denying that the Son is God.  The Muslims claim that he is just a prophet and the Jehovah Witnesses actually think that he is the archangel Michael.
There are five New Testament texts that explicitly claim that Jesus is God (John 1:1, Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, Hebrews 1:8 and 2 Peter 1:1), the most famous being in John’s prologue, where he says, ‘in the beginning was the Word [Jesus], and the Word was with God and the Word is God.’  Unfortunately, the Jehovah Witnesses will debate each of these texts.  But there are a number of other ways to show that Jesus is God.
Staying with John’s Gospel, you could point them to Jesus’ use of the term ‘I am’.  This goes back to the famous incident of the burning bush, where Moses asks God who he should say has sent him to the Israelites.  God responds, ‘I am who I am.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites, “I am has sent you”’ (Exodus 3:14).  To the Pharisees, Jesus declares ‘before Abraham was born, I am’.  We can see that they knew what he was claiming by the fact that they responded by picking up stones to kill him (John 8:58-59).  At the climax of John’s gospel, Thomas looks at the risen Jesus and proclaims, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28).
It is not just John’s gospel that shows that Jesus is God the Son.  We can see it in all the gospels.  In Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, we see Jesus do things that only God does.  So, when a man is lowered through a roof to meet Jesus, Jesus tells him ‘your sins are forgiven.’  This leads the religious leaders to rightly observe, ‘who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Mark 2:7).  Jesus calms a storm (Mark 4:39), and in the Psalms God asked the rhetorical question, ‘who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves…?’ (Psalm 65:7).   Jesus walks on water, and the careful reader of the Old Testament might have recalled the following verse from Job: ‘he [God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads the waves of the sea’ (Job 9:8).
One of the most fruitful ways to show that Jesus is God is to look at the titles given to him.  He is Immanuel, meaning ‘God with us’ (Isaiah 7:14).  He will be called ‘mighty God’, said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6).  Jesus said that he was the good shepherd (John 12:11), yet in Ezekiel it is God who says, ‘I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down’ (Ezekiel 34:15).
In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John is given a wonderful vision while he is in exile on the island of Patmos.  Near the end of this, John gets carried away and falls down to worship the angel who is speaking to him.  The angel responds, ‘don’t do that!  I am a fellow servant with you with your brothers and sisters who hold the testimony of Jesus.  Worship God’ (19:10).  We are only to worship God, yet in the same book of Revelation we see Jesus being worshipped as the Lamb of God.     
So, God is God the Son, but is the Holy Spirit God.  It actually follows naturally that if the Son is God then the Spirit is too.  The most famous text to show the existence of the Trinity is when Jesus commission the disciples and tells them to baptise people in the ‘name’ [singular] of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18).
Texts showing that the Holy Spirit is God are less numerous than those demonstrating that the Son is.  Two are often cited.  The first comes from the incident with Ananias and Sapphira, where Peter accuses them of lying to the Holy Spirit and then immediately declares, ‘you have not lied to men but to God’ (Acts 5:3-4).  The apostle Paul implies the divinity of the Holy Spirit when he asks the Corinthians, ‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?’ (1 Corinthians 3:16).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even believe that the Holy Spirit is a person, yet alone God.  They think of the Holy Spirit as a kind of impersonal force, like electricity.  However, the apostle Paul warns us not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).  How can you grieve something that has no personality of feelings?
If we see that Jesus is God the Son, then the natural logic is to realise that the Spirit is God the Holy Spirit.  It has often been noted that Jesus commissions his disciples to baptise people in the name [singular] of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Before I attempt to show you that the Trinity is the most practical doctrine in the world, I want to clear a possible misunderstanding.  There is a heresy called ‘modalism’ which says that there is simply one God who consists of one person who appears in various forms.  So, the Father becomes the Son who becomes the Spirit.  We actually get close to teaching this when we tell children that the Trinity is like water that appears in three forms—water, ice of steam.  The Trinity is actually the mystery of one God yet three persons of Father, Son and Spirit.  The Father is God, the Son is God and the Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit.  It really is a mystery.
The Trinity is Practical
However, it is also the most practical doctrine in the world.  It changes how we see God, how we see being rescued by God, how we pray and how we live.
The Trinity means God is love.  In Islam, Allah is one god consisting of one person.  How could Allah be love for all of eternity past?  Before he created anything or anybody, who did he love.  He could only have spent all of eternity loving himself.  But God is love (1 John 4:8).  It is a part of his very nature.  If there was no creation, he would still be love.  For all eternity past, the Father has loved the Son and the Spirit, the Son has loved the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit has loved the Father and Son.
The Trinity means salvation is wonderful.  One theologian asks, ‘Why did the Father send the Son?  Because the Father so enjoyed loving the Son that he wanted his love to be in others!’  God comes to broken, rebellious people and invites us to join in the dance of delight.  God didn’t create humankind because he was lonely.  He was not like the ancient gods who created people to serve them.  He created because his loves overflows and he wanted to share it.  He wants us to enjoy the love he enjoys.  
The Trinity should shape our prayer.  We can pray to the Son or the Holy Spirit, but the most of all we should pray to the Father.  Jesus showed us the pattern of prayer by teaching us to say, ‘Our Father.’  But how can we come to the Father confidently?  We come ‘in Christ’.  Christ’s death and resurrection means that we are washed and pure.  We are received with the welcome that Christ has one for us.  We come in Jesus’ name.  But the Holy Spirit is also involved.  He empowers our prayer.  When we become to think that we might be unwelcome at the throne of grace, the Spirit reminds us, ‘God is your Father, who loves you and delights to listen to you.’  When we are apathetic in prayer, he makes us restless.  When we don’t know what to pray for, he guides us.  He even takes our frustrated groans and says to the Father, ‘if Paul knew you the way I know you, and Paul understood the situation that way we can see it, this is what he ld say.’   
Finally, as Christians we are told to submit to the state, to our employers and to our church leaders.  Children are told to obey their parents.  Husbands are told to be servant leaders of their wives.  Wives are told to submit to their husbands.  We are commanded to submit to one another in love.  All this submission is countercultural in our culture of self-assertion.  Gentle, delighting, loving authority is such a contrast to the common abuse of power.   But the Trinity magnifies the beauty of loving authority and glad submission.  The Son gladly submits to the Father and the Spirit gladly submits to the Father and Son.  When Jesus walked on the earth he allowed himself to be led by the Spirit.  There was no manipulation or bullying, no self-assertion or resentment.
It is said that when Saint Patrick came to Ireland he used the shamrock to teach about what the Trinity is like.  I don’t know if the shamrock is a particularly good picture of the Trinity.  In truth I can’t think of any object that illustrates the Trinity well.  It is a mystery to us.  But just because it is a mystery does not mean that it isn’t the most God-honouring, glorious and life impacting truth the world has ever been confronted with.

Friday, 26 October 2018

The ideal wife (Proverbs 31)

One of the questions that has to be addressed when the modern reader looks at the book of Proverbs is, ‘Is this book sexist?’  After all, there are comments about the nagging wife, but nothing about a nagging husband; there are warnings about the adulterous woman, but nothing about the adulterous man; and, here we have help for wife choosing, but nothing about husband choosing.

All this makes more sense when you look at the purpose of the book.  Proverbs is primarily a book of advice from a father and mother to their son (1:8).  If these were the words of a father and mother to their daughter there would be advice of such things as the seductive man.  Notice too that the advice is coming from both mother and father, and that this last chapter is a divine utterance given to the mother of King Lemuel.  In this book when wisdom is personified, it is personified as a female, and the ideal woman of this last chapter actually pictures the wisdom of this book being lived out.  This is not a sexist book!
In this last chapter, King Lemuel’s mother tells him to rule with justice and mercy, and to be a voice for the voiceless.  Proverbs is a book that reflects God’s care for the socially vulnerable—one of my favourite proverbs is ‘whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker, but whoever is harsh to the needy honours God’ (14:31).  Lemuel’s mother then tells him to keep a clear and sober head, so that he can rule righteously.  Finally, she speaks about the important matter of what qualities Lemuel should look for in a wife.
Marriage involves a singular love
Lemuel’s mother tells him not to give his strength to women (plural).  This was one area where Solomon was not wise.  He turned his heart to many women, who turned his heart from God and divided the kingdom.  Lemuel’s mother instructs him to find an excellent wife (singular).  Marriage involves a singular love.
If you like flirting with many people, then you are not preparing yourself to give yourself to one single person.  There is a phrase used in the qualifications for elders in the New Testament, it says that elders are literally to be ‘one-womaned’ men (1 Timothy 3:2).  Being a one-womaned man, or a one-maned woman, involves having eyes that are not straying and a heart that is loyal.
I remember hearing a speaker say that men do not lose their love for their wives, they give it away.  Maybe you have stopped striving to be the ideal husband.  Maybe your passion is not for another woman, but for your career.  Maybe you are not a one-womaned man, but a no-womaned husband who has become apathetic.
Only consider marrying someone who loves the Lord
The book of Proverbs opens by declaring that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (1:7).  Now it ends by saying, ‘a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (30).  Don’t take any short cuts on this.  If you love Jesus, then you are looking for someone who loves Jesus, too.  This must be a non-negotiable for you.  
While the book of Proverbs warns against being a sluggard, this woman is hard-working (11-15).  While the book of Proverbs tells us to be generous, this woman opens her hands to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy’ (20).  While the book of Proverbs has so much to tell us about how we speak, this woman ‘opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue’ (26).  This woman has a faith that affects her actions, attitudes and speech!  
Godliness is more important than either looks or personality
Teenagers ask each other, ‘which is more important: looks or personality?’ Here is a Proverbs that addresses that issue: ‘Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion’ (11:22).  The answer to the question of looks verses personality is that godliness is the most important thing.  The Proverbs tell us that look fade and charm can be deceptive, but a woman who fear the Lord is to be praised (30).  In the structure of this Hebrew poem the crux of the matter is in the centre.  The centre of this poem says that such a wife results in ‘her husband [being] known at the gates when he sits among the elders of the land’ (23).
What is it that cause the elders of the land to admire this man’s wife?  They are not sitting there saying, ‘gosh, your wife is a babe!’  They are envying her because she flirts with them.  They admire this man because she is someone who puts her faith into practice.
Don’t get the impression that while she is running around working hard he is simply sitting with his friends at the city gate.  The city gate was where commercial transactions were carried, and it was there that the city elders sat and sorted out disputes.  Her husband is among the respected men who work hard for the community.  Here is an example of the saying that behind every great man there is a great woman.
Marriage is a call to servanthood  
One of the most striking things about the woman being described in this poem is how other-person centred she is.  In this way she models the character of Christ, who is the personification of wisdom.
Selfishness comes naturally to me, as it does to you.  I don’t have to wake up in the morning and pray, ‘Lord, help me put myself ahead of everyone else.’  That is what I am inclined to do.  But I do need to pray, ‘help me to praise my wife, nurture my children and genuinely care for those I meet today.’
Jesus dignified the role of servant more than any other leader.  ‘I did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my live as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).  The cross shows how far Jesus went to serve his people.  The cross is the example that Jesus calls us to follow.  It is an example that we are to live out in all our relationships, including marriage.  The good news if you are a follower in love with Jesus is that Christ is in you enabling you to become more like him.  
Encourage those you love
‘Her children praise her and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her’ (28).  You may be aware of where your wife struggles to be a Proverbs 31 woman, but are you praising her where she demonstrates even a little of these qualities?  The power of encouragement is a wonderful thing.  Don’t look down this list to see where she is failing, instead see what God is doing in her life and nourish it with gentle words.  Similarly, wives, don’t just focus on the husband’s failings, but look to see evidence of Christ at work in him.
If I was a woman reading these verses, one of the problems I would have is that they would make me feel inadequate.  All of us fail to be like this ideal woman.  Every married man here lives with a woman who is less than perfect, and every wife here lives with a man who is less than ideal.  Married or single, we look at ourselves and see faults.  But the Proverbs know about grace.  ‘Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy’ (28:13).
Jesus, who knew that we were incapable of perfection in this life, nevertheless told his us, ‘you must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (5:48).  We are called to pursue perfection.  So, when you look for a spouse or when you look at yourself, we ask, ‘are they/we pursing perfection?  Do they/we want to grow in Christ?  Are they/we becoming humbler?  Are they/we becoming quicker to confess their/our faults?  Your potential spouse may not have been a Christian for a long time, but are they wanting to grow in grace?  You may have been a Christian for ages, but have you become stagnant?  Don’t just look for the ideal spouse, ask God to help you aim at perfection in yourself!

Monday, 15 October 2018

'All is well that ends well "?"' (Job 42:7-17)

In a talk at Moody Bible Institute Professor Charles Cooper told of the early days of his marriage.

When he was four months married his wife had been away on a trip.  He went with his mother-in-law to collect her at the airport.  As the plane pulled up they saw ambulances and police cars closing in on the back of the aircraft.  Charles’s focus was on the front, where his wife was to disembark.

All of a sudden, his mother-in-law clasped his arm and pointed to a stretcher that was being removed from the back door of the plane.  The body was covered with a white sheet.  Hanging from the stretcher was a purse they recognised as his wife’s.  Despite having no previous history of a condition his young wife had suffered a heart attack shortly before landing.

Charles Cooper told those listening of his journey through the pain.  He said the cards, the letters, the phone calls, the embraces, and the love of friends all played a part in helping him to survive.  “But what kept me going more than anything else was my confidence in the character of God.”[1]

Before we look at the closing verses of Job let’s remind ourselves of some of the lessons that we have learned from this book.

‘Bad things do happen to faithful people.’  The book opens telling us that Job was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil (1:1).  He was about to endure a nightmare he had done nothing to deserve.

God remains in control.  It is only with God’s permission that Satan can torment Job (1:12; 2:6).  Job acknowledges this sovereignty when he declares, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away” (1:21a).  This truth is reaffirmed here at the end of the book, those who had known him before comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the LORD had brought upon him (42:11).  While God’s responsibility for suffering may be an uncomfortable truth if he’s not fully in control then our lives are the subjects of chance, chaos or the authority of the Evil One. 

Although God is responsible for suffering we must not charge him with wrongdoing.  At the beginning of the book we read, “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (1:22 see also 2:10).  Despite his suffering he knew that God’s ways are perfect.  Sadly, as we read on, bitterness gets the better of Job and he claims that God has acted unjustly (27:2).

‘The fear of the LORD—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’ (28:28).  Wisdom is not about having the answers to all the questions of life; it is about knowing and following God.

God teaches us in our pain.  The young Elihu, whose words are a frustrating mix of truth and misunderstanding, was surly right when he declared, “. . .  those who suffer [God] delivers in their suffering, he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15).  As one preacher explained, ‘there are dimensions of godliness and faith which righteous people learn only through suffering.’[2]

There remains mystery to suffering.  When God addresses Job he does not put him in the picture about the conversations he had with Satan.  But God does something more important than answer Job’s questions, he restores their relationship.  After God teaches Job that as creator he knows better than him, Job is humbled and can reply, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” (42:5).  Knowing God intimately is more important than receiving answers to the questions that personal suffering raises.

Finally, Jesus is God’s ultimate solution to suffering.  This fact will be reinforced as we study the closing verses of this book.

A mediator brings forgiveness (7-9)

The LORD addresses Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  Job’s three ‘comforters’ believed that if something bad was happening to you then you must have done something awful to deserve it.  As a result they spoke heartlessly to Job.  More seriously they misrepresented God’s rule.  Truth matters!  Wrong beliefs about God can damage others and they misrepresent him.  We are accountable for what we say. So let’s be careful, seeking to believe and speak only truth.

God is angry with them, but he also merciful.  He shows them how they are to be forgiven.  Grace is God’s unearned and undeserved favour.  This passage is full of grace.  In grace God offers forgiveness to these three who had not spoken of him what is right.  In grace he will bless Job—it was not as if Job had earned the reversal in his fortune he is going to experience!  We even see grace in Job granting an inheritance to his daughters—which was not the practice of the day.

The LORD gives Eliphaz an unusual instruction.  He is to take seven rams and seven bulls to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves.  It wasn’t those animals who have spoken wrongly about God!  Here is forgiveness based on the death of an innocent.  Where does that point us?  To Jesus of course!

I am sure it has something to do with the onset of midlife, but I recently thought about getting a tattoo.  I wasn’t contemplating being very brave, I would have had it somewhere very discrete, like on my ankle.  As I thought about what I would have inscribed I reckoned the words ‘It is finished’ would be good.  As Jesus died on the cross he cried those words showing that he had completed what he had come to do.  The death of rams and bulls could never have paid the price for sin, but they pointed ahead to the sacrifice that would.  In God’s grace he offers each one of us forgiveness because of the death of an innocent, Jesus Christ.

It’s noteworthy that four times in verses 7-8 God refers to Job as my servant.  He is affirming Job, and perhaps pointing us ahead to the one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The LORD tells Eliphaz that after he and his friends have made their sacrifice, my servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.  Job is to be a mediator between themselves and God.  That’s striking!

Do you remember when Job was telling those same three friends of the mediator he hoped in?  Job had declared:  ‘He [God] is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court.  If only there was someone to arbitrate between us, To lay his hands upon us both’ (9:32-33) and Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high.  My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friends (16:18-21).  Job is now going to be ‘a living picture’ of the mediator he had tried to tell them about.

That mediator is Jesus!  In Hebrews we read, Therefore he [Jesus] is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them (7:25).  1 John 2:1, My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 

I can’t imagine it was easy for Job to act on behalf of his three friends.  It is difficult to forgive those who hurt us with their words.  ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words trample me into the ground.’  Yet Job knows what it is to receive grace—he had accused God of being unjust and the LORD had sought to restore their relationship.  The proper response to receiving grace is to show grace to others.  That was the case for Job and that is the proper response for us, if we have received God’s grace for ourselves.      

The end is better than the beginning (10-17)

In the end things turn out well for Job.  The LORD blessed the latter part of his life more than the first.  Those who had ostracised him now comfort him and bring him gifts.  He ends up with twice the size of herds that he had at the beginning, with new sons and daughters, and twice the three score and ten lifespan.

We might ask, ‘do these verses promise that everything will turn out well in the end for Christians?’  I suppose the answer to that question is ‘no and yes!’

It would fly in the face of the evidence to say that ‘all works out well for Christians in the end, in this life.’  Think of the Apostle Paul—the last we read of him he is in jail anticipating death.  Think of the Apostle John—he ends up in exile on Patmos.  Clearly all does not turn well for Christians in this life.  But both Paul and John looked forward beyond this life, to something better.  ‘All does work out well, in the end, for Christians, in heaven.  There our experience will not only be twice as good as before but infinitely better.

I listened to a sermon in which the preacher suggested the book of Job should remind us of the whole picture of the Bible when it comes to suffering.[3]  At the beginning we are told that Job is from Uz, which is clearly a land of plenty.  We are also told that it was in the east.  This might remind us of Eden, which Genesis 2 describes as a plentiful garden in the east (Gen 2:8).  Like Eden Satan enters the picture.  While there are differences between what takes place in Eden and in the book of Job, the result of Satan’s presence is suffering and hardship.  At the end of the Bible, in book of Revelation, we have a new garden that is better than Eden.  Likewise in this book Job ends up with more than he did at the beginning.

There are many mysteries surrounding the presence of evil and the reality of suffering.  But this we can know: what was lost at the beginning is replaced by something even better in the end.  What was lost at Eden is replaced by something better in the new creation.  All things have worked for the glory of God, and the ultimate good of those who are his in Christ.

James 5:11b, ‘You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.’   Job had not suffered perfectly.   He had even accused God of being unjust.  But he had persevered.  Satan had claimed that Job’s relationship with God was superficial, that if he was made suffer, he will surely curse you to you face (1:11).  As we finish studying the book of Job, let us persevere.  Let us cling on to God when troubles come, and trust in his compassion and mercy, as we look forward to what he will finally bring about for us.


A life-long Bible teacher found his faith troubled in his final years.  A degenerative nerve disease confined him to bed.  His thirty-nine-year-old daughter battled a severe form of diabetes.  Financial pressures mounted.  During his most severe crisis, he composed a Christmas letter and mailed it to others in the family.  Many things he had once taught he now felt uneasy about.  What could he believe with certainty?  He wrote these three things: ‘Life is difficult.  God is merciful.  Heaven is sure.’[4]  

Life is difficult.  God is merciful.  Heaven is sure.’  This morning, if we are someone who has put your trust in Jesus, we may know the reality of these truths.

Bad things do happen to good people.  Being a faithful follower of Christ will not make us immune from tragedy in life. 

Christians don’t have all the answers to the questions that arise with personal suffering.  But we can have something better than answers—we can know God our trustworthy and merciful God intimately, even as we suffer.

And for his people, because of Christ’s suffering on the cross, heaven is sure.  There is an eternal hope beyond our pain.  Something far better than we have ever experienced before.  There God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev. 21:1-4).

[1] Story taken from Ravi Zacharias (1998) Cries of the Heart, Word.
[2] David Turner, speaking at All Souls, Langham Place.
[3] Michael Reeves, preaching at All Souls, Langham Place.
[4] Taken from Philip Yancy, Disappointed with God.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Brace yourself (Job 32-41)

Stephen Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology in Union College, Belfast.  He is an extremely cleaver man.  I think he did his PhD in Yale University.  He is also a nice guy.  I remember going to him for advice one time when I was suffering anxiety, and he was very caring.  When I was studying theology, he took us for a class on apologetics.  Apologetics is basically about defending the faith in face of people’s objections.  

At the end of the course Stephen gave us a role play.  You had to go into his office, and he would pretend to be someone who was antagonistic towards Christianity.  In character he would present you with all sorts of difficult questions.  He ran rings around me.  I remember being glad that at least he had thought through all the questions he was presenting me, and that they didn’t rock his faith.

One day Professor Williams said something that I wasn’t sure about.  He said that when it comes to defending Christianity, the issue of suffering is our weak point.  I must have been of the opinion that we should be able to give perfect answers to every question!

‘If God is both perfectly good and all-powerful why doesn’t he bring an end to suffering?’  That’s how many put it! 

We might reply: ‘We live in a world that is under God’s curse because of human rebellion, a world where everybody is subject to sickness and death.  That one day God will bring an end to suffering for those who have put their trust in him.’ 

However, when the questions get more personal answers are more difficult to come by.  ‘Why did that person suffer so much?’  ‘Why does God allow some of his own people go through such agony?’  At this stage we may be left scratching our heads.

Some people have looked at suffering and concluded that if God is all-powerful he could not be very good.  Other people have said God is good but not all-powerful—like the deaconess, at a clergy conference, who passionately argued for what she called ‘a weak God’, saying that it gave her comfort to think that God was busy struggling with life and getting it wrong just like the rest of us.  Or you could be like Job’s friends, who explain personal suffering with a simplistic formula: ‘bad things don’t happen to faithful people, so they must have done something awful to deserve it’—but how come some very wicked people prosper in life and some very godly people have to endure terrible troubles?

In this evening’s passage God speaks to Job.  What will he say in response to Job’s questions?  What light might his words bring to our pain?  Before we see, let’s look at the chapters that lead up to God’s verdict.

God is all powerful and he teaches us through our suffering (32-37)

Job is so impressive at the beginning of this book.  When he loses his wealth and his children, he grieves.  But he also worships: ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised’ (1:21).  We read, ‘In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing’ (1:22).  After he is covered in sores from head to toe his wife urges him to curse God and die.  Job replies, ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’  Again, we are told, ‘In all this, Job did not sin in what he said’ (2:10).  He knows that God is all-powerful and perfectly good, even if he is left in the dark about why he is suffering.

Yet as we read on we can see bitterness getting the better of him.  For example, in chapter 27 he declares, “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul ... (27:2).     Don’t get me wrong.  It was not that Job was wrong to cry out to God in anguish—we should tell him how we feel but Job overstepped the mark when he accused God of being unjust.  But the end of the day we need to remember that he is God and we are people, he understands all things and we only understand some things, and his ways are perfect even when they are a baffling mystery to us.

In chapter 32 we hear a new voice.  A rather arrogant young man called Elihu speaks.  Like Job’s three ‘comforters’, Elihu’s words are a frustrating mix of truth and error.  He rightly defends God’s righteousness, but, like the others, he claims that Job must have some secret sin that needed to be confessed. 

One of the interesting things Elihu says, that is attested elsewhere in the Scriptures, is that God teaches us through suffering.  ‘But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction’ (36:15). 

The late Professor Sir Norman Anderson was both a legal giant and a Christian.  He was a lay preacher at All Souls, Langham Place.  He and his wife knew grief, they lost all their children.  Their son Hugh died of cancer, when he was 21.  Norman later wrote, ‘people would continually ask us why a young man of such promise and with such a zest for life should be allowed to die so young.  To this the only reply we both feel is that we do not, cannot, know.   The vital question to ask God in such circumstances is not ‘why do you allow this?’—to which he seldom, I think, vouchsafes to answer—but ‘what do you want to teach me through this?’ 

The striking thing about the words of Elihu is the emphasis he places on the sovereignty of God: God is great beyond our understanding (36:26), almighty beyond our reach (37:23), and in absolute control of his creation (see 36-37).  This sets the stage for God to enter the discussion!

Who are we to question God? (38-41)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm (38:1).  What is God going to say to the many questions that Job has been asking?  Will he tell Job about the conversation between himself and Satan?

“Who is it that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you will answer me” (38:2-3).  Wow!  The tables are turned.  God is going to be the one to do the questioning.

‘Job if you think you can run the universe better than me, can you explain my creation?’

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? ...”  (38:4)

“Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?  ...” (38:18)

“Can you bring forth the consolations in their seasons ...?” (38:32)

“Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom ...?” (39:26)

He mentions the ostrich.  ‘It has wings yet can’t fly.  But boy can it run!  What an odd creature.  Explain that to me?’

‘Job, consider the vastness, the complexity, and the wonder of my universe.  Consider how little you understand and that I created and sustain it all.  Do you think you know better than me?’  “The LORD said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him.  Let him who accuses God answer him!” (40:1-2)   

What could Job say, he has just been taught about the vastness there is between man and God?  Job is humbled! 

I am unworthy — how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more” (40:4-5).

Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  Would you discredit my justice?  Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (40:6-8).

God mentions the behemoth.  There is some debate about what this might be, but it is certainly impressive.  Can anyone capture him by the eyes, or trap him and pierce his nose?” (40:24).
There is the leviathan—another awesome creature whose identity is debated.  “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” (41:1)

Then Job replied to the LORD:

“I know that you can do all things;

no plan of yours can be thwarted.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42:1-6).

Job repents!  It is not that he had done anything to deserve his suffering, before his suffering God had said he was blameless and upright.  But in his suffering he had been foolish.  He had thought that he knew better than God.  He had questioned God’s justice.  He had acted as if God owed him answers!

We enjoy great intimacy with the God who invites us to know him as our Abba.  In Christ we can approach his throne of grace with confidence (Heb. 4:16).  But we are never to be presumptuous.  He is the creator and we are the creatures.  We are always to treat him with awe and reverence.          


Stephen Williams was right.  When it comes to defending our faith, suffering is the weak point.  It is not the weak point because God is not in control, or that he is not good.  It’s the weak point because we are people and God is the Almighty.  He is beyond our understanding.  We are dependent upon what he has revealed to us, and he has chosen not to give us all the answers when it comes to personal suffering.

Indeed, it exposes the arrogance of humankind that we demand answers from him.  Who are we to call God to account?  He is the creator and we are a part of his creation.  He is infinite in understanding and we are limited in knowledge.  He is perfectly good and even our best deeds are tainted with selfishness.

God did not tell Job about the conversation between himself and Satan.  But he did do something more important: he restored their relationship.  We need God more than we need answers.  Having listened to God’s words Job declared, ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you’ (42:5).  He now knows God better than he had before.  
Finally, I was struck by a question I read in a study-book: ‘What are some of the practical things we can do which might help prevent us from becoming embittered when we suffer?’

We need wisdom.  ‘The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding’ (28:28).  Wisdom more than answers!  Knowing the one who knows all things more than knowing all things!  God’s wisdom has been given full expression in Jesus, and in particular through his death on the cross.  It is through Jesus we are brought into a relationship with God and so can be wise.

We need to remember that our suffering is not purposeless.  As one preacher explained, ‘there are dimensions of godliness and faith which righteous people learn only through suffering.’

We need to keep the lines of communication open.  Job was right to be honest about how he felt.  But as we come to God with freedom and openness don’t forget the awe and respect he is due.

And we need remember that Jesus is the ultimate answer to suffering.  He is the perfect example of innocent suffering, he is the friend we need in times of trouble, and because of his pain his people will one day be brought to a place where they will suffer no more (Rev 21:4).

[1] Rupert Higgins, preaching at All Souls, Langham Place.