Strength in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is a passage where Paul has some profound things to say about the theme of strength in weakness. And I want us to begin by reading this passage.

. . . to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m becoming more aware of my weaknesses. But also, I think, a part of this is just becoming more mature. (At least I hope I’m getting more mature.) When you’re young you think you can be anything and do anything. When you grow older and wiser, you can better evaluate yourself. You become more aware of your limitations.

There are many preachers today who present a gospel of strength. God doesn’t want you to be weak. In fact, God will take away all your weaknesses, that is, if you have enough of or the right kind of “faith.”

But this doesn’t match the Scriptures, which teach us that God does allow us to be weak and God wants us to have his strength in the midst of our weaknesses.

First, let’s look at how –

God does often allow us to be weak

Weakness is a part of this fallen, broken world that we live in. And God hasn’t rescued us from it yet. That won’t happen until the resurrection when all things are made new. We long for this, but until then, we will continue to struggle with our weaknesses.

Here are three examples: 

God allowed Paul to be weak

  • Paul suffered much lowliness, going without, physical suffering, but also being shamed and publicly humiliated. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 he says, “We are weak . . . we [are held in] disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things.”
  • Paul’s “thorn” was not taken away. This comes from our passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 – “So to keep me from being too elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”  There’s lots of speculation about what this thorn is. It was probably a permanent physical disfigurement from persecution. Perhaps damage to his eyes (Galatians 4:15; 6:11)? But in any case, a physical disability. God’s answer to Paul’s request was “No.” In this instance God wanted Paul to be weak.
  • His personal presence wasn’t impressive. We like to glorify Paul, but he didn’t make that big of an impression on many in his day. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his personal presence is unimpressive.” Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:3 – “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.”
  • His public speaking wasn’t very good. His opponents said in 2 Corinthians 10:10 – “his speech is contemptible.” He could write well, but apparently not speak well, at least not by Greek standards. Paul agrees in 1 Corinthians 2:4, when he says that when he visited them, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom . . ..”

A second example, God allowed Timothy to be weak

  • He was apparently introverted. But God called him to a ministry that involved public speaking, and working with people. So Paul encourages him in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 not to give in to a spirit of fear, but to remember that God has given him a spirit of power, and love and self-control.
  • He had bodily weaknesses in terms of his health. In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul speaks of stomach problems and also “frequent illnesses.”

Finally, lest any should doubt God allowed Jesus to be weak

  • Jesus became human and took on the weakness of the flesh; the weakness of human existence. And we see Jesus struggling with this weakness in Gethsemane facing his death in Mark 14:38. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
  • Jesus became a servant to others. Philippians 2:7 says that he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This is a position of lowliness and weakness.
  • He was persecuted and shamefully killed. As 2 Corinthians 13:4 says, “Jesus was crucified in weakness.” Was there another way for Jesus? No. Weakness was God’s path for Jesus.

What we learn from these examples is that God allows us to be weak: to be persecuted, to have illnesses and bad health, to have physical disabilities, to have personality weaknesses, to be in lowly circumstances in life, to be poor, to be in difficult situations that we are not gifted to handle. God doesn’t rescue us from all weaknesses, but –

God wants us to rely on his strength in our weakness

Rather than always delivering us he calls us to depend on him. Let’s look at how this works:

1. Accept God’s grace to help you. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . ..” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

It’s hard to rely on someone else when we’re weak, but this is what God calls us to do. We want to be independent; self-sufficient. Sometimes we have pride thinking that we can do all that we need, that we don’t need anyone else. But in times of weakness we have to accept help and especially from God.

Our text shows us that God promises help to those who are weak when it says, “my grace is . . . for you.” And so we need to accept this help that God gives.

2. Know that God’s grace is sufficient for your need. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we emphasize the word sufficient. This is the promise of God to us  – God can take care of us no matter our weakness. Nothing is too difficult for God. If God’s grace was sufficient for Paul, God’s grace will be sufficient for you as well.

3. Know that when you are weak, you can be strong in the Lord. “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Here we focus especially on the last phrase. When we’re weak and we’re relying on God’s strength, then we are truly strong, for it’s God’s strength working through us, not the strength of our own flesh.

As Paul says in v. 10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When we accept our weakness, in that we know that God has chosen not to take it away, or at least not yet – then we can rely fully on the Lord; then we can be truly strong in the Lord.

4. Bring glory to God through your weakness. “My grace is sufficient for you” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.

If we ask, “sufficient for what?” The answer is, to bring glory to God. When we are weak and yet we remain faithful to him; when we are weak and yet God does great things through us – this brings much glory to his name, which is what we were created to do.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” We are indeed clay vessels, easily shattered and full of weaknesses. But within us is the Spirit, who works through us and does great things that are beyond our strength and so others know it’s not us – and give glory to God.

So this morning I am encouraging you to be strong in the Lord. In the words of Ephesians 6:10, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” In your times of weakness, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Whatever your circumstances might be, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.

Will you enter the kingdom of God?

A test from the words of Jesus

Today I’m asking the question, “Will you enter the kingdom of God?”

The phrase, “the kingdom of God” (or “heaven”) is another way of talking about God’s salvation. And it was the favorite way that Jesus spoke of this. It means the blessings of the age to come – eternal life, joy and peace. We can have a foretaste of these things now, but we await the fullness of these blessings when Jesus returns.

So you can see, this is a very important question. And you can answer this by testing yourselves against the words of Jesus. Here are ten specific examples where Jesus speaks of entering or being in the kingdom of God.

Do you have faith in Jesus?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 8:10-11. (NIV)

Jesus here commends a non-Jewish soldier for recognizing his authority as the one sent to establish God’s kingdom on earth. The man had asked Jesus to heal his servant. His sense of Jesus’ authority was so great that he didn’t even need Jesus to come to his house. He said, “Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed” – Matthew 8:8. Jesus was amazed.

Unlike so many in Israel, this man both recognized Jesus’ authority and boldly acted on it. That is, he had strong faith in Jesus. And Jesus is saying it’s those who have faith in him, whether Jewish or Gentile, who will take part in the great feast and celebration of God’ kingdom salvation at the end of the age, which is what’s pictured in these verses.

Do you recognize Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and will you boldly act on this? Like this man, do you have faith in Jesus?

Have you repented of your sins?

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” – Matthew 21:31 (NIV)

Jesus is referring to the tax collectors and prostitutes who had responded to John the Baptist’s message of repentance (Matthew 21:32/Luke 7:29-30). These are the same people who received Jesus’ message of repentance (Matthew 4:17) as opposed to the leaders of the nation of Israel, the “you” in this verse.

To repent means to have a change of mind and heart that leads you to begin to do God’s will (Matthew 21:28-31). You turn away from your old life to live a new one. These are the ones who enter the kingdom, even ahead of others who may seem like they should be first in line – religious people, or people without sordid backgrounds.

Have you repented? Have you had a change of heart and mind so that you now have submitted your life completely to God? Those who have repented can ask for and receive the free gift of the forgiveness of their sins through Jesus (Luke 24:47, Acts 2:38).

Are you born of the Spirit?

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” – John 3:5.

To be born of water refers to the process of natural birth. We all have this. To be born of the Spirit is to receive new life from the Spirit of God; it is to be born anew (John 3:3). And not all have this. Jesus is teaching us here that each of us must be born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God.

Have you received this gift of God; this gift of new life? This is what makes all the rest of what we’ll talk about today possible.

Are you doing God’s will according to the teaching of Jesus?

Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:20.

Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” – Matthew 7:21. (NRSV)

The first verse is near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a long series of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to do God’s will. And the second verse comes near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives a warning to heed all that Jesus has just taught. Both make the same point, to enter the kingdom you must practice the will of God that Jesus teaches. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. (See also Matthew 19:17; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:11).

Having been born of the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit, are you practicing God’s will just as Jesus taught it?

Are you generous with your wealth?

This is a specific example of doing God’s will, and one that Jesus talked about constantly.

Jesus said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Luke 18:24-25.

Jesus said this after a rich man chose not to follow him because he loved his money too much. The camel proverb is meant to make the point that it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom. The pull of wealth and what comes with it, security, power and comfort is just too great.

But then Jesus says in v. 27, “What is impossible for people is possible with God” (NLT) That is, God is able to change our hearts so that we give up our wealth and become generous toward God and others. In this way we can enter the kingdom.

Has God worked in your heart, so that you are now generous with whatever resources God has given to you? 

Are you separating from what causes you to sin?

Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell” – Mark 9:47.

Not only do you need to repent,  you also need to stay away from whatever might lead you to sin – stumbling blocks. Even if this means taking radical action – like tearing your eye out. Even if this means losing something precious to you – like your eye. Not literally, of course. That wouldn’t stop you from sinning. It means get rid of whatever leads you to sin – maybe it’s a friend who influences you in the wrong direction, a job, unfiltered access to the internet, alcohol or whatever.

Are you guarding your obedience to God? Are you willing to give up whatever stands in the way of your doing God’s will?

Are you humble like a little child?

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 18:3-4.

In Jesus’ day children were very low in social standing, like slaves. To become like a child is to be humble or lowly. This is in contrast to the disciples who were focused on who was the greatest among them (Matthew 18:1). Humility means being willing to submit to others, to forsake honor, to serve others and to suffer lack. (See also Matthew 19:14; 5:3).

Are you doing these things? Do you accept lowliness?

Do you experience rejection for your commitment to God?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 5:10.

Those who suffer rejection for the kingdom will enter the kingdom; indeed it is already theirs. Suffering includes anything from being ridiculed to being killed. (See also Acts 14:22; Romans 8:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-5).

Is your commitment to God more important than your reputation? Is it more important than your life?

Are you serving God?

Jesus said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” – Matthew 25:21. (NRSV)

This comes from the parable of the talents. This parable teaches that we are to be busy serving Jesus while he’s gone. We are to be busy with whatever responsibilities God has given us. This could include sharing your faith, serving in Jesus’ community, and serving the needs of others. It means using your gifts for God.

Those who serve Jesus will enter the kingdom, “the joy of (their) master,” with a reward based on their work. But those who do nothing to serve God will be cast out of the kingdom (Matthew 25:30).

Are you serving God doing the work of the kingdom?

Are you ‘forcibly seizing’ the kingdom?

Jesus said, “The good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is forcing their way into it” – Luke 16:16 (NRSV)

Those who want to enter the kingdom must be forceful in how they lay hold of it: They must seize it; they must grab hold of it; they must seek it first above all else (Matthew 6:33). This paints a picture of someone who refuses not to gain the kingdom, but does everything necessary to enter it. They pursue it at all costs (Matthew 11:12; 13:44-46).

Do you seek God’s kingdom above all else – money, relationships, family, status?

Finally, let me say, it’s not too late. That is, when you test yourself against the words of Jesus and you find yourself lacking. Rather, see this as an invitation even now:

  • to look to Jesus in faith
  • to submit yourself fully to God
  • to receive new life from the Spirit
  • by God’s grace to walk in this new life
  • and to hold nothing back as you do this

Where do Jesus’ words convict you? How do they show you what you need to do? Do these things and you will be ready for the kingdom of God and the blessings of the age to come, when Jesus returns.

God doesn’t sleep

Today I am sharing with you more of a devotional. Let’s begin by reading –

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

Sleep . . .

– is an odd thing really. Have you ever thought about it? I think about it from time to time. Why did God make us so that we need to sleep? I’m assuming that God could have made us differently, but he didn’t.

  • We spend 1/3 of our lives asleep
  • So a person of 70 years has slept: 204,400 hours, or 23 years of their life.
  • This is for Sonja and Jeff, parents of a newborn child lose six months of sleep in the first two years of their child’s life.
  • The record for not sleeping is 11 days. Another person did this more recently, but he died from it. 

One statistic I don’t have is this: The average number of church goers who sleep during the sermon??? But seriously, we need our sleep. Without it we get sick, mentally ill and, as we saw, we can even die.

But my point today is that God doesn’t sleepThis comes from our Scripture reading – “He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” – Psalm 121:3-4

Now false gods may sleep . . . in that they don’t answer or respond to people. Remember the story of Elijah? Where he challenged the priests of Baal and they all gathered together to see which god would answer by sending fire to consume the offerings? And when the priests of Baal called out nothing happened. And so Elijah taunted them saying of Baal, “Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” – 1 Kings 18:27.

The true God may seem to be asleep . . . in that God doesn’t appear to hear us. As the Psalmist prays, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!” – Psalm 44:23. And there are times when we struggle with God in prayer and with God’s will and timing. And we ask, “Is God really listening?!”

But, as our text tells us . . .

God doesn’t sleep!

God is always active and busy for our well being. God is awake and working, even while we sleep. So let’s look at what this means for us.

1. God watches over us as we sleep. When we sleep we are weak and vulnerable. So in Old Testament times you needed a watchman who stayed up during the night to look out for enemies and attack. Even if you lived in a walled city, there needed to be watchmen on the wall. The night is also a time of evil. We know that “darkness” is used as an image of evil in Scripture. And we know that we are more susceptible to fear of the demonic at night.

The point of Psalm 121 in saying that God will not slumber is that God is watching over us to protects us. God is our watchman. Six times Psalm 121 says, in one way or another, that God will “keep us.” This means that:

  • God will oversee us as we sleep and are vulnerable
  • God will protect us from any evil of the darkness

Because of this we do not need to fear, but can have peace as we sleep.

Psalm 91:5 says, “You will not fear the terror of the night . . ..” Why? Because God is our refuge and fortress; our shelter, the Psalm tells us. It’s like we are sleeping in God’s house.
Our own Psalm 121:6 says, “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” The moon here is seen as a sinister or even demonic power. But God is our protector.

So we can sleep peacefully knowing that God is protecting watching over us:

“I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” – Psalm 3:5. God kept the psalmist from danger.

“In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” – Psalm 4:8.

2. God can minister to us in the night. We may be trying to rest, we might be asleep or half asleep, but God can do work in our lives.

Psalm 16:7 says, “I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.” Job 35:10 says, God gives “songs in the night.” And there are many examples in the Scriptures of how God speaks to us in dreams:

  • Think of Jacob and his dream of a ladder (Genesis 28).
  • Think of Joseph, Jacob’s son, who dreamed of his exaltation.
  • Think of Daniel, whom God spoke to in a dream and visions of the night (chapter 7).
  • Think of Joseph, Mary’s husband whom God spoke to several times in dreams (Matthew 1-2).
  • And think of Paul who was given direction on where to minister in a dream (Acts 16).

As Job 33:15-16 says, “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds, then God opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings.” And, of course, it doesn’t have to be terrifying.

3. God provides for our needs as we sleep. Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” This last phrase can be translated differently, as “he provides for his beloved during sleep.” This fits the context best. The point of the verse is that we don’t need to wear ourselves out with our work. God is busy providing for our needs, even while we sleep.

And beyond our work, we can let go of our burdens and anxieties for tomorrow and next week and next month. We can let go and rest because God is busy working on all this even as we rest. God is taking care of us 24/7 with no sleep, no breaks and no vacations.

The point of all this is to say that God is always there for us! Isn’t our God great in power that he needs no rest, easily doing what would kill us? And isn’t our God merciful to us, working on our behalf even as we sleep? Let us be thankful to the Lord. We serve a good and powerful God!

John the Baptist’s death. Mark 6:14-29

The literary structure of Mark 6:14-29

We’re in Mark 6:14-29 today, if you would like to turn there. Last time we saw how Jesus sent out the twelve to do the work of the kingdom: to preach repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. We also saw how they came back to report to Jesus and he called them to rest from their kingdom work.

Well, in between the beginning and the end of this story; the working and the resting – Mark tells the story of John the Baptist’s death. And as I said last week, there’s a reason for this; there’s a link between these stories, which we’ll look at in a moment.

John raised from the dead?

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.

King Herod here refers to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, the one who tried to kill Jesus as a baby. When Herod the Great died his territory was divided into four parts and four of his sons took over one part each. Herod Antipas was given rule over Galilee and Perea.

So in our verse we learn that Herod Antipas heard of the mission of the disciples. They went out in Jesus’ name and have now made him even more well known. As we’ve seen, Jesus’ fame has been increasing and here even the political leaders of the day have heard about him.

Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”

This is the first indication in Mark that John has died. Last we heard back in 1:14 he had only been arrested.

Although not really plausible, since John and Jesus are about the same age and were together for a time, some think that Jesus is just John raised from the dead. And it’s because he’s raised that he now has these miraculous powers.

5But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”

Elijah, or someone like him, was prophesied to return in Malachi (3:1; 4:5-6). But as we will learn later, Jesus identifies John as this Elijah (9:11-13).

Others thought Jesus was a significant prophet, since they compare him to prophets from the Old Testament.

16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Herod declares his opinion that Jesus is John raised from the dead. He here also confesses to killing John, “John, whom I beheaded.” And perhaps there’s a connection between his guilt over killing John and the fear that John has now come back with even more power to haunt him.

Having told us that he died, Mark now gives us a flashback and tells us –

How John was killed

17For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Herod Antipas was not known as a devout man by any stretch of the imagination. In this case, John has be criticizing his marriage to his second wife Herodias. She was previously married to Herod’s half-brother Philip.

So Herod married his brother’s wife, while his brother was still living. This is strictly forbidden in Scripture. In fact, it’s considered incest (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Herod and Herodias have broken a basic boundary that God has laid down for sexual relationships.

And this plays into why John was arrested. Apparently Herod didn’t care too much about it but arrested John “for the sake of Herodias.” And this makes sense. After all, John was calling into question her marriage and thus her power. So she would have wanted him silenced.

But not only this –

19And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.

Her response is straightforward and brutal.

But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

So even though Herod is not a devout man, who here flouts biblical teaching on incest, he’s still fascinated by John and is afraid to do more than arrest him. Indeed he protects John from his own wife. He even went to listen to him from time to time.

21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.”

Herod throws a birthday party for himself and all the bigwigs of Galilee and Perea are there. And no doubt it was a lavish event.

Herodias’s daughter, most likely from her first marriage, dances. And she does such a good job that Herod promises to give her anything. He even swears an oath to give her “up to half my kingdom.” (The word here in v. 23, sometime translated “vowed,” does mean he made an oath and not a vow.)

The phrase “up to half my kingdom” was a proverbial saying that just means – whatever you want (1 Kings 13:8; Esther 5:3, 6; 7:2). He couldn’t give his kingdom away even if he wanted. He was a client ruler under Rome’s power.

24And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

This was the moment Herodias was waiting for and she does not hesitate she wants John’s head. And notice her daughter’s grisly addition “on a platter.”

26And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.

It’s not that Herod is suddenly concerned about righteousness and keeping oaths, it’s that all the important people in his realm heard him and so he feels he has to come through on his foolish and rash oath. Even though he personally didn’t want to kill John.

27And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.

Herodias got what she wanted all along. Herod kills John, a person he knows to be “a righteous and holy man” – v. 20. A man about whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” than John. And he was killed for the most petty of reasons, so that Herod could save face in front of his guests.

Notice the contrast in this story and Jesus calling the twelve to go out. The same word “sent” is used in both. Jesus sends out the twelve to preach and heal and cast out demons (v. 7). Herod sent to have John arrested (v. 17) and sent the executioner to kill him (v. 27). There is a contrast in kingship here between Jesus the true king and Herod the worldly king. Jesus bring peace and blessing. Herod kills the most righteous man up to that point in history. (Perhaps this is why Mark uses the language of “king” for Herod even though he was really only a tetrarch).

[There are some interesting parallels between this story and the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah. Except in this case “Jezebel” gets to kill God’s prophet]

29When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

The story begins with Herod hearing about Jesus’ disciples, and it ends with John’s disciples coming to honor their teacher by giving him a proper burial.

Let me end by highlighting three truths from this passage:

1. It’s not enough to hold Jesus in high regard. You can have a very high opinion of Jesus; that he’s a prophet – whether Elijah or John or another great prophet. And many people today do have a high regard for Jesus. If they don’t hold the church or Christians in high regard, and tragically too often with good reason, they do respect Jesus.

But Jesus is not just a prophet or a good man. He’s much more. Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And it’s a faith in this Jesus, not in Jesus as a prophet or good man, that saves.

Jesus himself tells us that there will be many on the final day who even call Jesus “Lord” to whom he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” Luke 13:27

2. God sets the boundaries for sex and marriage, not us.

The world says, as long as sex is adult and consensual – it’s fine; there’s no problem. But Herod and Herodias were both adults and their relationship was consensual and it was incest and it was wrong, as John the Baptist made clear. (See also 1 Corinthians 5:1-2)

Likewise a same sex sexual relationship can be adult and consensual. But it’s still wrong. And two people living together outside of marriage can have adult and consensual sex. But it’s still wrong. For Christians, God sets the boundaries, and those boundaries are found in Scripture.

Just like Herod and Herodias in their day, the world today can seek to silence us. But you know what? Even if it does, sexual sin is still sexual sin. And that’s because God sets the boundaries for sex and marriage, not us.

But certainly the main point of this story is that 3. Working for God’s kingdom will cost you. I believe this is why the story of Jesus sending out the disciples to do kingdom work and this story are intertwined in the way they are.

John’s death for his work of the kingdom forebodes the persecution and death that awaits Jesus and the apostles and even the opposition that awaits us – as we work for the kingdom. Are you ready for this?

Kingdom work & rest. Mark 6:7-13; 30-32

Handout for Mark 6:7-13; 30-32

We’re back in the Gospel of Mark today. And we’re looking at it verse by verse and letting the Scripture text take us wherever it wants and we are seeking to learn whatever it teaches us. We’re in chapter 6 where Jesus sends the disciples out to do ministry. And today I want to share five lessons from this passage.

First, let me say that we find in chapter 6 yet another instance in Mark where two stories are intertwined (see handout). The first story begins with Jesus sending the apostles to go out to do the work of the kingdom. Then there’s a story about the death of John the Baptist. And then the first story ends, the apostles return to Jesus and rest. And there’s a link between these two stories – the story of John forebodes the persecution and death that will come to Jesus and the apostles as they go out to do kingdom work in the future.

Let’s look at the first story –

Jesus sends out the twelve

 7And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

This is a new stage for the disciples. He has called them to be with him and to learn from him (3:13-15). He has been apprenticing them. But now he sends them out to minister without him. Although not present, Jesus does give them his authority to minister, typified here by the ability to cast out demons.

He sends them out two by two as his authorized representatives. They speak and act for him or in his name. As we’ll see, how people respond to them, is how they respond to Jesus. [Two by two relates to the need to have 2 witnesses to testify to the truth of a thing – Deuteronomy 19:15. This pattern was continued in the early church – Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, then Timothy, etc..]

This brings us to our first lesson, we are to represent Jesus to the world as we minister in his name. Now, we don’t have the authority of the twelve, but we are to speak and act in ways that epitomize what Jesus would say and do. Whether we stay where we are or Jesus sends us somewhere else. And so I ask, “How are you doing with this?” “Are you representing?”

Next he gives some specific instructions. He actually gives them 12 instructions when you put together all that’s found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, as you can see on your handout. But we’ll focus on what our passage says –

8He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in their belts – 9but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.

Here Jesus focuses on what they can’t take with them as they travel from village to village in Galilee. No bread means they can’t take food with them. No bag means they can’t carry any supplies. No money means they can’t buy anything. And the word for money means even a small amount. And no extra tunic means they won’t have a blanket for bedding at night. So they will be depending on God to supply their daily needs.

[If we ask, “Why does Mark’s version of these instructions allow for a staff and sandals and Matthew and Luke’s do not?” – it may be that Mark is picturing the disciples as the Israelites preparing to leave Egypt for the promised land. On the eve of leaving, Exodus 12:11 says they are to eat the Passover in haste, “with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.” In the same way Jesus allows the disciples here a tunic, a belt, sandals and a staff (James Edwards, and more generally Joel Marcus and others). The disciples are to have the same kind of urgency that Israel had when it was formed and headed to the promised land, as they reform Israel in preparation for the coming of the kingdom.]

Note here that this mission is different than the normal arrangements, as Jesus and the 12 traveled around and ministered. For instance, usually they carried bread and a money bag with them (Mark 8:4-5, 14; John 4:8; 12:6; 13:29. See also Luke 22:35 ff.)

And then we have more instructions –

10And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

So they’re to show up in a village without any food or provision for sleeping, and as we’ll see, preaching repentance because the kingdom is here, healing people and casting out demons. And then people are forced to respond to them.

If someone takes them in and supplies their needs, this shows that they accept the disciples and their message (to receive = to listen; to not receive = not to listen, v. 11. In ancient culture to eat with someone meant that you shared affinity with that person.) And as Jesus said in Matthew 10:40, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me,” that is, the Father.

The household that takes them in then becomes the beginning of a house church in that village. They are to stay in that home so as not to be seen as looking for a better situation, but make it their base of operations.

As we noted, this kind of mission is different than Jesus and the 12’s normal mode of travel. This kind of mission is focused on what we would call starting new churches. (If Jesus and the 12’s normal travel and ministry is more of an example of what church life is like, these instructions are meant to show us how to plant churches. And these instructions were followed by Paul in the book in the book of Acts with a few modifications for his Gentile context.)

If no one takes them in, that is, no one accepts the gospel, they are to warn them of judgment. This is what shaking off the dust of your feet means (Luke 10:11-12; Acts 18:6). The kingdom is coming and those who reject Jesus, reject God’s salvation and will eventually be judged if they don’t repent.

Our second lesson is that Jesus still sends out people with apostolic gifts to start churches – weather here or somewhere else.

Is there anyone here today that God might be speaking to? Perhaps you’re a young person or someone who has retired and needs a new life focus? Is God wanting to send you out to do this?

The third lesson is a reminder of the seriousness of the good news. This comes from the disciples’ warning of judgment to those who reject the gospel. It’s not like the world sees it, a mere matter of personal taste whether you decide to become a follower of Jesus – you know, some will, some won’t, others will pick another religion. It has to do with matters of life and death; salvation or judgment.

12So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

This is sometimes called the three-fold ministry – preaching, healing and casting out demons.

They are preaching exactly what Jesus preached as it says in Mark 1:15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” This is the message.

And the message is accompanied by signs; by works of the power of the Spirit; healing and casting out demons, to attest to the message. And v. 13 tell us that, “many” demons were cast out and “many” were healed.

This brings us to our fourth lesson, Jesus empowers us for ministry. He gave them authority and here we see them exercise it. And as well, Jesus empowers us as a church with gifts of the Spirit to serve him. We don’t go out in our own strength. That would be a disaster. We go out in the power he gives us.

After the story of John’s execution we have the end of our story in vs. 30-32 –

The twelve return and rest

30The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.

They’re reporting back stories of teaching they gave, healings, casting out demons and of house churches begun. They must have been excited to have God work through them in all these ways. This is a real high point for the 12 in their time with Jesus. Even Herod heard about what the disciples were doing (6:14)

31And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

 It was as busy for all of them, as it was with Jesus before in chapter 3:20 when he didn’t have time to eat.

Now, Jesus has gotten away to rest at various times when he was overwhelmed with the work of the kingdom (1:35, 45; 4:1) and now he teaches the twelve to do the same. He teaches them both how to do the work of the kingdom and how to rest from that work.

This leads us to our last lesson there’s a time to work and a time to rest in relation to the kingdom. And we need a proper balance, just as we learn from the Old Testament teaching about working six days and then having a day of Sabbath.

Work is good, but rest is good too. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary. I take Mondays off each week, as you know. But you also should attend to your needs for rest with your ministry responsibilities. Burn out is especially a danger in small churches where there’s lots of work and few people to do it. So I encourage you to take care of yourselves as Jesus and the twelve model for us here.

The path to resurrection

As we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection today, we rightly think of the glory of our risen Lord.

We think, for instance, of how he was transfigured into a glorious new existence. Revelation 1:13-16 describes him in this way, “one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. . . and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

We also rightly think of his glory as he is seated at the right hand of God being honored and glorified above all.

But we need to remember what came before all this. First he walked a lowly path, without glory at all. And there’s a connection between this lowly path and the glory of the resurrection. And the connection is this, the one has to come before the other – lowliness before glory.

And this is something that we need to take note of all of us who have set our hope on being raised up on the last day. And in fact, Jesus calls us to this very thing – to take note of his teaching and example and to follow him on the lowly path that leads to resurrection. Let’s look at this.

First, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of humility

Jesus taught us to be humble. He said, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” – Luke 14:11. In context here, he’s talking about taking the lowest place at a banquet, that is, not seeking out honor or social status. This saying is also used in other places (Luke 18:14, James 4:10) to talk about recognizing our failures and sins and repenting of them. This is a part of what humility means.

So Jesus is saying that it is the humble who will be exalted by God to a place of honor. And this certainly includes on the day of resurrection.

Jesus also modeled humility. He gave up seeking out social status and honor and put himself on the bottom.

  • He became human. Although, John tells us, in the beginning he “was with God, and (he) was God . . . he became flesh and dwelt among us” – John 1:1, 14. As Paul said, “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing” – Philippians 2:6-7.
  • He was homeless. As he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” – Matthew 8:20.
  • He was dependent on others for food and shelter.Luke 8:2-3 speaks of several women disciples “who provided for (Jesus and the 12) out of their means.”

Jesus took up a very low social place.

And just as he taught he was raised to a place of honor at the right hand of God. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes humility, and then comes exaltation – being raised up by God to a place of honor on the final day. And without humility we will not be exalted. For Jesus also said in Luke 14:11, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,” that is by God. If we are busy lifting ourselves up we will not be lifted up by God on the final day. It’s only those who humble themselves who will be exalted in the resurrection.

Also before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

 The way of serving others

Jesus taught us to minister to the needs of others. He said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” – Mark 9:35. He’s talking about lowering ourselves to the lowest place in order to serve the needs of others.

So Jesus is saying that those who make themselves last, are the ones whom God will make first on the final day.

Jesus also modeled being a servant to others. He placed himself below others in order to minister to their needs. As he said, “The Son of man came not to be served but to serve.” – Mark 10:45. He served those who were lowly in that day – women, children, outcasts and the poor. He sought to bless them and lift them up. He served as:

  • He taught people God’s way – He said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God” – Luke 4:43.
  • He healed people – Scripture says he healed “every disease and every affliction among the people” – Matthew 4:23.
  • He set people free from demons – As the crowd said, “he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” – Mark 1:27.

He became last of all and servant of all.

And just as he taught he was raised to the first place in all of creation, above all powers and authorities. He is indeed the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15). So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes lowly servanthood, being last and then comes being first. And without being last, we will not be made first by God. For Jesus also said, “the first will be last” – Luke 13:30. If we busy putting ourselves first in this life we will find ourselves in the last place on the final day. It’s only those who serve others who will be given the highest status in the resurrection.

Another example, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of rejection

Jesus taught us that we will suffer for our faith in him. He said, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” – Luke 6:22-23. We are to accept whatever rejection comes our way because of our faith in Jesus.

So Jesus is saying that those who accept persecution will be “blessed.” Their “reward is great in heaven,” waiting for them on that final day.

Jesus also modeled for us righteous suffering.

  • He was slandered – being called a false prophet and a blasphemer – Mark 14:64.
  • He suffered injustice from the Jewish and Gentile authorities – Mark 15:15.
  • He was shamed – being spit on, mocked, ridiculed and taunted – Mark 14:65; 15:16-20.
  • He was beaten and scourged – Mark 15:15.

Jesus was severely persecuted.

And just as he taught he was blessed for his acceptance of rejection. He received his reward when God raised him from the dead. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes rejection for our faith, and then comes the blessing of God, an eternal reward from God on the final day. And without accepting persecution we will not be blessed. For Jesus also said, “Woe to you” speaking of those who compromise, so that they don’t have to suffer for their faith. He teaches us that the only reward and blessing such will have is what they get in this life. There will be nothing for them in the next life – Luke 6:24-26. It’s only those who accept rejection for their faith who will be blessed in the resurrection.

Finally, before the glory of the resurrection, comes –

The way of death

Jesus taught us to lose our lives. He said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” – Mark 8:35. In context, to lose your life is to deny yourself, to take up your cross; to give up your life for Jesus. And we are to do this in smaller ways even daily – Luke 9:23. The phrase, “to save your life” comes to us in different versions: It means that you will “find it” – Matthew 16:25; you will “keep it” – Luke 17:33 on the final day. It means that you “will keep it for eternal life” – John 12:25. This is talking about resurrection.

Jesus also modeled for us losing his life.

  • He gave up his life every day. He denied himself to serve others, as we have seen.
  • He was crucified and killed –  Mark 15:34, 37.

And just as he taught, since Jesus lost his life, he saved his life. He found his life in the resurrection. So we learn from Jesus’ teaching and example that first comes losing one’s life, and then comes saving one’s life. And without losing our lives, we will not save our lives. For Jesus also said, “Whoever seeks to preserve his (earthly) life will lose it” – Luke 17:33. It’s only those who take up their cross and lose their lives in service to God, who will find their lives in the resurrection.

So for us who have set our hope, not on this life, but on the life to come, and the resurrection of the dead –

Jesus shows us the way

He is, after all, the Risen One. And he shows us the path that all must take. First comes lowliness, servanthood, rejection and death. And then and only then comes resurrection – new life, blessing, being first and exaltation.

May God strengthen us to take the lowly way, so that we may each find the glory that God desires for us.

Christian love

Our topic today is Christian love – how we are to love our neighbors, our fellow church members, our spouses, our kids, our parents, our co-workers – and whatever other relationships you want to add in here, including any enemies you have. I want to talk about what Christian love is, what it looks like, some of the core components of it and how it’s different than what the world calls love.

Let me set the stage for all this by making the point up front – 

Love is the most important thing of all

Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 13. Here he says that:

  • You can exercise spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues, but if you don’t have love for others, you’re just a “clanging cymbal” – v. 1.
  • You can be prophetic and have all knowledge, but if you don’t have love for others, Paul says, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can work amazing miracles, but if you don’t have love for others, you are “nothing” – v. 2.
  • You can even sacrifice greatly giving away wealth or dying for a cause, but if you don’t have love for others in this, you “gain nothing” – v. 3.

We can add any number of other examples: what you accomplish with your career, your life achievements, your reputation, your wealth, your relationships with your family and friends, your volunteer work, the roles you have filled in church. The point is the same: without love, you are nothing.

Paul is saying in this passage that these other things are partial and will pass away in the age to come. But “love never ends” – v. 8. It goes on into eternity.

So, for instance, if I come to God on the final day saying, “look at all the knowledge I have!” God could say to me, “the least in the eternal kingdom knows a thousand times more than you.” It’s like I’m boastfully bringing a brick of gold to a kingdom that has so much gold that it uses it to pave its streets.  

Love is what’s all important in God’s kingdom. Love for God for sure, and our topic here – love for others. So here’s some questions to consider: Have you loved others in this life? Have you made loving others the focus of your life? Have you shaped everything you do in life toward the end of loving others?

Now, since love is the most important thing of all, it’s extremely important to ask and then answer the question –

What is Christian love?

1. Love is about actions. Love begins within; in our hearts. But it must come to fruition in deeds of love. 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Good thoughts or even good words aren’t enough. When there’s a need and you can help, to love “in truth,” as John says, is to act.

The example from this context is helping someone who lacks basic material needs. 1 John 3:16 says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his sister or brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” It’s not enough to say good things, “Oh, you don’t have food and clothing?” “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16). Love requires action.

Now if we ask, what kind of actions, the answer is – 2. Love acts for the well-being of others. We are to “do good” to all, even if they harm us, as Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27 and Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 5:15. Let’s look at some specifics:

  • God loves us in that he feeds us, giving rain and sunshine to all so that our crops grow – Matthew 5:45
  • God loves us in that he gave his only Son to die for our salvation – John 3:16; Romans 5:8
  • Jesus teaches us to pray for, bless others, even if they mistreat us – Luke 6:28
  • Jesus healed the ear of the one who arrested him – Luke 22:50; and he prayed for those who crucified him – Luke 23:34

These are all good actions, aimed at doing what is best for another.

Now, if love truly means doing what is best for another then we can’t just go around being nice. We can’t reduce love to niceness. Being nice and keeping up good social etiquette is often more about staying out of people’s problems and needs. For example quickly giving money to a homeless person, hoping they go away. Or not saying anything to a fellow believer who is involved in sin, lest you make waves.

We keep up social etiquette so that we can feel good about ourselves, but we get ourselves off the hook of actually having to love them. Love, however, means doing what is best for the person. And so sometimes love has to be tough and deal with issues, precisely because this is what is in the best interests of the person.

Also, if love means doing what’s best for another, if they harm us,  we can’t just harm them back. Even if you have the legal right to have the person punished, love calls us to a higher standard. Yes, make sure that you and others are safe, but also consider what’s best for your enemy. 

Love acts for the well-being of others.

3. Love is an enduring commitment to act for the well-being of others. This is where our culture is so wrong. Love is not based on feelings. It may involve certain feelings, but these can waver or even go away for a time.

This might be one reason there is so much divorce today, and you see this especially in celebrity culture, the feeling leaves and so the relationship ends. But Christian love is based on a deep commitment to the other person and their good. It’s a choice that we make. That’s why God can command us to love others. You can’t command a feeling, but you can a choice.

This kind of love is a defining characteristic of God. As God says about himself in Exodus 34:6, the LORD is a God “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . . keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation.” The word here “steadfast love” has to do with unchanging love. It’s God’s sustained covenant loyalty to his people. It’s based on his commitment to our well-being.

Think of God’s love for his people throughout the centuries, calling us, teaching us, walking with us, bearing with us – his love isn’t based on warm feelings. It’s based on this firm commitment to us and for what is best for us. And so as well, Christian love is based on an enduring commitment to act for the good of another.

4. Love involves sacrifice, laying down our lives for others. As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 1 John 3:16 speaks of Jesus’ love in this way, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for” others.

Often the world portrays love as focused on finding personal fulfillment, you know, for yourself. It’s about what you get out of the relationship. But Christian love is about what you give to the one you love, or what you give up for them – serving and sacrificing.

In the world if you’re not feeling fulfilled in the relationship you leave. But Christian love teaches us that true fulfillment only comes when we move past self-centered love and learn to serve and sacrifice for the one we love.

5. Christian loves includes all people. It is always easier to limit our love to a certain subset of people, but Jesus teaches us that all are included.

  • It’s easy to love those who like us, but we are to love those who don’t love us; those who harm us. Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” – Matthew 5:46.
  • It’s easy to love those who are similar to us, but we are to love those who are different than us – different race, nationality, economic or social status. Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” – Matthew 5:47.

Jesus teaches that our love is to be perfect or “complete,” like the Father’s love is perfect or complete. The word here in Matthew 5:48 can be translated either way. This is a love which is complete because it includes both the “evil and the good” and the “just and the unjust” – Matthew 5:45.

Let me end by saying –

This kind of love only comes from God

It doesn’t come from our flesh, our self-centered existence apart from God. In the flesh we want what’s best and easiest for us. Christian love!? What!?

  • Good words and thoughts aren’t enough, I have to something?
  • I can’t just be nice or payback wrong, I have to act for their well-being?
  • It’s not based on feelings? I have to hang in through thick and thin? When I don’t feel like it?
  • It’s not about me? I have to focus on giving, even sacrificing?
  • I can’t limit it to people who like me, or who are like me?

The flesh doesn’t want anything to do with Christian love.

No, this kind of love only comes from God, who is love. As 1 John 4:7 says, “God is love.” And only God can produce this kind of love in our hearts. Christian love is “the fruit of the Spirit” who is at work within us (Galatians 5:22) empowering us and enabling us to love in all these ways.

Behold the kindness & the severity of God!

In Romans 11:22 Paul says, “note then the kindness and the severity of God . . ..” He goes on to speak of God’s severity toward those that walk in unbelief and sin, but kindness to those who choose God’s way.

I want to focus on two things: I want to show you the danger of walking in sin. It’s dangerous because of the severity of God’s judgment on us when we do, not just on the final day – but even now. I want to show you why you should fear sin, even dabbling with it. But I also want to show you the depth of God’s kindness and mercy to those who turn from their sin to walk in God’s way. I want to encourage you to turn from any sin in your life and come to God so that you will know this kindness.

First –

God’s severity

There are seven stages in a downward spiral of judgment and destruction on us when we continue in sin.

1. Our sin separates us from God. As Jesus says in Mark 7:23, our sin comes from our heart’s wrong desires and when we act on them, we are defiled. We become filthy and unfit to be in God’s presence.

  • As Ephesians 4:18 says, we are “alienated” from God
  • Isaiah 59:2 says, “your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear you.”

Our relationship with God is broken.

2. God gives us over to the power of sin. We see this in Romans 1. It says several times that God “gave them up” to their sin. This is our judgment. God says, “You want sin? You can have it! And that’s your judgment.”

Just like the Israelites of old, when they desired to be like the nations around them and worship their gods. God gave them over to those nations and their gods and they suffered greatly under them.

So it is with us. Jesus said in John 8:34, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” In Romans 6 Paul portrays sin as a “power,” a god or a master that enslaves us so that we do its will.

When we sin, we think, “I can do my own thing! I’m free! All those ‘rules’ God wants to put on me . . . not anymore!” But in fact, sin masters us, just like a drug addiction. It rules us and it ruins our lives under its tyranny. Romans 7:15 portrays this well. Here, even though the person wants to stop sinning, they can’t. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Sin becomes our master.

3. The spirit of Satan comes into our lives. When we remain in sin, we grieve the Spirit of God. We quench the Spirit. We drive the Spirit of God out of our lives. But not only that, we open our lives to Satan to work in and through us. We are in effect saying, “Satan, I agree with you and your way; the way of rebellion.”

Judas is our example here. Just before he betrayed Jesus it says, “Satan entered into him” – John 13:27. Ephesians 2:2 says that Satan is “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” This refers to anyone who walks in sin. As 2 Timothy 2:26 says, we are held captive by the devil “to do his will.”

4. We suffer brokenness and pain. The power of sin and Satan gradually destroys us in one way or another. Sin is like a vicious, malignant cancer in our inner person that brings destruction and death to every part of us.

We lose our wholeness:

  • Our soul is wounded and disfigured.
  • Our physical and mental health suffers.
  • Our relationships with others become broken.

This is the irony of sin: we choose it because we think it will make us happy. We think that God’s way is too hard. Sin is easier; our way is better. But in reality it makes us miserable and destroys us.

Now we come to the lower end of this downward spiral of judgment and destruction. When we cling to our sin in rebellion against God . . .

5. Our minds are darkened. We come to think that our sin is a good thing; even though it’s destroying us. We become deluded in our thinking and blind to the truth. This is a fearful judgment from God!

Several texts describe this reality: Ephesians 4:17-18 says, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God.” Romans 1:21 says, “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”

God makes fools out of us! We who think we are so wise that we can choose our own way! We come to think that good is evil and evil is good and laugh at anyone who disagrees with us. We think the very thing that is destroying us is what we need.

6. God hardens our hearts. God gives us an obstinate heart that desires more and more sin. Ephesians 4:19 speaks of those with a hardened heart. It says, “they have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

We become stubborn in our sin. No one can tell us that what we choose is wrong. When we walk in the flesh we become hostile to God’s way – Romans 8:7. We can’t stand to listen to God’s word to us.

This is also a fearful judgment from God because it keeps us in our sin so that, if there is no intervention, we will be destroyed.

7. Finally, we receive eternal death. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” James 1:15 says, “when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.”

Don’t even begin to think that this doesn’t apply to you because of this or that. It does. There are no exceptions to these Scriptures. If you continue in your sin you will die.

On that final day, we will hear from Jesus, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41)

Behold the severity of God! Realize the danger of sin. Fear it! Don’t even dabble with it.

But also recognize –

God’s Kindness

 – so that you might turn to him and be saved.

When we continue in our sin we are separated from God. But the kindness of God is this: 1. God provides his Son to reconcile us to himself. We can be cleansed and forgiven so that we can be in relationship to God. Romans 5:10 says, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”

When we continue in sin we are given over to the power of sin. But the kindness of God is this: 2. God delivers us from the power of sin. As Jesus said in John 8:35, “If the Son sets you free you are free indeed.” And there is no power of sin that is more powerful than the Lord Jesus. He can set us free!

When we continue in sin the spirit of Satan comes into our lives. But the kindness of God is this: 3. God fills us with his own Spirit. Luke 11:13 says, “The heavenly Father (will) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” This is what God does for his children.

When we continue in sin we suffer brokenness and misery. But the kindness of God is this: 4. God brings us wholeness and peace. Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is (about) peace” that is, shalom or wholeness. Not everything is fixed. There are remaining scars from our sin. But God is merciful and helps us with our weaknesses and one day we will be fully made whole in the resurrection.

When we continue in sin our minds are darkened. But the kindness of God is this: 5. God enlightens our minds to know his way. We receive what 1 Timothy 2:4 calls, “the knowledge of the truth.”

When we continue in sin our hearts are hardened. But the kindness of God is this: 6. God strengthens us to do what is right. Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

When we continue in sin we receive eternal death. But the kindness of God is this: 7. God gives us eternal life. Although the wages of sin is death, Romans 6:23 says, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We will hear these words from Jesus on that final day, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34)

Let me end with these words from Ezekiel 18:30-32, that speak of both the kindness and the severity of God and is an invitation for each of us to deal with any sin in our lives:

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”

 

Formed by God. Psalm 139:13-16

Today is our fourth and final installment in our series on Psalm 139. There’s more that we could look at, but we end today with the topic of how we are formed by God from vs. 13-16.

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.”

 Let me begin with some –

Notes on these verses  

– that help us to understand them. 1. Notice the shape of this passage. This has to do with the parallels that form the structure of these verses.

a. formed– For you formed my inward parts;

b. needle work/womb – you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

c. wonderful – I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

c.1 wonderful Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

b.1 needle work/womb – My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

a.1 formed– Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.

Notice, it begins and ends with a word for “formed.” And in b and b1 we have both a form of needle work and a reference to the womb (as we will see). And also in the middle we have two statements about “wonder”

2. Two things are formed in these verses, although they are connected (a and a1). The main focus, and our focus, is the formation of the unborn child in the womb. The second is the formation of the days for this child before they existed in v. 16. I will just say a word about this in a minute.

3. There are several words used for an unborn child in these verse, or for different aspects of an unborn child.

  • “inward parts” – v. 13 literally means “kidneys,” or as it is usually translated in English – “heart.” But here this is taken as a part, standing for the whole, that is, the heart standing for all the inward parts.
  • “frame” – v. 15 means bones or bodily frame.
  • “unformed substance” – v. 16. This word is only used here in all the Old Testament. It can also be translated as fetus or embryo. The NIV says, “unformed body.”

So all of these are ways David is speaking of the developing child and it shows what the emphasis of the passage is about.

4. Notice a strange phrase in v. 15. What does it mean when David says, he was made “in the depths of the earth”? Well this is poetic. It stands in parallel with “womb.” And in one ancient version of the Bible it is rendered as “womb” (Aramaic Targums).

“The depths of the earth” is a phrase that often means “Sheol” – the realm of the dead. So perhaps there is a poetic linkage here between the womb and Sheol, both of which are places of darkness? Or, perhaps Sheol is seen as similar to a womb in that this is where people are while they await for the resurrection. And the emergence from Sheol on the day of resurrection is like emerging from the womb at birth. Not sure . . . (note)

5. Let’s remember the point of these verses in context. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. And in vs. 1-18 he’s saying, God knows everything about me. Nothing is hidden from God. In our verses he’s saying, God has seen me from the time that he formed me, to the end of my days, which he formed for me.

  • “my frame was not hidden from you” – v. 15
  • “your eyes saw my unformed substance” – v. 16

The point is that God knows all about David’s commitment to him. At no point has he been able to hide from God. God knows that David has been loyal.

But this passage also presents a point of view about God and about unborn children that we must not miss. First of all, this passage shows us that –

It is God who forms the unborn child

v. 13 makes this clearyou formed my inward parts, you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”

Now this isn’t just true for David. We find similar language in Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you . . ..” So God formed Jeremiah in the womb. And Job says the same thing about himself in 10:11. God forms all of us in the womb.

The imagery that is used here is that of needle-work.

  • v. 13 – “you knitted me together”
  •  v. 16 – I was “intricately wovenor embroidered

This metaphor is also found in Job 10:11, where Job says to God, “You . . . knit me together with bones and sinews,” perhaps in reference to how the muscles and tendons look woven over the skeleton.

Now, this is poetic language for sure. God doesn’t literally do needle work in the womb. And, of course, we know that there is a biological process that takes place, with DNA and cell growth and so forth. But our Scripture teaches us that God is involved in this. Not just setting up the laws of nature and letting nature take its course. God is actually, somehow, mysteriously involved in the making of each unborn child. We ought not get caught in the trap of having to choose between a biological explanation or a divine explanation. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

God forms us. And what an amazing thing that is! This is something that my half of the population can’t experience,  to have God working in you to form a child. What a blessing and special privilege to experience this!

Well, not only does God form us –

Already as an unborn child, we are a wonderful work of God

The last part of v. 14 makes this point, “wonderful are your works.” The first part of v. 14 says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” In both of these David is speaking as an adult, but he’s referring to when he was made in the womb.

And we also have to understand that this is not just any work of God that we are talking about – a tree or a cat, which can be wonderful in their own way. There is a biblical background here that informs these verses. This is humanity, the highest of all of God’s creation. And what is being formed in the womb is in the image of God. This is what gives the language of fearfully and wonderfully made its full force.

Here’s another point that is subtle, but I want you to notice.

There is a continuity of identity in a person between unborn child and adult

v. 13 – “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” The same “me” covers both David as unborn child and David as adult, who is now speaking. v. 14 – “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The same pronoun “I” covers both unborn child and adult.

There is a continuity of identity in David’s language here between himself as an adult and himself as an unborn child. This would not be true if the child only has identity at birth, if he only became David at birth.

And in Jeremiah 1:5 we learn that this continuity is not just from David’s perspective. It is also from God’s. God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Who we are, our identity, is known to God (here it says) even before he forms us in the womb!

And then finally from this passage we learn that –

God has a plan for the unborn child’s days

This comes out clearly in v. 16 – already in the womb God knows ‘the days formed for us’, when as yet there were none of them.

Now, sin can disrupt this, but the point is that God has a plan for the unborn child. God’s will for their days is already set out. (Also Jeremiah 1:5). Already in the womb, God has a purpose and a plan for us.

Now let me share two reflections as we end –

Fearfully and wonderfully made” is not the same as perfection

  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but we all have weaknesses and defects
  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some have life-altering or life-threatening disabilities
  • Yes, God forms each unborn child, but some pregnancies will end tragically with miscarriage. 16% of known pregnancies end this way.

All of these are fearfully and wonderfully made and all are not perfect.

God forms each of us, but he does so in the context of the sin and brokenness of this world and this age. To see perfect humanity we have to look to the original creation. And to experience it we have to wait for the resurrection. For only in the resurrection will we be both fearfully and wonderfully made and perfect. This is when God “will wipe away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things (will) have passed away.” – Revelation 21:4.

A second reflection –

We need to welcome unborn children

22% of pregnancies end in elective abortion – anywhere from 1.2 to 1.5 million a year in the US. I say we here because this is a Christian problem. According to the statistics, of all US abortions (2008) 37% were undertaken by those who identified as Protestant, and 28% were undertaken by those who identified as Catholic. So over half are performed on those who view themselves as Christian.

This leads me to say that we need to teach more clearly why unborn children should be celebrated, not aborted. There are a number of reasons for this. For instance, children are a gift of God (Psalm 127:3); we are to be like Jesus in welcoming and blessing little children (Mark 10), and we are to love and care for the weak and helpless.

But certainly what we find in our verses are core reasons:

  • It’s God who forms an unborn child and so abortion is a destroying of this work of God.
  • God’s works are “wonderful” and the unborn child is fearfully and wonderfully made. An unborn child is certainly not just a piece of tissue that can be disposed of. What’s being made by God is in the very image of God.
  • An unborn child already has an identity known by God and in continuity with who they will become as an adult. Abortion destroys one that is known by God.
  • An unborn child has already been given a plan for their life from God. But abortion takes this away.

We need to learn this, so that when there is an unintended, or crisis pregnancy, we can move beyond the inevitable difficulties (and we ought not minimize these) and welcome the child nevertheless. And we need to learn and practice this if we are to be a witness to the rest of the world regarding the blessing of bringing unborn children to birth.

Also we need to provide support for those who have unintended or crisis pregnancies, both in our own Christian communities and for those in the world.

Almost 50% of those who choose abortion do so because they feel unready for a child or feel that can’t afford to raise a child. When we provide support this can give great encouragement in these difficult situations to welcome the unborn child. One way to do this is to help out with a crisis pregnancy center. And as well you can be open to adoption.

Know for sure that God smiles on all who do these kinds of things. You are embodying the very heart of God.

I dare you to pray this! Psalm 139:23-24

We are back in Psalm 139 today. I want us to cover the last two verses, vs. 23-24. We looked at the prayer request in v. 19 last week and drew some conclusions about it. Well, here we have a very different kind of prayer request – one that, I think, requires courage to pray.

But before we get to this, I want to think more generally for a moment on David’s relationship with God. The depth of his relationship with God is evident in this Psalm. He certainly was a person after God’s own heart, as Scripture says (2 Samuel 13:14).

The Psalm itself is one long prayer; one long and detailed conversation with God. You can see how he is aware that God is an intimate part of every aspect of his life, and he invites this.

This depth of relationship with God comes out in many of the Psalms. Here are some examples of this in prayers to God:

  • “Be not far from me (God), for trouble is near, and there is none to help.” – Psalm 22:11.
  • “(God) You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” – Psalm 56:8 (NLT).
  • “(God) You have turned for me my mourning into dancing . . . and clothed me with gladness” – Psalm 30:11
  • “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for (God) you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
  • “When the cares of my heart are many, (God) your consolations cheer my soul.” – Psalm 94:19

You can see in these, and so many more, that when there’s a problem the psalmist asks for help, complains while trying to understand what’s going on, seeks closeness and finds strength in God. And when there is joy, the psalmist shares it with God through praise. This is really a picture of God as companion, or God as best friend. There is a relationship of intimacy and caring between God and the writers of the Psalms.

This, then, leads me to ask, ‘What about us?’ Or more specifically, ‘How good is your relationship with God?’ Are you aware of God being involved in every part of your life? Do you have a sense of closeness with God? Is God an intimate companion?

Certainly the prayer we are looking at today is a part of this, so let’s move on to –

The prayer of Psalm 139:23-24

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Remember with me, the flow of the Psalm as a whole. David has been accused of not being loyal to God. This is the background. And so he responds.

  • In vs. 1-18 he appeals to God, ‘God, you know everything about me; you know my commitment to you.’
  • Then in vs. 19-22 he makes his loyalty to God clear. ‘God, I hate evildoers.’ He shows himself to be on God’s side.
  • And this lead us to our verses where he gives an open-ended invitation, ‘God, continue to search and know me’ – just in case there is anything to the accusation.

Now, let’s break the prayer down, so we can understand it. First of all, it continues the theme of the Psalm as a whole of God searching and knowing David. In v. 1 David notes that God has searched and known him, but here he invites God to continue to search and know him. And the focus is squarely on what’s within him.

The two phrases, “search me . . . and know my heart” and “try me and know my thoughts” are slightly different ways of saying the same thing. They are parallel to each other. He wants God to look inside of him, his inner person, so that God knows what is in his heart.

I do have a question about this prayer. If we pray this prayer are we praying, lead us into testing/temptation?? (David does pray for this elsewhere – e.g. Psalm 26:2). The word in v. 23, “try,” can mean examine, prove, tempt, or test. The word usually does mean testing in the sense of trials and temptations (again, Psalm 26:2).

If it does mean this, then we would have to modify this prayer to bring it in line with what Jesus has taught us about prayer. He taught us that we are to pray that God not lead us into testing, since we might fail and dishonor God’s name. It comes from a sense of humility and an awareness of our weakness.

I take the word “try” here as a further expansion of the word “search” in the first line (basically parallels). So I don’t think it’s asking God to test us, or to allow Satan to test us. Maybe the translation “examine me and know my thoughts” would be good. The idea, again, is that God is looking into the depths of his soul to see what is in him.

The word in v. 23, “thoughts,” can be translated as “disquieting thoughts” or “anxious thoughts” and perhaps these phrases are in your Bible translations. (This is a different word for thought than the word used in v. 2 and v. 17). But it is probably best to see it in parallel with the word “heart” as I said before, and simply translate it, as it is here – “thoughts.” David seems to be saying in different ways, know my ‘inner person.’ He doesn’t seem to be focusing on a particular category of thoughts, but on all that is in his heart and thoughts.

The problem that David is concerned with; what he wants God to look for is “any grievous way.” The phrase means literally a “way of pain in me.” It can be translated as a hurtful, vexing, or sorrowful way.

David is praying, “God look for anything in me that causes pain.”

  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that cause you pain God?
  • Are there sinful thoughts, intentions, brokenness or failings that will cause me to hurt others?

Now there is good reason to pray this. Jeremiah 17:9-10, a passage that shares the same theme and some of the same vocabulary (search, test) as Psalm 139, says, among other things, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” There is much for God to find and know in each one of us. There are many grievous ways that need to be rooted out.

“Lead me.” David wants God to know him and then to show him any grievous way, so that it can be dealt with. This is how God leads him. The phrase, “in the way everlasting” can also be translated, “the ancient way.” In either case, I believe the meaning is the same. We are talking here about ‘the way of God,’ or ‘the way of righteousness.’ So the request is that God help him not to walk in a grievous way, but in the way of God.

Summary: This prayer is asking for three things:

1. “God, look in my inner person”

2. “Find anything that would cause you or others pain” and show me these things.

3. “Lead me in your path of righteousness.”

The title today is –

I dare you to pray this

I say this, because if you understand this prayer, it takes courage to pray it. It takes courage because you are inviting God to show you your sins, your weaknesses, your defects. And that’s not an easy thing to have to see.

Usually, we want to hide all this stuff. We don’t like to have to see our sins and weaknesses, think about them or dwell on them. We don’t want God to see them (although he does). And we certainly don’t want others to see them.

Often we respond by living in denial, to keep us from having to look at these things. And then, if God or someone brings something up we get defensive. You know how it works, ‘Well, I’m better than so and so,’ or ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘It’s justified.’ We minimize.

But not only this, it takes courage to pray this prayer because you are inviting God to correct your issues, so that you can walk in his paths. And it can be hard work to have to do this.

I’m sharing this with you because, as hard as this might be, this is the way to grow in your Christian life. It’s only when we fully open ourselves up to God that he can show us our problems, things we are often blind to. And it’s only when we become aware of these things that we can begin to receive help to overcome them.

And remember, God already knows all your “grievous ways,” and probably a lot of other people do as well; more than you think. So instead of living in denial and being defensive, ask God for help. Don’t run away from God with your struggles, run to God.

I encourage you to pray this, and to continue to pray this, and to listen to what God has to say, and to have the faith to allow God to lead you in the way everlasting.

Let’s take a moment in quiet right now. If you are willing, pray this prayer. I believe that God will speak to you even now.