I’m often asked if I can explain the Holy Trinity. God is three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three totally separate and defined persons, yet also, at the same time, they are perfectly one. How can three be one? How does this work? Can you explain it? No, the truth of the Trinity is too deep, too profound, beyond our understanding. It proves to us that God is beyond our invention. We can’t make something up we don’t understand. We may not be able to understand the complexities, but we can see the Trinity throughout scripture. We can see the application of the Trinity in our prayer life. We come to the Father, by the Son, through the Holy Spirit. Our worship and salvation is Trinitarian. We know from scripture there is God the Father, God the Son and God, the Holy Spirit, united perfectly in their diversity. We are all wonderfully unique, yet we gather as one. We come with our differences, yet one voice. We are honouring Him as we celebrate 199 years of worship at Penuel.
Our God is three in one and this is expressed in the wonderful diversity of His Church. Together, in love, God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit created everything. They are Triune. God made us in His image and His image is Triune. As image bearers of a Triune God, we, as human beings, can do amazing things when we unite. We can invent vaccines in record time in a pandemic, we can send people into space. When we unite in God, we can do amazing things.
Genesis 11 is a very famous Bible story, although it is a story that is often taught negatively. But it is a story filled with positive lessons regarding our human potential. We can do amazing things when we come together and unite in one voice. For 199 years Penuel has stood firm for the gospel – one common purpose – to reach the heavens. Nothing is impossible. “And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6). These are God’s words. Amazing! What an accolade from God’s mouth.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
But as we know, we see here the great Tower of Babel ends up failing. God divides the people through their language and scatters them. God can humble us at any moment. He will humble us if we get carried away. The big question for us is why did God humble the people building the Tower of Babel if they were doing such a good job? Their motive was wrong.
In verse 1 we see the people were moving eastward. Going East is very significant in Biblical narrative. It represents moving away from the presence of God. In chapter 10 we have a table of the nations, the offspring of Noah. This runs chronologically with chapter 11. The people listed in chapter 10 lived during the building of the Tower of Babel. Nimrod, a great builder of cities, was likely to have been involved in the building of the Tower; he lived at the same time and place. Nimrod’s name in Hebrew is ‘rebel.’ It is possible to assume the people were not following God and were following a rebel.
But there are other clues regarding the wrong reasons for building the tower, “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4). This reason to build the tower goes totally against God’s reason for humanity. In Genesis 1:28 we read that God told Adam and Eve to multiply and scatter, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This command was also given to Noah and his sons, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7).
God tells the people to scatter, but what do they do? The consolidate and build a tower. They were ignoring God’s command to scatter, therefore, they were going against God’s wishes. So, God rightly and justly undid their work.
Why were they not listening to God and spreading out across the globe? I argue that is was because of fear. If they had scattered, they thought they would be weak and vulnerable, totally reliable on God. They were scared of possibly another flood. God had judged the Earth and flooded it. Catastrophic judgement. A flood happening again was a genuine concern for the people of the Bible. They built the tower with bitumen (v3). God told Noah to use bitumen to waterproof the boat. In their fear and rebellion, the people didn’t want to scatter and so they attempted to protect themselves against God’s judgement, so they waterproofed the tower. They were not trusting God’s covenant promise, they were not trusting in God’s grace.
Friends, the tower of Babel showed what humanity could achieve as image bearers of our Triune God. They build a huge tower to the heavens but God destroyed it and scattered them. Why? Well because, one, arguably, they were following a rebel, Nimrod. Two, definitely, because they were disobedient to God’s command to scatter. Three, they didn’t trust in God’s covenant grace. They were waterproofing. They trusted in themselves instead of going to a God of grace. They were scared and feared another judgement, another flood because they were going against God. They centralised their operations. They tried to get to heaven on their own terms. They should have submitted to His grace, trusting in His provision, looking to the rainbow and live free, abiding His love.
As a church today, right across Wales, we are guilty of doing the same thing. The Church in Wales is in massive decline because of it. We have ageing congregations, we are weak, we are low on numbers and low on resources. As a result, we fear closure, so we have stopped taking risks. We don’t want to scatter, we don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. In our desperation, we have forgotten God’s covenant promise. We really should be trusting in God in our weakness. In our fear we create holy huddles, trying in vain to protect ourselves. We are content to stay in our little chapels, worshipping how we want to. We stay and waterproof. What should we do instead? We should trust in His voice, trust in our weakness that God is gracious. The tower of Babel reminds us of what we can achieve when we work together. “And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6).
God did not save your soul to build a tower to heaven, to come to God your way. He saved you to go out and take risks, to scatter the gospel, in one voice, in unity, to the community He has called you to serve. Friends, the good news of the gospel, the good news we cherish, is we don’t have to build towers to reach heaven to meet with God. We come to a God who comes down to us, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” (Genesis 11:5). As Christians, we have Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came down, so we don’t have to build up. It is by His grace, not by our works, that we are saved, so that no man might boast.
Jesus came down and showed us, in utter weakness on the cross, that all sin and death can be obliterated. He rose again, and promises to be with us until the end of the age. He gave us that promise so that we can do church as God intended – which is to spread ourselves thin, to take risks for the gospel. God prefers that way, doesn’t He? His power is made perfect in our weakness.
Penuel Church, I love you. You are a small congregation in the middle of nowhere, yet you are utterly untied in your faith to keep going. When I come here, I meet with Jesus. He is here. Your faith to keep going, your faith to reach out into the community in your weakness, is a lesson for the church right across Wales. I pray that you will continue to spread yourself thin for the gospel, trusting in God’s ways.
We are sitting here, on a lovely sunny day in Roch, because two thousand years ago men and women stood and were beaten for the sake of the gospel. It is a privilege to come together, knowing that others before us took a beating so they could share the gospel, and then their sons and daughters could share the gospel, and their sons and daughters could share the gospel, and we have that beautiful privilege of meeting in freedom today.
This passage of scripture is quite challenging. I don’t know how you would respond if you were living at that time, and you were told not to go and tell people about Jesus, or you would be put into jail. What would you do?
The Book of Acts, Luke’s second volume, records for us what the early church was like. Luke’s first volume, his gospel, tells us all that Jesus did and taught. His second volume, Acts, tells us all that the risen Jesus did. So, we see here is Acts of the Apostles, or you could say, Acts of the Risen Jesus. We now look at everything Jesus did through His Spirit. He has ascended into heaven, and He sent His Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit lives and dwells in His people and they are helping His people live for Him. When you open the book of Acts you realise that there is a small group of people who follow the Lord Jesus Christ. These are the people who turned the world upside down. You and I stand on their shoulders.
Has God’s Spirit changed? Is the Holy Spirit who helped Peter on the day of Pentecost, when he preached to thousands, changed? Has God’s mission changed, to save a people for Himself? Has Jesus Christ changed? Has the cross changed? Is the cross not the same cross that Jesus Christ bled and died on and that is the only means and way of salvation? Has anything really changed? No! Nothing has changed. When Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, the Bible says He is waiting to return. We live in the last days, waiting for Jesus Christ to return. God’s Spirit has not changed and the cross stands still as the only means of salvation. God’s mission has not changed. He desires a people for Himself, even from Roch. The Commission has not changed. God has not changed. Until Jesus returns our mission hasn’t changed – we are called to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Take the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and share it with others who do not know him.
Pray drives evangelism. The apostles were doing many signs and wonders, and people were being healed. In chapter four, the apostles had already been arrested (4:29-30). They prayed and their prayer was answered. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. If you believe this and have a God-Man who intercedes for you, you can pray to Him. The apostles prayed and were able to do extraordinary things. If you think, ‘Well, I couldn’t do that,’ you would be right. But God can! Christ healed a blind man, the deaf and the lame. God can do all those things because He is God. Evangelism is driven by prayer. God is the one who opens all the doors, who gives us opportunities, the one who answers our prayers. It is ludicrous, as Christians, we don’t pray to the God of heaven, the giver of all things. Pray for an opportunity to witness for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Evangelism is about speaking life. The apostles were arrested because they were preaching and they were healing. They were doing all sorts of wonderful things. But the High Priest didn’t like it, the Sadducees didn’t like it. They arrested them (v.17). They put them in a public prison. But an angel of the Lord brought them out and said, ‘Get on with it! Go and stand in the temple court and speak to the people words of life.’ (v.19). The apostles got together (v.21). Did they have a big discussion whether they should obey the angel? No. An angel of the Lord comes and tells them what to do and they do it. They are obedient and they go. At the Ascension Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and a cloud hid Him from their sight as they were watching. Immediately two angels come down and said, ‘What are you doing looking at the sky? Why are you looking up there when you should be looking all around you and getting on with the task of evangelism?
Evangelism is about speaking life. It is so important that an angel of the Lord comes and breaks them out of prison and tells them, ‘Get on with it.’ My friends, this is not a message about purchasing some goods, what colour paint you should buy, what your homes or gardens should look like. It has got nothing to do with this. This is about the words of life. This is about life that every one of us needs, that we live in a beautiful but broken word, that sin has entered in and the wages of sin is death. We experience sin in our bodies and we get old and we creaky and things fail. Yet Jesus Christ came to deal with the problem of sin and death. The good news about the gospel is not just having your legs healed and about being able to see. There is much more than that. It is about having this new life where you have a relationship with God, where you will know Him now and forever, into eternity. We are called to go out and give the words of life. Jesus Christ is the only way. There is no other way in which men and women, boys and girls can be saved. We need to know what God is calling us to do, what is He calling us to be more urgent about in our speaking to others?
Evangelism is driven by prayer, evangelism is about speaking life, but evangelism is about what God is doing. The apostles go back into the temple courts (v.27) and once again they are brought back to the Council, questioned and told, ‘We strictly told you not to teach in this name, yet you are doing the things we told you not to do!’ And they reply, “We must obey God rather than men,” (v.29). Scripture calls us to obey the authorities. In one sense, they are obeying the authorities. They get arrested and they don’t oppose being arrested. They let themselves be arrested. There is one thing we cannot disobey and that is we must be obedient to the laws. But here they are in Acts chapter 5 saying they must obey God rather than men. Even though they are told not to speak in the name of Jesus, they say,’ No, we must obey God, because here are the words of life that people must hear, for there is no other name.’ That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it? He obeyed the will of His Father, not His own. There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was sweating drops of blood, knowing what He would go to, yet He did it, “Not My will but Yours.”
You and I face many dilemmas today, we are faced with complicated situations. We live in a very privileged society, in a very privileged country where there really isn’t that much dilemma about obeying God. We have freedoms, and as we have these freedoms we are not challenged, are we? There is no-one really threatening to put us in prison here in Roch. Don’t get me wrong, there might be cultural variations, there might be regional variations, there might be other variations, maybe a part of a city where it might be more difficult. But it is not about what is happening there, it’s about what is happening here. What is God calling you and me to do?
We have this word of life, and we are living in not difficult days but complex days. With God’s help, we will all know is it that God is calling us to do.
My friends, as you and I live out our lives, as we go about sharing the gospel, the way we live really can help people to hear the gospel. You and I might not have a single conversation with somebody this week, but the way you live really can influence the way people listen to the gospel.
Evangelism is driven by prayer, evangelism is about speaking life, evangelism is about what God is doing in and through us as we are obedient to Him, and the way we live can really help us in our evangelising.
Have you ever had to cry out for help? May be as a child calling out for a parent, or calling for the emergency services? In Psalm 61 we see King David doing exactly that – crying for help. He wants more than help, he wants God to help him. What is David facing? He calling to God because his heart is faint. He is experiencing distance and disconnection with God. He is separated from God’s living presence. We are not told the context of this psalm. The previous Psalm 60 tells us exactly when this psalm took place, but not for this one. Context can be really helpful, but we can’t leave the psalms in that context; they have been taken and made into a hymn book for all nations. We should be able to pray them and sing them in our own lives. The Psalms are to be echoed and owned by ourselves.
Are we feeling like David in verses 1 and 2? Or have we felt that way before?
1Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; 2 from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
May be, you have felt this way when prayers seem to go unanswered, and God seems far away. May be, you sin has left you distanced and disconnected? May be, you have drifted from God in lockdown – not a conscious rejection but drifted away? May be, you are worn out and fed up with life? Possibly you are approaching old age or experiencing grief or loss? You may be full of joy. But be prepared to hold on to Psalm 61 when the times get tough. We have hope for our hearts.
In the second half of verse 2 David expresses his sense of hopelessness, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” What David is saying is, ‘I can’t do this on my own. I’ve reached the end of my tether.’ When we see David’s sense of helplessness, it is ultimately the right way to feel in those situations. The solution is beyond our control. We need to reach out for help. David is crying out for, ‘the rock that is higher than I.’ He is saying, ‘Take me up, out of reach.’ This metaphorical imagery is a place of safety which only God can take him. If you are feeling desperate and helpless, it is freeing to realise and know it is time to stop struggling and cry out to the One who can help and will help. We need to recognise we are in trouble and look to the one who can help and will help. That is ultimately what repentance is, when we cry out, “God, I need you. Hear my cry. I need you.”
How does David expect God to meet his needs? What is he praying for? He looks for a rock (verse 2) and for refuge, a strong tower,“3 for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” A rock is a solid foundation, a place of security. In sin, struggles, affliction or loss, we need something to hold onto. We need a place of protection, a refuge from sin and suffering and the attacks of Satan. We all need to be rescued from our sins. God is our rescuer. In the Old Testament a rock is also an image of refreshment, (Israelites in the wilderness). When we think of a rock, think of God’s provision. David needs God to come to Him and sustain him.
David is also looking for God’s presence, “4 Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah” In the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies. On the Ark of the Covenant were two cherubim on the Mercy Seat. David could be thinking of God’s presence on Earth. The wings are also imagery of God’s care – to provide shelter under His wings. David is thinking of a place he wanted to go, but couldn’t – the Holy of Holies.
What gets in the way of things as we walk through life? Sin. Sin separates us from God’s presence, His protection and His provision. In Jesus we find the One who brings God’s presence to us, who takes our sin away.
Verse 4 is the key to the psalm, “Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah.” David cries out for the presence of God, from saving from sin.This verse goes so well with John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John says God has come, the Word has become flesh. He is among us – a man, in Jesus Christ, dwelling among us. David cries out from the ends of the earth and now we see Jesus has come from the ends of the earth to meet us. Jesus knows our pain, our temptations. When we experience all the emotions of Psalm 61:1-2, we can see a Saviour who has come down to meet us in our place of need.
Verses 1-5 are a personal prayer of David which we can adopt.
1Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; 2 from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, 3 for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
4 Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah 5 For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
There is a change from verses 6-8. Verse 6 switches to David, the king, 6 “Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations!” This may be praying for King David, but ultimately David is echoing what was said in 2 Samuel 7. When David and the people are praying, they are looking beyond David to the King who will come to walk our path that would take Him to the cross, where He would be made sin for us, but then three days later would rise again in power and glory. He appeared to all those witnesses and then ascended to heaven, where the psalm is now fulfilled, “7 May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!” We have someone who is there for us so we might know the protection and provision of God. We have the very presence of God in us, in the Holy Spirit.
Can we expect, because we have God’s presence, to have only good times? No. But we do have a sure foundation on which to build our lives. We see this Psalm play out in Romans 8:31-39,
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us]35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here is a promise, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Christ Jesus has brought us His presence, His protection and His provision.
We live in an age of influence. There are more and more celebrities who have an impact on what people do. We are bombarded with advertisements and Youtube channels. Influencers can drive us; they can change the way we look and how we talk. Influencers can change the way we shop. If influencers haven’t got Jesus as king of their lives, it’s going to distract you. This past year we have seen a change in the way we have been influenced. It’s been complicated. We want things to be better than before.
As Christians we need to be thankful of those who have influenced us. Paul is writing to Timothy and reminded him of the influence of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. This morning we should be utterly thankful to those who have influenced us. Paul, in prison, is writing to Timothy in Ephesus. Paul is reminding Timothy as he goes forward, of what he needs to be influenced by, of what is going to shape his ministry in the church and the future. Today we hear so many voices, like the voice of the government. If you listen to too many voices, it becomes confusing. This letter to Timothy is really helpful for us; it has key doctrines of what must always be at the heart of our Christianity.
This letter reminds us of the impact of the Spirit of God. In verse seven we read,“For God gave us a spirit not to fear but of power and love and self-control.” As we have seen this week, the media can break a family, a relationship, in one single image on the front cover. But God sees and hears everything. He can reduce everyone’s lives in a moment, but he doesn’t. He offers his grace. The Holy Spirit brings new life. Our life begins to change. He moulds us to be more Christ-like. His spirit helps as to apply and understand God’s words. We’ve been bought by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and called to live for him.
The beginning of verse 8 reads, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord.” We are called not to be ashamed, not to be worried about what others think of us. All of us are sinners. We need to be saved by grace. We are reminded in verse nine that it is God, “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace which He gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” There are somethings none of us can do or be able to do, that only God can do. God alone is the one who can rescue us from the Kingdom of darkness and bring us into the Kingdom of light. We can explore the universe and go to the ends of it, but we will never be able to save ourselves from the sting of death. The gift of God is eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ. The power of God makes it possible to be made right with God.
As we start to rebuild churches and ministries, what are we then to do? To declare that God alone can do what we can never do. In verse 10 we read it is our “Saviour, Christ Jesus who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Jesus Christ has destroyed death. He says in John 14 :6, “I am the way and the truth and the life no one comes to the father except through me.” Friends, are you reminded of that soul single truth this morning? Jesus Christ alone can destroy death.
In Christ alone my hope is found; He is my light, my strength, my song; This cornerstone, this solid ground, Firm through the fiercest drought and storm. What heights of love, what depths of peace, When fears are stilled, when strivings cease! My comforter, my all in all— Here in the love of Christ I stand.
We have to remember what Jesus Christ has destroyed. If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ, when He calls you home or returns, you are free. Why are we here this morning? To gather and worship God. But we are also here for a purpose, we are here to serve. What is God calling you to do? In what ways is God calling you to serve? Paul is writing to Timothy from prison, he is serving his life out in prison. Timothy is living life in Ephesus where people were trying to distract the church. We live in a fallen world, and we are called to serve in a fallen world. There are challenging times ahead. It is the Spirit who empowers us.
Verses 11 and 12 say, “I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I’m convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.”Paul makes it clear that contentment requires effort. We have been called by God to live lives that are holy. We are also to be ready to give a defence for the hope that is within us. To have Christian contentment, remember God is with us in all things and in all times.
“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith aunt love that are in Christ Jesus. by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14).
I wonder if you can think of a time that left you completely in awe? It could be something like seeing the Northern Lights crossing the sky or the Canadian Rocky Mountains stretching out into the distance, or maybe hearing about random act of kindness by a stranger. There are many things that make us feel good about the world around us. We want to sing with Louis Armstrong, ‘What a wonderful world.’
To read Matthew chapter 27 of these events is also an awe-inspiring experience but in a completely different kind of way. It surely cannot make us feel good about the world around us when you read about such depraved inhumanity towards an innocent man. For some, it is an historical account that should leave us feeling very much like Moses before that burning bush, that we’re standing on holy ground.
It’s probably the most well-known passage in all the gospels. With well-known passages there is a temptation to come to them and think to yourself, ‘But I have heard this all before.’ But have we really heard it all before? Le u’s be clear, there are things going on in these events that are completely beyond the realms of human understanding. There are things going on in these events that show us that we’ve hardly begun to understand the dreadful position of humankind.
When you read Matthew 27, when you consider the events of Good Friday, we should not come easily to these things. We should, like Moses, take off our sandals and tread carefully. This morning I want us to consider first of all, what is the reality of what is going on.
In 2004 Mel Gibson released a well-known film called ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ I’ve never seen it but I can remember, as a youngster, going down to cinemas in Cardiff and giving tracts to those coming out of the cinemas after watching the film. I remember very clearly the looks on people’s faces as they came out; they looked shocked, devastated. They were shaken. It made me realise that just like the Nativity, the history of Golgotha has been sanitised and sentimentalised. It’s been made into something it is not. What Mel Gibson did very well was to shove people’s faces into the horrors of the crucifixion of Jesus. It shocked them out of that sanitised version that perhaps they had been presented with in Sunday School or in primary schools. As you read these events, the on the surface facts of the death of Jesus Christ are absolutely horrifying.
Any crucifixion was absolutely horrifying. The Roman statesman Cicero describes torture like this, “The mere name of the cross should be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. The results and suffering from these doings as well as the situation, even anticipation, of their enablement, and, in the end, the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”
What is he saying? Well, he’s saying this: ‘Don’t even talk about crucifixion, don’t even mention it in polite company, it is that bad.’ But when you come to the gospels, they make a great deal of the Crucifixion of Jesus, they talk a lot about it. John devotes over half of his gospel to events surrounding the death of Jesus, Matthew 2/5, Mark 3/5 and Luke 1/3. Clearly the death of Jesus, to the gospel writers, was the most significant thing.
One critic of The Passion of the Christ spoke some truth when he said, “This movie is the prayer of a gifted film-maker, but it is also a narrow and harrowing perspective on a story that, no matter what your faith, is bigger than any attempt to portray it on film.”
Jesus suffered appalling tortures before and on the cross. Soldiers beat Him. Soldiers spat in His face. They mocked Him over and over again. They forced a crown of thorns on His head. The Roman whipping that He received was absolutely awful. It didn’t have the leniency of the Jewish forty lashes minus one. The took Jesus around the city on the longest journey that they could have, trying to prolong the sufferings of Jesus.
As you come to the gospel writings there is no great emphasis on the physicality of tortuous death. That is where Mel Gibson got it wrong and where that film critic got it right. The events of Good Friday are just bigger than any event to portray it on film.
What does Matthew say pertaining to the death of Christ? Actually, not a lot about the Crucifixion. He says, in verse 35, ‘When they had crucified Him.’ That’s it. Mark 15:24, ‘And the crucified Him.’ Luke 23:33, ‘When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified Him.’ John 19:17-18, “He went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.There they crucified him.”
For the gospel writers, therefore for the Holy Spirit, the brutality of the death of Christ was not the main thing. The main thing was the significance of that death – the spiritual realities of that death were the important ones. They want us to focus on the spiritual realities. This was no ordinary death. There was something massively supernatural and miraculous going on here and you cannot avoid it. You cannot avoid it because, first of all, you have got darkness and dereliction. Secondly, you’ve got what one preacher calls, ‘divine vandalism,’ – the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom. You have also got death reversed (v.52), the mass resurrection of many holy people.
Let’s consider darkness and dereliction for a moment (v. 45). In World War II the blackout, despite its eeriness, kept people safe. On Good Friday there was a massive blackout from the sixth to the ninth hour, darkness was all over the land. Evidently, it was an extensive darkness that covered the whole land. This three hour blackout was when the Middle Eastern sun should have been at the highest in the sky. It must have been terribly unsettling to witness it. Why the darkness? Darkness is connected with God’s judgement. Peter prophesied against false teachers and prophets (2 Peter 2:17). Jesus says in Matthew 24:29, talking about the end of the world, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
In Matthew 27:46 Jesus gives us some insight as to what is going on. It is called the cry of dereliction, which comes towards the end of that darkness. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is where, I suggest, we need to take off our sandals and tread very carefully. We realise the person who is crying out is none other than the eternal Son of God, the only begotten Son. He was in the beginning with God. There is no relationship in the whole universe that was closer than the Father and Son.
Yet here, at this moment, God the Son is forsaken. In that three hours of darkness, God the Father’s judgement fell on His Son. The judgement that was so awful that the bond between God the Father and God the Son, for some time was broken. The Father never ceased to love His Son because Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” (John 10:17).
There is no voice from heaven to comfort His Son. There is no angel to strengthen Him, He is forsaken. What is going on? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We realise our sin is absolutely awful, so awful it nailed the Son of God to a Roman cross. It is so awful that the Son of God, who enjoyed the closest relationship with His Father throughout eternity, had to be utterly forsaken by His Father as He endured hell. He had no sin and yet He was made sin for us. God the Father, because He is just, cannot just sweep sin under the carpet. But, by pouring out His wrath on His own Son, against our sin during that massive judgement blackout, He can remember our sins no more.
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
When peace like a river
Jesus, in enduring the wrath of God during that cosmic blackout, was pierced, Isaiah says, for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The judgement that brought us peace was upon Him. By His wounds we are healed.
Are you a Christian here this morning? If so, what we have read means that you are as free as a bird. Your sin, not in part, but all of it, is nailed to the cross and you bear it no more. You have peace with God. You are completely healed. Praise the Lord.
If you are not a Christian, or you may think you are a Christian but haven’t thought too much about sin, Jesus’ cry of dereliction, when you hear it, doesn’t make much difference, it doesn’t bother you too much. Perhaps you haven’t realised what sin is about? In our society people don’t accept the idea of sin, it seems outdated. People aren’t held responsible for their own actions, ‘Being who you are’ is the slogan of our society.
But Jesus’ cry of dereliction teaches us one thing – we are sinners. Our sin is real to God and it has to be punished. Only the death of His Son can sort it out. The fact is, we are responsible creatures and one day God is going to hold us to account.
As a Christian, when we hear the cry of dereliction doesn’t it make you hate your sin all the more? Does it not make you cry, “O Lord, help me to live a holy life!” Does it not help you go to places like Titus and echo with Paul, not just to want knowledge of the truth but knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness? In other words, that we don’t just stand there at the foot of the cross, gazing in horror, then just walk away and carry on flirting with sin as if it is no big deal, that we carry on harbouring a few pet sins of our own.
We should come to the foot of the cross and break our hearts over our sin. It was our sin that caused Jesus to suffer such unthinkable agonies. We should throw ourselves on Him to keep us from sin.
At Calvary, God was doing something that He is an absolute expert at – He was bringing the greatest good out of the greatest evil. You see it in the signs that immediately follow the death of Jesus. Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, God’s wrath had been poured out on His Son, Jesus is forsaken by His Father, Jesus dies (Matthew 27:15 / John 19:13). What effect does all that have? Is the work of Jesus finished? Yes, it is! Because then you get the curtain of the temple being torn in two, from top to bottom (v 51-52). This is no accident, it is hugely significant and important. At three o’clock in the afternoon the priests would have bene busy preparing for the evening sacrifice. Then, all of a sudden, all of the mysteries of the Old Testament are opened, revealed and unfolded to all. The curtain would have concealed the most holy place, the place where only the high priest could go, once a year. Now, it is open to all. The partitioning wall, which would have divided Jew and non-Jew, the ceremonial law, was now removed (Hebrew 10). Now, through Jesus’ sacrificial death, we can all approach the Shekinah Glory. Let me tell you, that is huge.
“There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin, there’s a door that is open and you may go in. At Calvary’s cross is where you begin, when you come as a sinner to Jesus.”
So powerful, so complete is the sacrifice offered by Jesus that the miracles don’t stop with that divine vandalism of the curtain being torn. You now have death reversed. There is an earthquake that is so violent it splits rocks, it opens tombs, and even before Easter Sunday, Resurrection is already on the cards (v 52). What is all this showing? Clearly, that Jesus’ sacrifice not only pays for sin, it not only opens up the way for sinful people to come back to a holy God. But also, don’t we want to leap for joy at this – it means death is defeated! It will be an inheritance of a marvellously rejuvenated universe and life without end in a mind-blowingly fantastic resurrection. Wow! Good Friday and Easter Sunday prove that this life is just a drop in the bottomless ocean of eternity. And that changes everything!
Let us briefly consider some of the reactions to what we’ve seen. We’ve had the realities, now let’s see the reactions. Before we finish, we’ve got to bring it a little closer to home. Why do we need to bring it closer to home? Because, as I read these gospel accounts, as I think about the crucifixion, I find that there were people who were actually there. There were eyewitnesses of these things and they respond in vastly different ways. I am bothered by this because if you think that even eyewitnesses could be so terrifyingly ignorant of the implications of what was going on, how much more we, living 2,000 years later, can also be terrifyingly ignorant of the most important event in all of history.
What eyewitnesses am I talking about? First of all you have the mockers, those who hurled insults at a man who was being horribly tortured to death. You have the robbers and the passers by (v.40). They use the second person, using the pronoun ‘you.’ Then you have the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders who use the third person, he and him. In other words, they don’t even say it to His face (v 42-43). These were the great teachers of the law. They should have been familiar with the teachings of the Old Testament about the Christ. Yet, they are staggeringly ignorant about it all. It’s a scary thought that those people who possessed all the prophetic writings, the teachings of the Old Testament, observations of Jesus at close hand, had heard His teaching, were now ridiculing this man in such a cowardly way – that God-Man who was dying so that they could have life. It’s horrendous.
Haven’t we been doing something similar ever since? Perhaps years and years of going to church, years and years of listening to the Bible being preached, years and years of listening to our Christian friends and family telling us about the love of Jesus and perhaps, not outwardly, but inwardly mocking the very idea that Jesus was dying for my sins. Don’t let the darkness that so blinded teachers of the law and the chief priests so blind you to your desperate need of to repent of your sin, and your desperate need of a Saviour. Jesus died for you. Believe now. Repent now. Do it while there is still some light emanating from the pages of Matthew chapter 27.
Now less shocking, but no less unsettling, are the reactions of those we read about in Luke 23:48. The people ‘beat their breasts and went away.’ Up to this point, there was Jesus breathing His last. Those onlookers maintained some interest but now they begin to drift away to carry on with the rest of their lives. But ‘they beat their breasts.’ This was an ancient way of showing grief. Somewhere, in the depths of their souls, they realised that in some way which they haven’t quite understood, they were responsible for the death of this innocent man. I wonder if there are any like that here, today? Perhaps there have been many times where you have felt sorrow for your sins. Perhaps you’ve started to realise that your sins nailed Jesus to the cross. But many times you’ve just drifted away; you’ve left church just to carry on with your life, just as before. The Bible, in 2 Corinthians chapter 7, talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Let me tell you, don’t drift away again. Pray for that godly sorrow that leads somewhere, that leads to repentance.
Luke 23:49. Here are brave women. The Bible was ahead of its time. Brave women and not so brave men who knew Jesus and who are watching from a distance. Disciples would follow Jesus for three years, they had given up everything to follow Him. What are they doing now? They are playing it safe. Are we a little like that – not so brave Christians? Are we playing it safe as we live our lives, keeping our distance from this wonderful Jesus? Today, let us really, really endeavour to go right up to the foot of the cross and declare to anyone who will listen, our allegiance to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Last, but definitely not least, is the centurion that we read of (v.54). Here was a man, an extremely hard man, who had witnessed and taken part in scores of crucifixions, and yet realises that this particular crucifixion was like no other. He saw the convulsions of nature in the earthquake, he saw the dignified conduct of Jesus in the way He was put on that cross, the way that He dies, and with the little understanding that he does have, he comes to the conclusion, as Luke reports, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ Perhaps you have very little understanding of what is going on here, you have very little knowledge of Jesus, and of Christianity and of the Bible. Perhaps Jesus has only been recently introduced to you. But look today, look now, really look at the evidence before you. Be amazed at what is before you and believe.
As we close, let’s just focus on one person, the wonderful person of the Lord Jesus Christ. You would think that the glorious dignity of the second person of the Trinity, being beaten, being whipped, being spat upon, being mocked and scorned, being deserted by His friends, being crucified, you think of the absolute control that He showed throughout it all. He, being the One who gave up His spirit, not having it taken from Him. He, being the One crying out in a loud voice, and going out in full possession of His faculties. It reminds us of that hymn, ‘Man of Sorrows.’ Hallelujah! What a Saviour! Amen.
“How dare you!” says another student teenager from Sweden to the most powerful leaders around. She carries on, “People are suffering, people are dying, systems and entire eco systems are collapsing. We are in the beginnings of a mass extinction.” What about the group known as Extinction Rebellion, who are actually having a protest this week at the G7 summit? Their website says this, “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on earth is in crisis. Scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown and are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.” Now, I don’t want to minimise the importance of looking after the environment, caring for animals, keeping the oceans clean and reducing our emissions across the world. All that is important, all of that is vital and is part of God’s first great mission for us in Genesis chapter one, the very first chapter of the Bible. But what are we to make of this kind of talk that we’re in a crisis, that the whole world is in a crisis, that we’re on the brink of a collapse?
If you were to operate with the mindset of this world, that this is all there is, then we probably have a reason to be very concerned, perhaps even hysterical. But the Christian worldview should take a different view to this. In fact, the biblical mindset should actually heighten our concern for environmental issues, but it should do so with less of a hysterical attitude, less panic and less fear. This is not just about environmental issues, this is about many other things as well; we think of nuclear weapons and the potential for global war, we can think about the way there is such tension in the world that we live in, so much polarised opinions about what is right and what is wrong. We can even think, as we’re all too aware, and seeing your masked faces today, about the Pandemic. Should we be hysterical, should we be concerned that we’re on the brink of collapse because of Covid 19? Well, we’ve got Revelation 4 to help us here.
For the churches of the 1st century, as this was written to them, were facing all kinds of issues themselves. But when you look at chapters two and three, for example, there are all kinds of issues in these seven historical churches: there was a church that needed to recover its primary love, a church that needed to cling on in light of the suffering that was about to come their way, there was a church that needed to watch out they didn’t compromise with the world, a church that needed to bring back some spiritual life because they were all but dead. There’s one that needs strength in their weaknesses because there were some of their community that were trying to get rid of them. There’s a church that needed to stop being so self-sufficient in their wealth.
There are churches facing all of these kinds of issues today around the world but also here in the UK. We might think that if there are churches facing all these issues today, churches that are compromised, churches that are as good as dead, churches that are faithful under great suffering and persecution, is there a hope for the future? Can we adapt the words Extinction Rebellion and say this about the church, ‘We are facing an unprecedented global ecclesiastical emergency, the church on earth is in crisis.’ Theologians and missiologists agree that we have entered a period of abrupt ecclesiastical breakdown, or we are in the midst of a mass extinction as Christians of our own making. So, our planet in crisis, our health system is in crisis, the church is in crisis. Shall we ramp up the fear? At the risk of giving the game away far too early, the answer is ‘No.’ But why is that? Well, you’d have to read the whole of the book of Revelation to find that out, because that’s what the rest of the book is essentially about. But for this chapter today, what we need is a vision of the sovereign Lord, the God who is in control of everything.
You are probably familiar with the book of Acts which tells the story of how churches spread across the world in the 1st century up until the 60s. In many ways, Revelation is a retelling of the history of the Church, of the church in the 1st century, but from a very different angle.
We are given a heavenly perspective of what is going on. We see that clearly in the first verse here. John sees this door in heaven and he’s invited to go into heaven and see what is going on, what is going on behind the scenes and what will take place. He is in the spirit (in verse two) and he enters into this continuing vision that actually began in chapter one of Revelation. He goes right into the most sacred part of heaven, the very throne room of God. The immediate focus as he gets into the throne room of God is, of course, on God Himself. He is the one who is sat on the throne, He is the one who sits in the position of sovereign rule over all things. Imagine if you were in John’s shoes – you went into the throne room of heaven. Perhaps one of the first questions you might ask is, ‘What does God look like?’
Whatever image of God is presented in the Bible, we are never shown a direct image of God. We don’t see Him directly. We are given indirect allusions to His appearance. That’s because the core truth of who God is, is that we cannot look at Him and live. He, in His Holiness and brilliance, is so awesome that if we saw a direct image of God, or even if we conceived of a direct image of God, we would melt before Him because we are mortal, fallible creatures.
One vision of God that this chapter particularly refers to and draws on, is the material from Ezekiel. It is one of those books that we perhaps struggle with and perhaps don’t spend too much time reading. But it’s a wonderful book. In Ezekiel chapter one Ezekiel is given a clear vision of who God is. It’s just an amazing image. So, Revelation here particularly draws on Ezekiel chapter one.
Ezekiel sees the throne of God and as Ezekiel spends time describing what is going on, he describes what goes on around the throne of God rather than describing the One who sits on the throne. Ezekiel says, “Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” (Ezekiel 1:25-27).
He’s describing what goes on around the throne rather than One who is on the throne. So back in Revelation chapter 4 verse three you have John saying that God’s appearance is like all of these precious gems. His appearance is something like Jasper, a ruby which has very bright, luminous colours as it reflects and refracts light and spreads and shines it out. Surrounding Him was the full spectrum of colour, so that the whole rainbow is encircling the throne. Also referred to in Revelation chapter 1, there’s a rainbow there as well, but somehow this rainbow looks like a shining emerald, just part of the contrasts that go on in Revelation, things that can’t quite square up in in our understanding.
So, where it is the fieriness of Ezekiel, with a bright glowing metal that looks like there is fire there, or whether it is John seeing these beautiful gems that are there before him, shimmering and sparkling, the point is that the any image of God is just far too overwhelming, and brilliant and bright, awe-invoking. But that’s all we are given because we can’t see God Himself. Using the brightest, most colourful, most wonderful things that we’ve got in this world of gems and fire, that is all we can muster up to describe God. Actually Ezekiel, at the end of chapter one, says, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.”
John is not seeing the Lord, he is not even seeing His glory, he is not even seeing the likeness of His glory. He is seeing the appearance of the likeness of His glory – that’s four times removed from a direct image of God. So even these visions of God in the Bible, even this vision of God in Revelation chapter one, there is barely a hint of the wonderful appearance of God Himself.
So then John, having given us a hint of the appearance of God, then moves on to describe who else is in the throne room of God. So, he begins in verse four with these 24 thrones, along with these 24 thrones are 24 elders, every one dressed in white, gold crowns on their heads. Wonderful imagery. White clothing, as we may know, is the picture of God’s people in purity. Crowns represent the victory of having kept faithful to God throughout their lives, having reached the end of the goal of their faith.
I think these 24 beings, these heavenly elders, represent the fullness of the church, both before and after Jesus. Before Jesus came, we had 12 tribes of Israel. In Jesus’s time and beyond we have 12 apostles who are the foundation of the church. Simple maths, 12 and 12 is 24. It’s something that crops up throughout the whole Book of Revelation. So, you’ve got these representatives of the whole of the church, both before and after Jesus. They are then representing us before God in the throne room of God, which is wonderful.
But then the drama ramps up from here. From the throne comes these flashes of lightning. There are rumbles or possibly shouts and then you’ve got these peals of thunder. I’m sure you all remember when we’ve had a dark, stormy night and been woken up by a thunderstorm. Perhaps you’ve seen either flashes of lightning or heard the distant rumble of thunder? It can be fearful. These thunderstorms in heaven, around the throne room of God, are there to invoke a sense of awe within us.
Then, because this throne room is the temple, it needs a few temple artefacts. In fact, Hebrews tells us that the earthly temple in the Old Testament was actually modelled on the heavenly temple. So here we have some of the objects that were in the Old Testament temple of God. We’ve got the lampstand, which is the next thing to capture John’s attention, the sevenfold lampstand. And that is, as we are told, to represent the 7 spirits of God (by the way, that’s not to say there are seven Holy Spirits of God. The number seven is simply used that to show completeness and perfectness of the Holy Spirit). Then you have this sea of glass that was like crystal.
But then there’s one last thing that captures John’s attention – and they are very weird. You’ve got these four living creatures who were introduced to us at the end of verse six. We are first told that they are around the throne of God. They have eyes all over them, even under their wings, which is pretty strange to think about. It just means they see everything, I think. They have six wings. The first creature is like a lion, the second one is like an ox, the next one has a face like a man and the fourth is like a flying eagle. Those four creatures are the four pinnacles of their territory: the lion is the king of beasts, the ox is the strongest of all of the domesticated animals, the human is the ruler of all the creatures and the eagle is the king of the sky.
The number four is used to talk about geographic completeness: north, south, east and west. We have four creatures covering the entirety of the earth. So I think these four living creatures represent all of the creatures from all across the world, from all different animal kinds, including the human beings and pets.
As we allude back to Ezekiel, these living creatures are mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 1 – four of them again, except they are slightly different. It tells us in Ezekiel chapter 1 that that all of these creatures have four faces, “Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body.” (Ezekiel 1: 10-11)
So, they are a little bit different in Ezekiel, but nevertheless it’s the same kind of creature representing all creatures before God’s throne. It’s just overwhelming, isn’t it? To think about these creatures with their faces, with their wings, their eyes all over them.
Now so far everything seen is pretty much in static. It’s as if you put on the film in Revelation but you’ve put it in pause and all you see is this static image with the exception, perhaps, of the lightning that needs to move, doesn’t it. Everything else hasn’t needed to be in motion yet. So, it’s come on in pause and we’ve yet to press play. But because it’s being paused we’ve been able to glance at every detail that is on the screen. So, we’ve been given a hint of the One who’s at the centre of it all. The Sovereign Lord rules from His throne in His brilliance and in His splendour. In accord with His brilliance we have glimpsed all of the brilliance going on around Him: the temple, the 24 elders on the throne that represent the entirety of church, the four living creatures that represent all creative beings. So we had a glimpse of it all. But what are we to make all this so far?
I think one thing is for us to recognise that God is so unapproachable, He’s so incomprehensible, He is so unseeable. We could never grasp the entirety of God. He is far beyond our reach – and that’s not least because of our limited brain. We don’t have the capacity to fully grasp Him because of the limitedness of our brain but also the limitlessness of God because He is beyond limit, so it is impossible for us to grasp it. But it’s also because His brilliance emanates from His holiness; His brilliant shines out of His Holiness. When we compare ourselves to him in His Holiness, we are nothing. We see our imperfectness, we see our sinfulness, we see all of our flaws before this holy and perfect God. It’s because of that that we can’t fully grasp God. For us, trying to approach God and trying to understand Him in our sinfulness is a bit like a refuse worker or someone who collects the rubbish coming straight from work and trying to get into a fancy, Michelin star restaurant, dressed in their work clothes and not had a shower. They will be refused entry. It’s like us trying to grasp God in our simpleness and His holiness.
If we tried to grasp God in our simpleness, if we tried to enter His presence as flawed as we are, then we would simply melt before Him. He is so perfect, especially compared to us. On one hand God is far beyond our grasp and yet He is also not completely unknowable. John, in his vision, doesn’t have nothing of God, he’s able to grasp something of Him. That’s because he’s been invited up. He has seen something and so we too should be able to recognise how privileged we are to know something about God.
The Bible tells us that everyone knows something about God just by looking at the world around us. What a good thing that is for God to give us this world, to look at it and see He is powerful, He’s made everything, He is eternal and stands above the creation. Jesus had invited John to see something of who God is. He has shown us who the Father is. When we look to Jesus we are privileged to see something of who God is. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?
Well, to finish up our time in chapter 4, as we’ve seen everything in pause so far, we need to press play. At the end of verse eight we are told what these living creatures say. It’s put in several Bibles as a quoted section, formatted slightly differently so it stands out. They say “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!”
They don’t just say it once, they don’t just sing that at the top of their voices once and think ‘We’ve done with that now, we’ve said it don’t need to say it again.’ No, they never stop saying it. In fact, day and night they say it over and over again. It’s not just them saying something here; whenever they say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!” it is almost like a starting pistol for the 24 elders, who then respond by doing something and saying something.
So whenever they hear that phrase, they then respond by bowing down before God, they take off their crowns and put them in front of God, and they say (which is seen in verse 11 and is also formatted differently), “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
But no sooner had the 24 elders finished saying that, finished bowing down, then saying, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” then the four-legged creatures will say their bit again, and as soon as they finish saying “… by your will they existed and were created,” then you’ve got for living creatures, who once again say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to Come!”
What happens when they say that? Well, that triggers the 24 elders again to bow down before God, cast their crowns before Him and say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” And so it goes on – back to the living creatures, back to the elders, in this constant cycle of praise as they recognise who God is.
But when we look at those things they tell us a few things about God that are important for us to hang onto. It tells us He’s absolutely holy – that’s why they say it three times, to really emphasise that He’s absolutely holy, that He’s the Lord God Almighty, that He’s eternal, that He is worthy of praise, that He deserves recognition and esteem and authority. Everything that is and everything that continues to exist is by His will. He’s made everything in the first place, and He keeps everything going. Therefore, He is worthy of worship.
So, from all this, we see that God deserves our perpetual worship. He deserves all of the perpetual worship that ever there could be. He deserves that worship to go on forever and ever. He deserves one choir to declare His unique being, only for another choir to declare His sovereign worth. He deserves it! He deserves our worship.
Do you ever find it repetitive coming to church every week? You come week after week. We do the same thing week in, week out – a slightly different hymn, slightly different reading, a different preacher this week to last week. We’re doing the same thing over and over again. Do we ever find it repetitive? Maybe we do, but that’s because of our sinful nature, that’s because of our flaws.
But God he deserves our praise. Perhaps you find it hard coming in these in these times we’re living in, with these restrictions? You hate wearing masks? I hate wearing masks, I hate that we can’t sing, that we’re not supposed to talk to each other too long at the end of service. These are frustrating times. Perhaps it makes our repeated worship, week in week out, even harder to do. But God is worthy of it. He deserves our worship and He deserves it to be done over and over and over again. And after all, if God is, as we have said, beyond our full grasp, then we will never be able to declare the fullness of who He is. We will never be able to tell Him fully how amazing He is.
Coming week by week and telling Him something a little bit different each week, something a little bit more of God’s glorious splendour each week, will build up into this big picture of who God is and how He deserves our worship. We need to remember that every time we gather in worship, when we spend time throughout the week, morning, evening, reading your Bible and praying, that God is worthy of our repeated worship everyday of our lives. And when we do that, when we read the Bible on our own and pray, when we gather each Sunday and worship, we’re joining in the perpetual worship of heaven. As the temple of God is meeting, even right now, we’re joining in their worship. Our worship started at 10:30 a.m. this morning but we joined in what was already going on in heaven. Revelation 4 is always going on in heaven. We are simply joining in this morning. He deserves our worship. He deserves us to join Him and declare His work.
So, as we began, is the world going to end? Are we on the edge of collapse? Are we in danger of mass extinction? Is the natural order about to cease to exist? Are humans going to be wiped out by Coronavirus? Well, we need not be fearful. Everything that exists is by God’s control, by His sovereign hand. It will not cease to exist except for Him allowing it to stop. It is by God’s will that anything exists, and it is by His will that we, as humans, and every other creature on this Earth, continues to have their being. It is by His will. We see He is the sovereign Lord who is on the throne of heaven, who is in control of all things, who holds all things His hands. He is unapproachable yet He has revealed Himself to us and He is worthy of all of our worship.
The first chapter of Esther is so relevant to our situation today. Hebrew Ahasuerus. His Hebrew Persian title is Xerxes. For the purpose of this sermon he will be referred to as Xerxes.
This scripture is so relevant to our situation today. Esther is one of two books in the Old Testament that actually never mentions God. The other is the Song of Songs. But it would be wrong to think that this book of Esther is just a book of history. The fact that God’s name is not mentioned is deliberate because the message of the book of Esther is this: behind the scenes of life lies the unseen God whose hand controls the movement of individuals and empires. God is not directly mentioned. Why? Because the message is although God is not acknowledged and is unnamed, He’s clearly there. His will is sovereign, and His will and sovereign purpose is being worked out.
Here we are in an age of pandemic. How many people have thought about God? People believe He’s a God who is not relevant; our trust is in science, in SAGE, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. The government says we’re following the science, it doesn’t say we’re following God. We live in an age when the church of Christ is struggling in some lands. Perhaps, even as Christians, we are tempted to say, ‘Where is the God of the revivals of Welsh history? Where is the God of times past of salvation of large numbers of people? Perhaps, as individuals, there may be circumstances in our lives when we ask ‘Where are you God, have you abandoned me? I see no evidence of your presence.’ The message of the book of Esther is that God is at work, constantly accomplishing His will and purpose. He’s at work in and through the pandemic, He’s at work in and through the church and He’s at work in and through the life of His people.
The opening two chapters introduce us to the main characters. In chapter two we see Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the ‘baddie’ in the story, Haman. Esther is going to placed on the throne alongside King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) to be the instrument by which God saves His people, the Jews, from annihilation, and therefore assures that the line of the Messiah continues and Jesus is born to be Saviour of the world.
But before chapter two we have a look at chapter one, where the other main character is introduced to us, King Xerxes. Xerxes the First, son of Darius the First, who ruled over the Persian Empire from 486 – 485 B.C. He is presented to us in this chapter as the master of all of the civilised world, as his kingdom stretches from India in the East to modern day Ethiopia in the West, a kingdom that was organised into 127 provinces. He is now in the third year of his reign.
From history, we know that he has just successfully put down a rebellion in Egypt and is now turning his attention to Greece. His ambition is to conquer and subjugate the Greek world. He gathers together his commanders and all of the chief of officials of the various provinces to come to his palace in Susa, the capital, to plan the attack on Greece. The Persians believed in mixing business and pleasure and so the occasion of the planning of the campaign is elongated by many feasts. After about six months the preparations have been made, a plan has been drawn up and so the time is being drawn to a close by a great feast. Herodotus, a Greek historian of the period, says that Xerxes was going to raise the largest naval and land force the world had ever seen, numbering 2.6 million men. A huge, huge military operation. Having planned it all out, there was now this great climatic feast.
It was held in the opulent luxury of Xerxes’ palace, which was tastefully decorated for the occasion. It was a fitting backdrop to this display of his royal liberality. Xerxes provides abundantly for his guests, no expense spared. He is magnanimous; there are people from different cultures, different backgrounds with different attitudes. Protocol would be that if the king drinks everyone else drinks. But Xerxes is not going to force people to drink, he allows them to follow their own customs. Here he is, this great king, commanding a vast army, ruling over the greatest empire, fabulously wealthy, but he’s not going to force people to follow what he does.
The man sits upon the throne with total dominion over many nations, with absolute authority. But we know from history all of this went to his head. One of his royal palaces had this inscription written on its foundation stone, “I am Xerxes, the great King, the only King. The King of all countries that speaks all kinds of languages. The king of this big and far-reaching earth.’ But what Xerxes failed to see is that there is a greater King. There is a greater King who dictates the course of Xerxes’ life and the course of his empire. The great, unseen, almighty God who, for His own purposes, raises up Xerxes. The rulers and leaders of the nations feel themselves important. They have their trappings and power and authority. But it is God who appoints governments of all descriptions (Romans 13:1-2). We are to give due regard to those whom God appoints. But we must also expect them to realise that they are answerable to God. They will have to stand one day before their Creator and give an account of themselves, as all men will.
As we look at this man Xerxes I am reminded of another King who has all power and authority, the one before whom every knee must ultimately bow, the Lord Jesus Christ. Xerxes felt he was the ultimate power. But ultimate authority is given by God to only one, His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. He always uses His power for the good of His people. Xerxes could be generous to a point but King Jesus, who has the wealth of all creation, His generosity is boundless. He pours out grace upon grace upon those He loves.
Here is a king who provides a regular banquet, a great and glorious feast. No banquet on earth is like it. Xerxes threw a great banquet, but nothing compares to the great banquet our King regularly provides for us – the Lord’s Supper. Here we feast upon Him. It’s a love feast for pardoned sinners, whatever their status in human society. The bread and the wine are the symbols of His broken body and His outpoured blood, all for the sake of our salvation. This banquet is the foretaste of the great eternal, never-ending banquet in glory to come.
King Jesus eclipses Xerxes. What a blessing it is to be Jesus’s subjects. Nothing compares. We see Xerxes as a powerful king but then we see Xerxes sees as a drunken king, as frail as all men. On the last day of this feast we find him in high spirits from wine. It impairs his judgement. He commands Queen Vashti to appear before him and his men. He wants them to be impressed by her beauty, he wants them to acknowledge that he is the one with the most beautiful wife in the world. He wants his officials to admire her regal beauty.
But such a request was degrading for Vashti. It was an affront. Vashti was also giving a great feast for women because that was the norm. The women and the men did not mix on these occasions. It was regarded as being wrong for women, particularly women of importance, to be involved in these male-only booze-ups. So, when Vashti is commanded to come, she refuses. She is not going to be belittled in this way. She is not going to be subjected to this demeaning behaviour. Whether she was wise to refuse is a matter for debate, but it is wrong that she was commanded. Here is, perhaps, one of the most telling examples in scripture of drinking to excess. It is said that Joseph Stalin seldom drank himself, but always plied his visitors liberally with alcohol! He knew that when they were drunk they would let slip secrets.
All men are sinful and subject to the same temptations, therefore, all are equally under God’s judgement. All are equally in need of salvation through Jesus Christ, the rich and the poor, the famous and the unknown There is no greater place of equality than before the law of God and the cross of Christ. We are living in an age that speaks of inclusivity and equality. Well, there is inclusivity, there is equality. Not found in the ways the people of our day think, but found before the law of God. We are all included. Everyone. On exactly the same basis, exactly the same level – as sinners. There is no-one righteous, no, not one. That is equality before the Lord of God, for all are condemned. There is wonderful inclusivity in the Lord Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter what gender, social class or race we are, no one is more saved than anyone else, no one has a greater place in the Kingdom of God than anybody else. Here is true inclusivity. That’s the true meaning of conversion.
The Bible, and the New Testament especially, warns of the dangers of alcohol (Ephesians 5:18). We must never put ourselves in a position where something or someone else has control over us, where we succumb to another influence. We are to be Jesus’ alone.
Finally, we see a furious King. Vashti’s refusal sends Xerxes into a rage. He’s no longer proud of his Queen’s beauty, instead he’s irate. He calls together his seven closest advisors, men who aren’t concerned to see justice done. They think if Vashti gets away with it, what about their wives? And so they counsel that Vashti be disposed and Xerxes finds another queen. This Xerxes readily does.
Interestingly, at the start of chapter 2, Xerxes begins to regret this, but at this point he’s going to teach her a lesson. He doesn’t acknowledge his own guilt. He would have been better apologising. He sees Vashti’s refusal as an affront, but of course this lays the groundwork for Esther to become queen – Esther the Jewess, the one who at the telling moment is going to announce to Xerxes that it her people that Haman wants to destroy, that she is a Jewess. In that moment God is going to use Esther to overturn Haman’s plan and ensure the safety of the Jews, and therefore of the line of the Messiah, that the Saviour of the world might be born. That doesn’t mean that what Xerxes did was all right. But God worked though Xerxes’ bad temper and drunkenness. God is at work God bringing about the circumstances whereby Esther will be placed in that most significant position.
We’re all like Xerxes; we find it easier to be angry with someone else than acknowledge our own sinful faults. So, we asked that the Lord gives us grace to see our faults first. How thankful we are that our King will never lose His temper, despite our disobedience. He deals patiently with us.
We may deserve to lose our salvation, but we never will because God is faithful. Our king has given us a counsellor who always advises us – the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). He will never flatterer us but will always tell us what we need to know – the truth that sets us free. In Xerxes we see an all-powerful king who seccumbs to drink and a furious rage. But it is God who is at work. God, through all of this, will ensure the great King will come, King Jesus, the one whose rule is righteous and true, the one who rules for the good of His people. His love always ensures they are safe in eternal salvation. He loves them and guides them by the Holy Spirit and ensures they will always be co-heirs in the Kingdom. What a joy to be subjects of King Jesus. What a comfort to know God has ordained all things. May God be praised!
Isaiah 53 is a portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, written by Isaiah 700 years before the very first Good Friday. In Acts we read of an African official who had been in Jerusalem and was on his way home in his chariot back to Africa. He was reading out loud this chapter. The Holy Spirit had already put it into the mind and heart of Philip, the evangelist, to run down to the dessert road in Gaza. We have heard a lot about Gaza this past week, sadly none of it good. However, this was a wonderful occasion. Philip arrived next to that chariot as the Ethiopian official was reading these words from Isaiah. He asked the question, ‘Who is he speaking about, himself or someone else?’ Philip was invited up into the chariot and started with that chapter to tell him the good news of Jesus. We know that this chapter is all about the Lord Jesus. In fact, we can start anywhere in this chapter, any verse, and we will see Jesus there.
We need the Holy Spirit’s help to be able to see Jesus. There are some people who read the whole Bible and don’t see Jesus anywhere. But there are others who read any part of the word of God and they see Jesus there. This chapter, perhaps above all other chapters in the Old Testament, speaks to us of the Lord Jesus Christ. Today, the thing that will do us the most good is to fix our eyes on the Lord Jesus.
In every verse in this chapter, we see the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. We see His physical suffering here. He was a man of sorrows. He was pierced (verse 5) with a crown of thorns, we remember the spear that pierced His side after He had died. He was crushed and bruised. We think of Him being beaten with rods, bruised by the weight of the cross that He was made to carry. We see the physical sufferings, but we know from our own experiences, that physical sufferings are not the only type of suffering that we endure in this world. There’s also injustice. We see here the suffering of injustice (verse 7). He was oppressed and afflicted. There was this pressure upon Him even though He deserved none of it (verse 8). He was arrested, led like a lamb to the slaughter.
We see not only injustice but the agonies of rejection. He was rejected from the very beginning of his life, even as a very young child, “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground, he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2). It was spiritually dry ground when Jesus came into the world. There had been 400 years when no word had been heard from God at all. The last word of the Old Testament was 400 years prior to the birth of the Lord Jesus. There was very little to see what God was doing. Then, in that dry land a root appeared.
When Jesus was born, He did not have physical attractiveness that we should desire Him. He wasn’t a physically handsome man. He was despised and rejected by His family and by others when He began His ministry. On that first Good Friday He was left all alone, they all fled. The rejection was complete by those who should have loved Him. He was despised and rejected. On the cross people hurled insults. The people really despised Him. When we read all of that we ask, ‘Why did the Lord Jesus have to suffer so much? Why did a loving God, His Father, allow this His only Son to go through that? The answer is, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief;when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days, (Isaiah 53:10).
Jesus suffered so much because the Father decided He should. It was the will of the Father that it should happen. The Father caused Him to suffer. We need light and understanding from heaven to understand this.
The suffering of the Lord Jesus was the will of God. In some of the earlier versions of the Bible, the NKJV and the KJV, we read, “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10). What a thing to say! Surely the Father won’t be pleased to see His Son suffer? Yet, the same word is used in Isaiah 42:21, “The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake, to magnify his law and make it glorious.” The Lord was pleased the word of God was going out. It is the same word. So, it pleased the Father. How could it please the Father to see His Son suffer? The Father caused Him to suffer. The cross was a deadly wound inflicted on Christ. What Father would be pleased to see His only son crushed?
Throughout His life on Earth the Father constantly assured His Son He loved Him. We hear His voice at Jesus’ Baptism “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17). Then again, when Jesus ascended, we hear the same thing, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5). Yes, the Father loved the Son deeply. There was never a time when the Father did not love the Son.
So how could a loving Father do this? Notice, it doesn’t say ‘Father’ here, it says ‘Lord, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief,” (Isaiah 53:10). It reminds us we have a triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Way before the world was ever created, there was this counsel between the Father and the Son and the Spirit. They determined how sinful, fallen human beings, as they knew they would be, would be saved. The Father would send the Son into the world to be the Saviour of the world. The Son would willingly come, the Son would willingly give His life for the sins of the world. The Holy Spirit would come and make that work of the cross real in people’s hearts. The Son was in agreement, and the Father delighted to send His Son. It was the will of the Son as well. It was the will of the Holy Spirit. It pleased them.
We read the remarkable words of the Lord Jesus in John 10:17, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.”The Father deeply loves the Son because He is willing to lay down His life. It was the will of the Lord to crush Him. Not because He had some awful delight in inflicting pain upon His Son but because this was part of the great purpose of God and the only way you and I could ever be saved from our sin and forgiven. If there was another way, do you think the Father would have allowed it? This is the whole point of Gethsemane isn’t it? When Jesus said, ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass by.’ In other words, ‘If there is another way, then let’s find that way.’ Do you think that a loving father would have done that if there had been another way? But the fact is that the Father loved the world of sinners lost and ruined by the Fall. And so, Jesus was made a guilt offering.
In the Old Testament there was a guilt offering – a bull, ram or sheep – and hands would be laid symbolically on the head of that animal to transfer the sins onto that animal, transferring the guilt of our sins onto that animal. The animal was then taken and killed and sacrificed to God on the alter. The animal died in the place of the sinner.
And that’s the meaning of verse 6, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).
Human life and animal life are so different. The Jewish people would have known that really, there was no way that the animal could take away their sins. How wonderful Isaiah was given this vision. Here was the Lamb that could take away the sins of the world. Only a sinless person could take away the sins of the world. There was no other way. The Father was doing this, the Son was willingly going to the cross because this was the way that your sins and my sins can be borne away.
If left undealt with, your sins and my sins would carry us down to an eternal hell and we will be punished forever – and justly so. The Father knew that that would be the consequence if the Son did not go the to the cross. And that is why it delighted the Father to see His Son bearing the sins of others so that they wouldn’t enter that eternal hell but that they would be welcomed into an eternal heaven. Only this one sacrifice for sin would prove the Lord to be just and the one who could justify sinners like us. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, He only could unlock the gates of heaven and let us in.
How can a sinner like me, with all my deceitfulness and rebellion in my heart, go into the presence of the holy, pure God? How can I stand before a just God when I have broken His laws? You cannot provide a ransom for your own sins. Your guilt must be taken by someone else, or you will have to bear it yourself. No act that you could ever perform in your life can ever take away the guilt that you have.
Only the pure Son of God Himself could bear your sin and mine. That is why it was the Lord’s will to crush Him. That is why the Father put Him to grief. There was no other way. A loving Father loved His Son so much that He said, ‘Son, you are willing to go there for the sake of these sinners, millions of them, throughout the world and throughout the whole history of the world. If you are prepared to go and give your life and bear all this sufferings for their sins, and take their guilt, then it will delight Me to see you do it.’
All the fruits of salvation came to us through the suffering of Jesus. Some deaths are fruitful in a measure. It always breaks my heart to see families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances, like when a child dies. Families want to make that life significant in some way, they want to make sure it wasn’t in vain. Parents want to remember them and may set up a charity or research in order that some good might come out of the tragedy. There are occasions when there is fruit from tragedy (example of Annie, the life-saving dummy. Because of her death so many have been saved.)
Yet, there is so much more here,“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:10). There would be children from Jesus, spiritual children, from the whole of the world, the whole of history – children born again because the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Death could not hold the Lord Jesus. When He had provided satisfaction for sin, He lives forever. The will of the Lord will prosper in His hands. Salvation would be gained.
You and I can never achieve our salvation, but God the Father provided a way. The challenge to you and me today is, ‘Are you resting in Christ and His sufferings or are you resting in something else?’ Come to Christ and rest only in Him. Rest in Christ alone. That is the will of God. It was the Lord’s will to crush Him.
The second great challenge is ‘Do we want to see the Church prosper in our days?’ Of course we do. Yet the temptation is to try all sorts of gimmicks. The preaching of the death and suffering of the Jesus is the only way the church will prosper. Only the preaching of the crucified and risen Lord will ensure fruit. All of us want to see more fruit. None of us are happy with the size of our churches, none of us are happy that we see few conversions. Cling to the cross. Preach Christ alone for salvation. Rest in Him alone.
Through His death and resurrection, the will of God will prosper. Rejoice in Him because He has done it all. What is there for us to do? Simply repent and believe and put our trust only in a crucified Saviour. And one day, this risen, ascended Jesus will come again in glory. And if we are still here on Earth we will see Him. Even those who pierced Him will see Him. If we have already gone to glory, we shall be enjoying His presence forever more because He bore our sins on the cross of Calvary.
This is one coherent paragraph. However, verse 13 is often mis-quoted and used in isolation. It needs to be understood in its right context. This epistle is very much a letter of joy. The Church in Philippi was established by Paul himself. Paul knows them very well. The Philippians are seeking to do things in truth and correct spirit. Why would Paul therefore need to encourage this if they were committed to gospel work? Paul is also thanking them for sending him a gift but also saying his need wasn’t so great he couldn’t cope.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
Paul says, ‘all things,’ not everything. To say someone can do anything is to say this is unlimited, there is nothing I can’t do. This is to ignore the gifting of God. What did Paul really mean by ‘all things?’ This is the final sentence of a paragraph, a summary. So, Paul has already told us about these things, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”(verse 12). Paul uses a pictorial way of saying this is all of life’s experience. Do we approach our lives in the right way?
In Romans 12:1 Paul writes,“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” The word ‘service’ can also be rendered as worship. The ESV Bible reads, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Every aspect of our life is of interest to God.
“Through Christ who strengthens me.” Do we still consider the things of Christ when we face a crisis? Do we take it to the Lord in prayer? The world’s alternative is, ‘I can do all things myself because I don’t need anyone else.’ A key point of being a Christian is, ‘I am weak, I need Christ.’
Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing,” (John 15:5). The whole point of being a Christian is to bear fruit. A vine branch only produces fruit if it is attached to the vine itself. The vine dresser is God. We need to keep our eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to be focused on Christ and remember what is really important in our lives. Don’t strive after what the world says is important.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). This is a key point, made not only by Matthew, but also Mark and Luke, who make the point even more strongly. Everything comes down to our relationship with Christ – what we do through Him. He uses us to accomplish His purposes.
“Who strengthens me.” God strengthens us. The Christian’s life is a battle. Satan will attack wherever he can. But God knows everything and provides us with everything we need. He supplies our every need. Sometimes life can seem as if we are wading through treacle, gritting our teeth waiting for the fun ahead. When Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,”(Philippians 4:13), he is not speaking about some sudden empowerment. In 1 Timothy 6 Paul warns Timothy of the days of seeking worldly gain. The temptations of the world will rob us of contentment. Contentment is really to be found in trusting God. As we trust in God it should inform and calm our minds. Contentment does not come overnight. Paul tells us in verse 11 he had to learn to be contented, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
In verse 12 we are being shown something that was secret, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”Paul makes it clear that contentment requires effort.
We have been called by God to live lives that are holy. We are also to be ready to give a defence for the hope that is within us. Christian contentment is remembering God is with us in all things and in all times.
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:10-14
It’s amazing how God has watched over us during this Pandemic. We are here now because of the God who is faithful to His promises.
A friend of mine, who’s been a preacher of the gospel since the age of sixteen, until the age of 96 before he died last year, once said to me, “In the pulpit your text can come from any part of Scripture because God speaks to us through all of it. But you must end at the Cross because this is the essential message of the gospel.” This is what I’ve always tried to do. But my thoughts throughout this lockdown is what I’ve missed more than anything is Communion, the Lord’s Table. Thankfully, we’ve recently been able to take it up again, keeping high standards of hygiene. It’s an essential part of our worship and is a follow-on from something much older, as if focusing from the shadow to the substance, or as I would rather call it, the reality. I think that the nearest equivalent in the Jewish faith was the Feast of the Passover, the coming together of the Jewish people to remember what God had done. We need to understand the shadow to grasp the substance, or the reality.
Back in Genesis 4 we hear of sheep and sin for the first time. As we all know, Abel was a keeper of sheep and Cain was a tiller of the ground. When it came to a time of sacrifice Abel brought a lamb of God and Cain brought the produce that he had lifted from the ground. Abel’s offering was accepted but Cain’s offering was not. Cain wasn’t pleased about this and God said to him, ‘Why has your face fallen? Don’t you realise that when you come before God with a sacrifice it will be accepted, but if it is not then sin is at the door?’ Cain discovered that day that God is not interested in any sacrifice unless it comes from the heart.
Then we come to another entry of the lamb in Genesis 22:2 when we read about the lamb and the love of God. We read of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son. In verse 7 young Isaac began to look around him for the lamb that would be sacrificed. Abraham told him God would provide a lamb for the burnt offering. The answer Abraham gave his son could be read in a different way; I believe he said that ‘My son, God will give Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.’ Later in that chapter, when Isaac was laid on the wood and Abraham’s hand was raised to strike, you can wonder how a man of such a great age as Abraham could bind his son, who by then would have been a strong teenager. It could only be because of the love and obedience he had to his father. Even this reminds us of the way Jesus spoke of His impending death on the cross and His willingness to submit to the Father’s will.
But then God said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” It seems strange to read this when Isaac was not his only son, he was his second son. But then Isaac was the son of promise, and the other was the son of the flesh. Isaac’s wiliness to be sacrificed leads us so easily go in our minds to John 3:16, and how God gave His only Son. We can read from this that God is providing a lamb for Himself. The only sacrifice that would be acceptable for atonement for our sin would not come from us but from God Himself. He would not allow Abraham to sacrifice the son he loved. In His own great love for His people, He was willing to give His only begotten Son on Calvary. This was the action of a loving, compassionate God reaching out to a dying world and extending the only hope of redemption.
Some of you may have heard this story before. I joined the army in 1949 and after about nine months I found myself in Manobier Castle, a dismal, desolate place. I settled down. Later I met the local newsagent’s daughter. In those days the things of God, salvation and any form of Christianity had no interest for me. I wasn’t a believer. I knew that if I wanted to be part of that family, I had to help with the Sunday newspaper delivery. It was quite a big job; I traipsed around the married quarters, the villages of Manobier, Lydstep, Jameston and St. Florence. Quite a big area. Having been born in the centre of a town and never been to the countryside I saw things that seemed strange to me.
One thing that stayed in my memory, a tradition I had never encountered before. One of my deliveries was to a Mrs. John. I was always met at the door by her young son, who was about seven or eight years old. He couldn’t wait for his comic! After about a year I remember an incident that has stayed with me ever since. One Sunday I knocked on the door and the boy answered. I saw a little lamb inside the home. To my mind a lamb belonged in the field with the sheep, not in a kitchen getting under everyone’s feet. I learnt that sometimes an ewe will die in lambing or might reject the lamb. The farmer would try to place it with another ewe but if that failed it would be reared by the farmer’s wife or any other woman who volunteered. So, this particular lamb was in the care of Mrs. John. I became accustomed every Sunday to seeing this lamb running around the house as a pet. I saw him grow in vigour in the family’s tender care. The children loved it and played with it. It seemed to become one of the family.
Then, one day, I called and the lamb was missing. I asked where it was. I was told, “It’s in the freezer.” Just like that! I was shocked. A pet one day and food for the table the next. That day I learnt of the harshness of country life. Time went on. Eventually we got married and later I left the army. My wife died in 1982. Things went downhill for a while, until one day I responded to an invitation to visit a chapel. It wasn’t long before God spoke to me in His Word as I read it. I had my own Bible and I read it. From the beginning, page one.
As I began reading the book of Exodus I saw how the children of Israel were being guests of the Egyptians for four hundred years after a period of famine, and how they were slaves. Moses had pleaded for their release and Pharoah’s refusal had led God to visit upon the Egyptians some terrible plagues. The hardness of the heart of pharaoh didn’t have the desired effect. So, we come to the final plague which was the death of the first born of man and animals throughout Egypt. To ensure the survival of the children of Israel, God gave a commandment to Moses that each household was to take a lamb of the flock. Now this lamb was to be perfect. They would take it into their houses and care for it. You can imagine this lamb being part of the family, playing with the children, being fed by hand. It would look upon the people as being its own family. After four days it was slaughtered as this was the commandment. The blood was to be placed on the door posts (Exodus 12:6-7).
My mind went back immediately to that house forty four years before; a picture began to form in my mind which wouldn’t reach completion until a few years more. The blood of that little lamb put on the lintel and doorposts of the houses would save the lives of God’s people but strike the Egyptians (Exodus 12:12-13). This was the beginning of the Jewish Feast of the Passover, which has been celebrated ever since. We remember a time when the children of Israel were sheltered from the wrath of God by the blood of the lamb. Ever since, as Jewish families meet around the table for the Passover meal, the father will tell his children of the time when God allowed the children of Israel to live because He had shown to them the blood of the lamb.
Now the people were released from bondage and after forty years in the wilderness they were able to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land – the land promised to Abraham by God, so many years before. The place of the crossing was significant because many years later something else important happened at that same spot. A great event took place. A man had drawn a large crowd of people as he was baptising men and women in the river. This man was known by many as the last of the Old Testament prophets. People argue about this but to my mind the Old Testament prophets were the ones who prophesied the coming of the Messiah and this man was the last one to do it. He was spoken of as John the Baptist although I’ve learnt since then that he wasn’t really a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Presbyterian. He was a Jew.
The crowds lined the banks of the river and he called on all to repent of their sins and be baptised. There were many people waiting their turn to go into the water. There were many who were just spectators. Some were observing to report back to the Pharisees what they had seen. But John didn’t see that; he looked beyond and saw one man coming through the crowds toward him, just an ordinary man (Isaiah 53). But John knew who He was, he couldn’t help knowing. God had spoken to him and had told him who it was. He revealed it to him. This has happened many times in the work of God.
Matthew 16:13 tells us of a time when Jesus asked His followers who men thought He was. After various answers He then asks them who did they think He was. Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16: 16). In the following verse Jesus tells Peter he has been blessed because God has revealed this to him. It can only be through speaking to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that things like this can be revealed to us by God. This is how John the Baptist knew who was coming towards him through the water. But how did John greet this man? He could have hailed Him as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Word of God. But no, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.”
Now the people who heard this would have been shocked because to the Jewish people the Lamb of God would be the Passover Lamb revealed to us in the books of Moses. They would not understand that the Messiah had come to take the sins of mankind upon Himself and suffer and die an atonement. Everything in the temple concerning the Day of Atonement concerned the sins of Israel, of the Jewish people. This man, walking into the water, would later give His life in order to atone for the sins of all of us (John 3:16). His shed blood would save people from all walks of life, for their sins, and shelter them from the wrath of a righteous God. When God seeks out sinners and sees the blood, He passes over us. We can see from this that the Lamb spoken of, the Lamb of God, is the same Passover Lamb, the innocent Lamb that was slain to cover our sins – the Lamb who died that we might live. From this we are told that any person who truly repents, no matter what race or religion, if he is covered by the blood of the Lamb of God, if the blood is on the doorposts of his heart, God will pass over him on the Day of Judgement.
It’s amazing when we look back and see what God says in Exodus 12:13, that this promise applies to us, not just to the Jewish people. Jesus is our Passover Lamb and the blood God speaks of is the precious blood of the Lamb of God shed on Calvary. The Lamb was slain but if we have saving faith in Jesus Christ, the Passover Lamb will be in our houses every day, in our hearts. The Passover Lamb will be with us in every way possible – on our lips. Just as when a Jewish family sits around the table for the Passover meal, in the same way we meet around the table, the Lord’s Table. It is also a remembrance of the goodness of God in giving us His only begotten Son as our Passover Lamb, as we are reminded as the pastor reads the word of 1 Corinthians 11:25. One day we hope all these Pandemic restrictions are over and we can again glorify God as we come together in personal song, meeting again around the Lord’s Table.