The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
-- Isaiah 9:2-7 ESV
These verses remind us that the story of Christmas, the story of the incarnation, is part of a bigger story. They remind us of this simply because these words were written many years before Christ was born. They also remind us of this because of the images surrounding this prophecy of Christ’s birth. There are images of future peace (v5) & images of an increasing kingdom (v7). These verses also connect the first & second coming of Christ together & therefore everything before & in between. All this helps us remember the story of Christmas is one important chapter of the most important story ever told. On its own it becomes a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, but when understood in the context of the bigger story it becomes one of the most important events in history.
This story affects our story, we cannot disconnect from it. Our eternal destiny depends on how we respond to this story. This story, if believed, brings hope, purpose & salvation to our lives. This story also gives great & certain hope to a world ravaged with war & sin & famine etc.
The main character of the story of course is the child born, the son given! He is the hero of every chapter. He is the one who existed before time & created all things. He is the one the law & the prophets point to. He is the one who was miraculously born of a virgin called Mary. He is the one the Gospel’s tells us about. He is the one who died for our sin so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. He is the one who was raised again, conquering Satan, sin &death. He is the one who ascended to the right hand of the Father & sent his Spirit to start & build his Church. He is the one the Church is rooted & grounded in & held together by. He is the one who will return again to judge the living & the dead & fully establish his ever increasing kingdom of righteousness, peace & joy.
What do these verses teach us about the main character of the story?
They teach us that he brings light (2) & joy (3). He breaks burdens & oppression (4). He will bring all war to an end (5). But it’s verse 6 I want to focus on; “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” NOTE THAT HE CAME FOR US, “and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This child of course is the Immanuel mentioned in 7:14. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This child is God with us. This prophecy is not claiming the child would achieve all these things as a child, but that in some significant way he would appear on the scene as a child. He “is born”, as human beings are. He “is given” in a special way. And an everlasting kingdom will rest on his shoulders (v6-7).
Now come four names which help us understand his identity. He cannot be described in one name or even with one word names. Also, in Hebrew thinking, a name describes his character. So to pray in his name is to pray according to his character...
He is the Wonderful Counsellor, meaning he is the one who is able to make the wisest & most wonderful plans. Many people make their plans but this Wonderful Counsellor is the only one who achieves all he sets out to achieve. Proverbs 19:21 says; “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” The term could also be translated “a marvel of a counsellor.” So if you want your life to be well spent, if you want things to work out well, if you need wisdom for all of life he is the one to go to! He is the one to listen to & he is the one to trust in. His counsel may well clash with the wisdom of this world & what others tell you but he & he alone is the Wonderful Counsellor!
He is also the Mighty God. He not only has the wisdom to make perfect plans he equally has the power to carry them out. He has nothing less than the power of almighty God at his command! What he plans he is able to achieve with omnipotent power – for he is himself God! So this child, this son who we know as Jesus, has much more than the X Factor – he has the God factor! A literal translation of this term could be God-hero. Many people will promise you things & offer you help but only Jesus has the power to follow through on all he promises & plans. For this reason only Jesus can be fully trusted, fully relied upon. As people of faith we are called to fully rely on Jesus for everything.
He is the Everlasting Father. The heart of God the Father is fully expressed in Jesus. Jesus said “I and the Father are one.” This name teaches us that Jesus has a loving, protective, parental concern for those who have been entrusted to his care. As Psalm 103:13 says; “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” Jesus is not only all-wise & all-powerful then, he is also all-loving. This perhaps more than anything is why we can fully trust & fully rely on him. His counsel is motivated out of love for us & his might is used to protect those entrusted to his care. There is no safer place to be than in the care of an all-wise, almighty, all-loving Saviour & King!
He is the Prince of Peace. This brief character sketch is completed with the name Prince of Peace. The next verse teaches us this son will secure everlasting peace - “and of peace there will be no end.” It’s hard to believe what it’s like to live in a world of total & unending peace. War & division has robbed this world of peace just as turmoil & anxiety have often robbed our hearts of peace. However this child will fully establish a kingdom in which no such things exist – a kingdom of people at peace with God & one another in Christ. This peace will not be experienced in full until the Son returns however we can know peace with God in our hearts today because a child was born, because a son was given!
In his book ‘Peace Child,’ Don Richardson [a missionary] tells of his long struggle to bring the Gospel to a cannibalistic, headhunting Sawi tribe in Indonesia. Try as he would, he could not find a way to make the people understand the Gospel message, especially the significance of Christ’s death on the cross. Sawi villages were constantly fighting among themselves, and because treachery, revenge and murder were highly honoured there seemed no hope of peace. The tribe however, had a legendary custom that if one village gave a baby boy to another village, peace would prevail between the two villages as long as the child lived. The baby was called a “peace child.”
The missionary seized on that story as an analogy of the reconciling work of Christ. Christ, he said, is God’s divine peace child that he has offered to man, & because Jesus lives forever, peace with God will last forever if you accept Him.
Because the ‘peace child’, the Prince of Peace, was given to us & died & rose from the dead for us and now lives forever we can be assured of eternal peace with God and everlasting peace within! Romans 5:1 says; “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 4:7 says “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” So we can know peace with God & peace within as we wait for the Prince of Peace to come again & usher his kingdom of everlasting peace to this world.
Apparently some of the earth’s most violent weather occurs on the seas. But the deeper one goes the more serene and tranquil the water becomes. Oceanographers report that the deepest parts of the sea are absolutely still. When those areas are dredged they produce remnants of plant and animal life that have remained undisturbed for thousands of years.
That is a picture of the peace we can all have with God. The world around us, including our own circumstances, may be in great turmoil & strife at times, but within we can know peace that surpasses understanding. Those who are in the best circumstances but are without Christ can never find true lasting peace, but those in the worst circumstances but with Christ need never lack it. For in the very depths of their being all is well, for they have found peace with God by trusting in the Prince of Peace.
My prayer is that we will all know his peace this Christmas.
Pastor, Sligo City Church
By John Fitzsimmons
Key Texts: 1 Cor. 2:14-3:9; Hosea 10:12
It is possible to read the Bible for many years & still not understand it. You can try all the translations & still not get it. You could even go to Bible College & get a masters degree in theology & still not really understand authentic Christianity. The scribes & Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly trained in the OT, yet they missed its central message! Often enough, people have said to me something like; ‘I’ve tried reading the Bible but I just don’t understand it’. We may be tempted to simply encourage such a person to read what we perceive as a simpler version or give them explanatory notes or some other aid. However according to Paul there is a deeper problem behind why people don’t understand spiritual wisdom.
1. Only Spiritual People Can Understand Spiritual Things (2:14-16)
Paul makes it clear that only spiritual people can understand spiritual things! That’s the basic point of verse 14: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” So in order to both accept & understand spiritual wisdom we need to be spiritual people. Meaning we need to be people who are spiritually awake, spiritually alive, spiritually hungry, spiritually illumined & spiritually perceptive! And the point Paul has been arguing in previous verses is that it’s only the Holy Spirit who can make us any & all of these things. There is no true spirituality apart from the Holy Spirit.
Naturally, because of sin, we do not want to accept God’s wisdom & naturally we do not understand it. It clashes with so many of the influences of the age & the impulses of our flesh. However when the Holy Spirit comes into a person’s life he begins to change this by changing their desires so they can accept spiritual wisdom & by illuminating their minds so they can understand spiritual things.
In light of this we should invest far more time praying for spiritual awakening in people than we do trying to make the truth more plausible or understandable to the natural mind. The real battle is spiritual. 2 Cor. 4:4 says “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing...” The real battle is spiritual! The Bible emphasises this in many different ways – darkness to light, new birth, regeneration, being raised from spiritual death, removing the veil, replacing a heart of stone with a heart of flesh or being born again. Therefore it is not a simpler, cooler, diluted or more plausible explanation that people need but deep spiritual awakening & illumination – a demonstration of the Spirit & power as Paul puts it in 2:4. And it makes sense to see this demonstration of God’s power as the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit since that is where his reasoning goes.
One of the problems with a lot of preaching today is that people try to employ the logic of the world to reach the world. So much time & effort is spent in our generation on trying to make the gospel more plausible & understandable to the natural person & so little time is spent on our knees praying for spiritual awakening – which is what we need more than anything. What we need is a move of God in the hearts of men, women & children - then they will get it! Nothing else will work, nothing else has ever worked. I’m only being honest by saying that the more I read & hear what God says in Scripture the more discontented I get with so much of contemporary Christianity. It can be so shallow, so diluted, so unbiblical, so worldly-minded & so dependent on the wrong things... We need to simply get back to trusting & proclaiming what God says & depending on his power to do what only he can do in hearts & lives & communities...
Paul was so convinced in the power of the testimony God has given that he deliberately chose not to depend on the lofty speech & wisdom Corinthian culture loved (2:1). He believed doing so could actually empty the cross of its power (1.17)... It takes much more faith to preach a message that contradicts the culture around you than it does to preach one conditioned by it. And it takes much more faith to preach it without the aid of things we’re told we need to get people’s attention & make it more attractive.
A person who, like Paul, puts them self in such a vulnerable position chooses to depend completely on God because if God doesn’t show up and demonstrate his power in people’s hearts they are finished. They have nothing to fall back on but him! Paul seemed to believe the heralded message was so powerful it didn’t need anything to prop it up.
Such reasoning & practice frustrates the unspiritual person however, they just don’t get the foolishness of it. But as God’s says in 1:19 NIV; ‘I will frustrate the wisdom of the wise; the intelligent I will frustrate.’ 1:25 declares; “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Paul says in 2:4-5; “And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
C. H. Spurgeon wrote this; "God would have his ministers be like transparent glass, which lets the rays of the sun pass through unchanged; and not like painted windows, which colour all the rays after their own nature. Through infirmity we all give some amount of colouring to the gospel, but he is the man according to God’s order of ministry who longs to let the gospel shine right through him, and does not send upon the people anything of his own except the earnestness which the gospel works in him as it streams through him... Brethren, we have nothing to tell you which we have invented, so that if you are saved by it, it will not be due to our skill. We have nothing to tell you but what God commits to us, and therefore God will have all the glory if your souls be saved."
The good news is this, that since it depends completely on God’s power to awaken hearts it means every person can potentially understand spiritual things. For our faith rests fundamentally, not on our ability to read or study or skill to communicate, but on the awakening & illuminating power of God’s Spirit! That’s what we depend upon. But this in turn also removes any excuses for us not growing up spiritually, if we claim to be those who have “received... the Spirit who is from God” (2:12).
2. The Battle For Maturity Is Real (3:1-4)
Sadly Paul had to write these words to the Church in Corinth. Paul clearly views these believers as immature yet still Christian, for he calls them “people of the flesh... infants in Christ.” These people had the potential to be mature because they had received the Holy Spirit but they were still living in the flesh. We know Christian’s still struggle with the flesh because Paul had to tell the Galatians in 5:16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” So we need to not only receive the Spirit but also walk in the Spirit.
In the next verses of the same chapter Paul makes it clear that this will feel like a battle at times. He says in 17; “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” If you know this conflict by experience it is evidence the Holy Spirit is resident in your life, it is evidence you’re spiritually alive... Although it’s also important to highlight Paul’s words in verses 24-25; “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
The core problem Paul mentions regarding immaturity in Corinth seems to be jealously (or envy NKJV), which was causing strife & division.“For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving in a human way.” And it was manifesting itself with groups associating with different personalities.
When a person acts out of envy or jealously it always has the potential to cause trouble. James 3:14-16 says; “But if you have bitter jealously and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealously and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every evil practice.” A jealous or envious person will at times subtly sow seeds of doubt & discord regarding those they envy. This can potentially lead to division if they are given an ear. We need to beware of such fleshly sins in our own hearts & we need to beware of such evil activity in the church.
You can sense Paul’s frustration with the Corinthian Church in 3:2; “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” Still acting like non-believers in other words. Obviously those who are new Christian’s are infants in Christ & cannot be expected to be anything more. Maturity takes growth & development. It takes time. New believers need gospel milk before moving on to gospel solids. However the problem is these believers in Corinth should have been ready for solid food but they could not handle it because they were “still of the flesh.”
As Christians we are in a real battle for spiritual maturity. We face the influence of the world & we still battle with the desires of the flesh. The enemy will do all he can to use these things to stint our growth as individuals & as a fellowship. The world, the flesh & the devil are three real enemies to Christian maturity. However the Spirit is here to lead us on to spiritual maturity by helping us resist & conquer these three enemies & by enabling us to accept, understand & willingly obey God’s Word so that as a local church we can become a field, or garden, of God’s righteousness in which all the beauty & variety of spiritual fruit flourishes.
3. It’s Time To Break Up the Fallow Ground (V5-9)
Note the farming (or gardening) analogy. This analogy is one which comes up a number of times in the OT & in the teaching of Jesus. Paul likely has these images in mind. He sees Apollos & himself as farmers in a field totally depending on God for growth. God’s Word provides the seed. God’s Spirit provides the rain. God’s favour in Christ provides the sun. Without him nothing can grow in his field.
Paul tells the Corinthian Church “you are God’s field.” As I thought about this analogy & how it is used in Scripture a number of Scriptures came to mind. Firstly, Jesus’ parable of the soils (or sower) in Matt 13 came to mind. The simple point of the parable is concerning the health of the soil. There is no weakness in the seed - in the preached Word - the question is regarding the state of the ground it’s sown on. Is the ground ready to receive the seed? Only good soil is able to bear fruit, that’s the big point.
Another Scripture that came to mind is Jeremiah 4:3; “For thus says the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.” Fallow ground is uncultivated, unplanted, unsown, crop-free, seedless, bare or empty ground. It’s ground that has been ignored or neglected for a time. Spiritually speaking it can refer to ground where the true word of God has not been heard & obeyed for some time. Jeremiah was appealing for a spiritual turnabout. He pictured this as ploughing the ground which had become hard & unproductive due to thorns. If they wanted to be right with God & experience his blessing they had to break up the hard ground.
The Scripture which God impressed upon me most is found in Hosea 10:12 which says; “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up the fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you”. I Googled breaking up fallow ground during the week & came across the following story:
I took a walk last summer along a path that runs through two fields near my home. It was during the dry spell that came at the end of June. In the first field the farmer was growing maize, and the corn really was ‘as high as an elephant’s eye.’ Although there had been no rain for a while the maize was growing splendidly as the roots sucked up the moisture and nourishment hidden within the ground. The field was doing what a field is supposed to do- it was providing a crop and the farmer would soon have a harvest from it.
But when I walked into the second field, it was a very different story; there was no crop. There had been at one point; I could see the stalks where the maize had been cut down, but since then the farmer had left the field to lie fallow. Now because of the hot, dry weather, the surface of the ground had been baked hard. Underneath it might have been soft, but there was a sort of hard skin on the surface, and almost nothing was growing- just some scrub and a few weeds- no crop.
A day or two later, there was a torrential rainstorm and I thought, well, that rain will turn the field into a swamp, but to my surprise, when I walked through the second field the next day, the ground was still as dry and hard as ever. The rain had not penetrated that hard outer skin & had flowed off the field and into the ditch. Now imagine if the farmer had dropped seed on that land hoping for a harvest. Fat chance! The seed would have remained on the surface of the ground and either the birds would have eaten it or the rain would have washed it away. The seed needs to go deep down into the ground before it will germinate. So what does the farmer need to do to get a crop out of that field? He must break up the fallow ground. The field can still be fertile but he must break up that hard-baked surface and expose the soft ground underneath.
So God’s word is the seed, God’s Spirit provides the rain & God’s favour, in Christ, is shining on us. All the ingredients for growth are right there; but is the ground ready? Is the soil good? Or is it hard & fallow because we have not been genuinely seeking the LORD? Our responsibility is to make sure the soil is good & to keep it good. We can sow seed & ask God for rain but it will do little good unless we break up the fallow ground.
The only starting point for this is by asking is there any fallow ground that needs breaking in our own heart. As God said to Jeremiah “break up your fallow ground” What hard ground is in your life, what sin of the flesh is stopping the fruit of the Spirit flourishing in your life? What is keeping you an infant in Christ? Let the Holy Spirit illuminate. He is here to awaken us & help us. Then break up your fallow ground. If we all just focused on breaking up the fallow ground in our own hearts the whole field will become fruitful. We are God’s field.
Are there weeds of bitterness, un-forgiveness, selfish-ambition, sexual immorality, moral superiority, religious, theological or spiritual pride, envy, worry, unbelief, disobedience, apathy, indifference or resistance towards God’s Word & Spirit? Because all such things make the ground hard! Are we the kind of soil God is looking for, are we a place where the seed of God can take root, grow & flourish. God’s favour is on us in Christ, but if the Holy Spirit rained on us today would the soil be soft or fallow? It’s time to seek the LORD in repentance & faith that he may come and rain down righteousness upon us. The field can still be fertile!
Contrast Hosea 10:12 with 14:4-9 – God brings the growth.
I’ve already noted in this series that these words were originally written to a local church... They are fundamentally describing the love we are to love one another with. In a real sense Paul is teaching the local church how to put into practice Jesus’ new commandment. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34). These words we’ve been reflecting on in 1 Corinthians 13 are what this love looks like, they are a description of the love we are to love one another with. This is the love which enables others to see we are disciples of Jesus. This is why such love is vital for the health, witness & overall growth of every local church.
Loving one another then, means being patient & kind with one another. It means not envying one another’s positions, gifting or lives. It means not being boastful, arrogant or rude with one another. It means not being irritable or resentful towards one another. It means bearing one another, serving one another, believing in one another & forgiving one another. It means protecting one another & if necessary enduring one another. Col 3:12-14 NRSV says;
“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness & patience. Bear with one another &, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
There can be no harmony without such love. Envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, dishonouring, irritability, resentments, all these things threaten the harmony God intends us to live in. As a local church we can only know such harmony to the extent we learn to love the way Jesus loves. Another sin which can destroy this harmony is insisting on one’s own way. Paul writes in his portrait of love that “Love... it does not insist on its own way” (ESV) or “it is not self-seeking” (NIV). This is the phrase we are going to think about today which of course highlights the whole idea of selfishness.
This is also a good time to think a little further about three of the different kinds of love understood at the time of the NT. Eros is a love of desire. It is not a selfless love but one that also seeks personal gratification. It’s a love that wants something for itself, in a mostly sexual sense. Philia, or brotherly love, is a love based on personal connection with people who belong to the same family, town or tribe etc... Then there is agape love which we have been thinking about. It is uniquely selfless. Its actions are not based on romantic attachment or family connection etc, it is a purely selfless & impartial love that actively seeks what is best for all. Eros can be self-seeking in that it seeks its own gratification, philia can be self-seeking in the sense it seeks only what is best for one’s own family, friends or tribe – seeking only what’s best for one’s own... Jesus said; “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5: 46-47 NIV). The love we are called to love with leaves no room for selfishness or partiality as we will see.
Here’s why all this is important. It’s important because when it comes to church we are not called to do things or judge things only according to what’s best for us, our family, or our friendship or ethnic group. We are called to do what is best for one another, what’s best for as many as possible, what is best for our enemies even - what is best for the church. Church is not our family holiday. Meaning church is not the time or place when we choose what suits us & our family best. Church is the time & place we “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant that [ourselves]” according to Philippians 2:3. Church is about looking not only to our own interests but also the interests of others according to Philippians 2:4. Therefore the question we should always ask is not ‘what is best for me?’ but ‘what is best for the church?’ This is especially true in the area of leadership. This love we are called to love with is not some kind of subjective feeling that makes us do what is best for our own. Rather this is a love which enables us to be objective enough to consider what is best for all. It is a love that considers everyone & then does what is best for as many as possible.
Jonathan Edwards said; “Selfishness is a principle that contracts the heart, & confines it to self, while love enlarges it, & extends it to others.” If we our controlled by eros love only we will seek only what is best for us. If we are controlled by philia love only we will seek only what is best for our family, friends or tribe. However if God’s agape love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5:5 teaches, then we will go way beyond that & extend love towards everyone without partiality. Agape love has the ability to break the confines we set on love & extend it to all. As we have seen, Christ’s love is the most patient & kind, the least irritable & resentful. It is also the least selfish & the most insistent on seeking the good of others. Or as C. S. Lewis put it; “The Gift-love” of God “desires what is simply best for the beloved.” What is best for the whole church in other words!
Considering everyone, or being impartial, doesn’t mean everyone gets the chance to do all the same things equally. It doesn’t mean everyone gets a turn at everything; that would be disastrous in some cases. Being impartial simply means that when we come to making decisions in church life for the common good. We make those decisions not on the bases of what’s best for us, or who is closest to us, but on the bases of who is best suited for a particular task or ministry at a particular time. On the bases of who will edify the church most in doing so. Partiality would simply choose self, or a friend or family member or someone from the same culture, over what is genuinely & objectively best for the church. Impartiality, on the other hand, chooses what’s best for the church even if it means being unpopular with friends & family etc.
Agape loves looks not for what is easiest, it is not self-seeking in any respect, but always, always, always does what’s best for the church. Therefore being impartial means setting aside family, friendship & ethic connections when it comes to making choices based on what is best for the church. It means impartially considering everyone who is available for a ministry & choosing the person who’s gifting will be of greatest benefit to the church, assuming they have the attitude & character to back up their gifting.
Whenever I talk about seeking what’s best for the church, I mean seeking what is best for the majority, not the few. The majority who come & the majority who will potentially come as opposed to the few who harbour their own selfish ambitions; who put themselves, their families or friendship group first! I mean putting the growth & welfare of the church before our own ministry ambitions. I mean being willing to be misunderstood because the good of the church means more to us than what people think...
James 3:13-17 says; “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealously & selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast & be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy & selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder & every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle (NIV: considerate), open to reason (NRSV: willing to yield), full of mercy and good fruits, impartial & sincere.”
Clearly jealously & selfish ambition have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” James says. He also highlights that the fruit of such sins is “disorder & every vile practice”. That’s the opposite of the harmony love brings!
Where does disorder come from? Scripture says here from jealously & selfish ambition, that’s where! And let’s be honest about this, people don’t only get jealous for themselves, they also get jealous & have selfish ambitions for their children, their husband or wife, or even their friends. All of this brings disorder & evil into local church life & it can be described as earthy or unspiritual at best or demonic at its worst. It’s important we see it that way or James wouldn’t have said so...
Selfishness is a difficult sin to expose because it is so easy to see in someone else but so difficult to recognise in ourselves. But let us not be deceived because we are all born selfish & we all are selfish to varying degrees with our interests, time, money & thoughts. Selfishness comes in many different forms. For example selfishness can consist of not stepping aside for the good of the church or it can consist of not stepping up for the good of the church. People of different temperaments struggle with different sins in different ways! One person may refuse to step aside from a ministry position because they are selfishly seeking what is best for self rather than the church at large. Another may refuse to step up to a ministry position & do what is best for the church because their own ease, time or comfort is more important to them than what’s best for the church. Both people are self-seeking in different ways...
In fact here are two questions we should ask ourselves from time to time, especially if we are leaders. Is it time for me to step aside or is it time for me to step up. And our answer needs to be motivated by what’s best for the church not what’s best for us or those closest to us. And it’s worth taking quality time with God before we answer such questions since our hearts can be deceitful above all else. This is vitally important because our choices in such moments are critical to the health of the church...
The Christian life is never about insisting on one’s own way, but about insisting on God’s way & what is best for others. Ultimately self-seeking stops us doing the greatest thing of all. It stops us loving the way Jesus loves. Whether we decide to step up or step aside what’s best for the church has to be our motivation, because “it’s not about me & it never will be”... Listen to these words from Philippians 2:19-22;
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.”
Could Philippians 2:20 be said of us? Or would we be found among the "all" of the next verse? Which sentence describes you best? Are you with Timothy or are you with everyone else? Are you genuinely concerned for the welfare of the church or are you seeking your own interests?
1 Cor. 10:23-24 NIV says; “I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” Are you seeking your own good or the good of others? Down a few verses (32-11:1) it says; “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Let us turn to Luke 22:39-46 & read just a little of the example Jesus has set.
Jesus never insisted on having his own way, he was never self-seeking, but he choose the cross because he was all about doing what was best for his Church & the world. We could ask, at what point did Jesus refuse to insist on his own way? The answer would be “at every point!” He lived his entire earthly life for others & not himself. Yet this moment in the Gospel’s stands out to us because it was perhaps the hardest moment to choose the way of 100% selfless love. We need to know that there will be moments in our lives when it is a great battle to say “not my will, but yours, be done.” It will mean dying to self to live for others. If fact we can never truly live for the best of others until we learn to die to self. Jesus said in John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth & dies, it remains alone; but if it dies; it bears much fruit.” How much fruit would be produced if we all died to self? Can we pray that prayer with our Lord today? “Not my will, but yours, be done.” This prayer is opposite to insisting on one’s own way – it’s abandoning oneself to God’s way no matter what the personal cost.
We’ll never find God’s will for your life chasing after selfish ambitions, you’ll find it when you learn to do & desire & sacrifice for what is best for others. Because his will for us is that we would be selfless... And you may have to choose to do & sacrifice for before you have the desire, because remember it’s not about feelings but actions. Henri Nouwen wrote; “Pay attention to the people God puts in your path if you want to discern what God is up to in your life.” Jesus always done so & so should we.
Let's finish by reading Philippians 2:1-11. Close your eyes & meditate on the words.
Read John 13
Judas spent as much time as the other disciples with Jesus, shared all the same privileges—the teaching, the stories and the intimate moments. He saw all the same miracles and signs. He even went on mission trips for Jesus but still he lacked what was most important. Outwardly he did the disciple thing, but inwardly his heart worshipped something else more than Jesus. And what you worship most owns you most, it’s your master.
This teaches us that unless we have a heart which truly values Jesus, more than anything, then we’re in danger of trading his love for something else. Judas loved silver more than Jesus so when it came to the crunch he made his choice, and he never came back. Like all of us, the other disciples let Jesus down—they failed him in different ways—but they came back. Judas never came back. The heart always returns to what it values most!
The privileges of being around Jesus are not enough to save us, we need a heart—a new heart—that sees Jesus as what we need most… That views him as more valuable than anything and everything… So we can join with the apostle Paul and say; “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…”
One of the reasons Jesus is more valuable than anything and everything is because of his perfect love for us. No one else can love us perfectly. When Jesus said “he loved them to the end” in verse one it means he loved them perfectly. In spite of their many failings he loved them, all the way to the cross. He loves us perfectly in spite our many failings, and it’s this same love we are called to love one another with.
Jesus’ perfect love for us
Jesus shows this love for his disciples, including Judas, in the most special way in this story. With humble love he washed Judas’ feet, but those same feet went chasing after silver instead of Jesus. Humble love knelt before him, it was within his grasp, it was his for the taking, but he wanted the silver more. That’s the story of Judas’ life, that’s what he is remembered for. He got his silver but he lost everything else. The silver wasn’t as good as it seemed at the time. Judas did feel bad and changed his mind, but he did not return to Jesus. He tried to fix things himself by trying to return the silver. In the end he turned to suicide instead of Jesus… There are lessons for us here. 1: Do not miss perfect love when it is within your grasp because there will come a day when it’s out of your reach… 2: When we mess things up and feel bad about it, instead of trying to fix it ourselves we should return to Jesus and let him fix things. Repentance is more than feeling guilty; it’s going to the right place with our guilt - back to Jesus...
Knowing very well Judas would betray him, and the others would forsake him for a time, Jesus displays the humblest of love towards them when he stoops down and washes their feet. Instead of being irritable or rude he displays humble love towards each of them, Judas included… (Would you or I be able to do that???)
V3-5 “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
The dusty and dirty conditions of local roads made such foot-washing necessary in day to day life. The disciple’s perhaps would have been happy to wash Jesus’ feet, but they would never have dreamed of washing each other’s never mind Jesus washing theirs. This was because foot-washing was reserved for the lowliest of servants. Peers and friends did not wash each other’s feet, except on very rare occasions as a mark of great love. When Jesus began to wash the disciple’s feet he took the posture of the lowliest slave & expressed great love. Lamentations 3:22 NIV says; “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”
None of these actions would have been normal for the lord of a dinner party. A lord did not stand at his dinner table; he sat in luxury. A lord did not strip down to his undergarments; he wore his best of robes. A lord did not pour water or hold a towel. He certainly did not wash anyone’s feet! Jesus was taking everything that anyone would expect and turning it upside down. The Lord became the servant.
What makes the impact of this story even more powerful is what Luke records in his account of the same night. He notes that; “A dispute… arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” He then taught them that true greatness was not celebrity status… and revealed himself as the One who serves... I can imagine Jesus teaching them these things as he washed their feet. I can imagine the disciple’s faces turning red with embarrassment. This humble love of Jesus would have humbled them all speechless, apart from good old Peter who always had something to say:
V 6-10 “He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”
This humble love that Jesus loves with is so perfect it makes people completely clean. At first Peter could not handle Jesus washing his feet. He could not accept the master of the universe stooping so low. He failed to see beyond the act itself to the symbolism of spiritual cleansing. Jesus’ response made the real point of his actions clear: Unless he cleanses a person’s sin, that person can have no part with him—cannot belong to him. This is true for each of us—we must be washed clean from our sin. All of us need cleaned. Jesus was not only giving his disciple’s an example of service here; this was a symbolic picture of what was going to happen the next day. It was symbolic of his great sacrifice on the cross which would completely take away the sins of the world. This becomes clearer when we here the following words of Jesus; “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”
It was the custom, when a guest was invited to dinner; he would take a bath and change into nice clean clothes before putting on his sandals and setting out on foot for the dinner party. By the time he arrived, his body was still clean, but his feet were dirty from the dusty road. So the first thing a good host would do was have his servants wash the feet of his guests. Jesus used this custom to make powerful point. When he said that Peter was clean, he was saying Peter was already right with God; because the next day Jesus was going to do all that was needed to make him completely clean. This did not mean Peter would never sin again. Like every disciple of Jesus, Peter would sin again, and when he did he would need cleansed—but not from head to toe…
In other words when a person trusts in Jesus they are made completely clean and therefore they are free from sins penalty, however they still need ongoing cleansing from the contaminating effects of sin in this world... Like a dinner guest who had bathed his body but then walked along a dusty road, Peter was fundamentally clean yet still in need of cleansing.
In humble love Jesus comes and baths us in his mercy and grace until we are completely clean. We need to bath in his mercy and grace so we are ready for his heavenly dinner party. Then we need him to come to us every day patiently correcting wrong attitudes we develop, kindly teaching us what is right, graciously forgiving our daily sins and humbling us again and again with his perfect love. We need to go to Jesus everyday and allow him to humble us again with his perfect love…
Our response to such love
Our only response to this love is to love one another with this love—we love because he first loved us… We forgive others because he forgives us… we show mercy to others because he shows mercy to us… we show kindness to others because he shows kindness to us… we serve others because he serves us… we teach others because he teaches us… we show patience to others because he shows patience to us…
We should lovingly (not begrudgingly) serve those who doubt us, deny us and even betray us. We should lovingly serve those who are despised most in society (people like Mathew the tax collector) as well as those who are closest to us. If we are followers of a foot-washing saviour then no act of service & no person could ever be beneath our dignity.
V12- 17; “When he has washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them; “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If then I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done for you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Then in verses 34-35 we find those famous words of Jesus;
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It is new not because it has never been given, but because it is backed by a new & higher example than ever before. It is the test of true Christianity.
There is nothing that makes the world pay attention like true love (1 Cor. 13)... Christian’ ought to be a community of people who make it easy for others to believe in God... People may not understand our beliefs but they will be impressed with love. And if love is able to change our thinking, our priorities, our beliefs, our lifestyle then surely it can change others as well. When people look at our interaction and hear our conversations they should be able to see in some measure the love Jesus. They should see a community people who are patient & kind to one another. They should not see a group of people who are envious, arrogant, rude, self-seeking, irritable or resentful. But sadly so often that is what they do see & why would anyone want to join such a group? Only an encounter with the humbling love of Jesus can rectify that. Only an encounter with the humbling love of Jesus can change us from the inside out. Only an encounter with the love of Jesus can give us the security, acceptance & approval we all long for. Only an encounter with the humbling love of Jesus can turn our often selfish hearts into selfless hearts. And only an ongoing encounter with the humbling love of Jesus can clean our lives of the dirt that comes from within and without everyday! We need him to wash our feet if we are to love as he loves.
What we need more of, is the love of Jesus—a deeper understanding, a deeper awareness—of his love for us and a growing measure of his love in us as we learn to love one another as Jesus’ loves us.
Today we’re going to focus on one phrase in these verses. Love keeps no record of wrongs (or is not resentful). This phrase is in connection with our relationship & actions towards other people... In other words, this is one way in which we are called to love each other! Especially others who have or we feel have (which can be different things) offended or wronged us in some way. We will look at this phrase under the heading forgiving love.
The love Jesus loves us with & calls & empowers us to love with is a radically forgiving love. The gospel at its core is a message of forgiveness & a message which makes us forgiving. To the point that we refuse to dishonour even people who have wronged us while choosing to keep no record of wrongs done to us. It’s also a message which has the liberating power to even help us protect the reputations of those who have wronged us & to desire good for them. I was struck by the forgiving words of Alan Greaves widow this week...
Of course it has to be said that resenting others needs to be extended to those who have done us no harm as well. Sometimes people resent others or try to tarnish the reputation of another because they are envious of them (think of the stories of Joseph & King Saul). This is something we will look at before we finish the series, but today we’re going to focus on the reality that loving the way Jesus loves means forgiving the way Jesus forgives.
A number of Doctors have described what unforgiving & vengeful feelings do the human brain. Based on biochemical research, neuroscientists have documented the toxic chemical flood that our bodies release into our brains whenever we think malicious thoughts. Their microphotographs show how the chemicals that are released burn tunnels into the branches of our nerve cells. One doctor calls these burned-out neurons “emotional black holes.” They are empty spaces in the brain produced by the resentments of a bitter soul - resentment harms our brain. But, amazingly, it is possible for the brain to grow nerve fibres that fill in these black holes. And one of the virtues indentified as bringing most healing is forgiveness.
Issues like un-forgiveness & resentment are things which affect us all. We have all resented at some level for some length of time. Is there a person you struggle to forgive? Is there resentment in your heart towards another person? Is there a sin you are counting against someone? Such things limit our ability to truly love. They colour our reasoning & outlook on life & they affect our relationships with others, including those who have done us no harm at all. For example if someone breaks our trust in a significant way it affects the level of trust we extend towards others. It makes us more cautious about whom we trust in future, sometime understandably...
However if we allow un-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness to get hold of us, if we allow them to become part of who we are, to colour our whole outlook on life & church & relationships, then it can give us a warped view of reality. It can affect our whole personality & wellbeing. It can cause us to see ourselves as always the victim & blind us to our own issues... And as we’ve seen, this is partly because of how things like resentment affect our brains. With all this in mind we conclude that learning to love like Jesus is the quickest path to personal freedom & wellbeing in regards this whole area.
But of course humanly speaking this is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes the wounds we have suffered run deep, & in some cases still bleed. People have betrayed us in some away. Spoken hurtful words we can never forget or abused us in some other way. Perhaps we even feel they have stolen our happiness... When such things happen many find it easier to hold onto the pain than let go of it. They keep replaying wrongs they have suffered on the Youtube video of their heart & mind, or repeating the same old stories to anyone who will listen. When resentment builds this kind of wall, only love has the power to break through &, as one person has put it, release “memories grip on yesterday’s evil.”
Love does not ignore evil (as we will see when we look at verse 6). But rather than returning evil for evil, it does seek to overcome evil with good. One person writes that love “absorbs evil without calculating how to retaliate. On another occasion when Paul was writing about love in action he wrote “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom 12:17) & “Do not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). This is the way of love. This is the life all Christian’s are called to!
As we turn to think about how Jesus displayed forgiving love it is natural for our minds to turn again to the cross. When in his dying hours, being mocked & crucified by evil men, Jesus said “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). But there is another act of forgiveness in Jesus’ life that we’re going to look at. Remember these words in 1 Corinthians are written to a local church – this is firstly how Christian’s are to love each other. So it seems appropriate to look at a story in which we see Jesus forgiving one of his own disciples. The story is recorded in John 21:15-19. This story is the last story recorded in the gospels. It is a story in which Jesus beautifully forgives Peter. How beautiful is it that the final story of the gospels is a story about Jesus forgiving one of his closest disciples & friends, but before we go there we need to set the scene. We will start in John 13:33-38, Jesus is with his disciples:
“’My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I have told the Jews, so I tell you now: where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ Simon Peter asked him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.’ Peter asked, ‘Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Then Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.”
Peter’s whole experience from this point on would have helped him understand the depth of forgiving love Jesus had towards him. And how Jesus responded to his denials would have taught the other disciples a lot about the new command he gave them in these verses. Jesus could have just as easily said ‘As I have forgiven you, so you must forgive one another.’ Truth is we could insert any of the qualities highlighted in 1 Cor. 13:4-7.
Peter was the first & the boldest of the original 12 disciples. He was the first one that Jesus called to be a disciple (Matt 4:18-20), the first & only one to get out of the boat & walk on water & the first to recognise Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But Peter was also the first to fall away. The story of his denial is honestly & painfully told in all four gospels. John records it like this (Read John 18:15-18; 25-27.)
Just as Jesus predicted Peter denied him three times. To understand the depth of Jesus’ forgiveness it’s important we understand something of the nature & extent of his sin. Perhaps we think of Peter committing one sin three times, but he actually committed a number of sins three times. He betrayed Jesus. He disowned Jesus. He lied to protect himself. He showed cowardice. We might even say he was complicit to a murder, because rather than standing up for an innocent friend, Peter refused to have anything to do with him. It’s not just what he did; it’s also what he didn’t do that needed forgiven. All this is made worse when we consider he was one of the privileged 12 & he had been warned he was in spiritual danger & the sins he committed where directly against the very son of God!
How do you think Jesus should have responded to Peter? How would you respond if a close Christian friend did something similar to you? Would the friendship have any hope of surviving? Sadly often such friendships are never recovered, and for reasons much less I might add... Perhaps you’re here & you can think of a relationship with another Christian that up to this day has never recovered because of how they treated or wronged you. Well today the Holy Spirit wants to do something about it in your heart...
What did Jesus do? How did he respond to Peter in his moment of betrayal? The first thing he did was simply look at him. Luke 22:61 records “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him.” Luke does not tell us what expression Jesus had on his face, but he looked at him. Often when someone has wronged us we look away from them. If we’re in town & we see them coming we try to avoid them. But Jesus didn’t try to avoid Jesus he looked straight at him & we can imagine him doing so in love.
Jesus knew exactly what Peter had done, remember he predicted it. In fact Luke 22:31 tells us Jesus had committed to praying for him because he knew he was going to deny him & he didn’t want his denials to be the end of him. Would you or I commit to praying for someone if we knew they were going to disown us in the time of our great suffering? The love of Jesus is radically forgiving. Instead of keeping record of Peter’s wrongs him Jesus was going to suffer for all Peter’s wrongs on the cross. Reconciliation was more important to Jesus than keeping records. This reminds me of 2 Cor. 5:19 “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. “ Or as Psalm 103:10-12 says; “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removed our transgressions from us.” Our God is a radically forgiving God & we are set apart to reflect this forgiving love in Christian community & in all our relationships with others.
When Peter seen Jesus he was broken man, Luke records “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” One loving glance from Jesus was all it took for him to know he needed to repent. This sets the stage for the reconciliation that happens in John 21:15-19. Let’s read it.
This happened on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had gone fishing & caught nothing until a stranger on the shore told them to cast their nets on the other side, then they caught so many fish they could not get them in the boat. As soon as Peter realised the stranger was Jesus, he jumped out of the boat & swam to the shore. Peter was not moving away from Jesus but toward him, which is what we should always do when we know we have sinned. He is forgiving, not counting our sins against us. In Mark 16 the angel said; “But go, tell his disciples and Peter.” Jesus did not make things hard for Peter to continue in relationship with him because of his fall. He did all he could to make it easy (including sending a personal message via an angel). We must also make it easy for those who sin against us. This is what forgiving love does.
Anyway, soon all the disciples are back on the shore & Jesus kindly cooks them breakfast. And afterwards, Peter & Jesus have this heart-to-heart by the Sea of Galilee. This is also an important part of forgiveness... It’s worth mentioning what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t condemn him. He didn’t make him feel he had to earn his favour back. He didn’t cast things up. He did not speak to Peter resentfully at all. He does not even bring it up. Jesus has already forgiven him... Peter then could join the Psalmist in saying; “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you” (Psalm 130:3-4).
All Jesus did was ask Peter a simple question, three times, “Do you love me?” Just as Peter had denied Jesus three times Jesus now leads him in affirming his love for him three times. I believe this was for Peter’s benefit; sometimes we struggle to forgive ourselves. This was a hard conversation for Peter; because of his past actions it would have made it hard to answer that question three times. I think Jesus is helping Peter leave the past in the past. Forgiving love helps others to forgive themselves...
Jesus not only asks Peter three questions he also entrusts him with taking care of & feeding his people, which would at times take the same forgiving love Peter experienced from Jesus. Peter would have understood Jesus words “Love one another as I have loved you” in a whole new light. A way helped equip him for taking care of God’s people. Jesus also helped Peter see that even though Peter’s words ‘I will lay down my life for you’ must have seemed to empty after his denial, one day he would indeed fulfil them by laying down his life for Christ... And then Jesus says to Peter “Follow me!” (v19). These are the first words Peter ever heard from Jesus. They are the words that started his journey with Jesus & now Jesus uses them to assure him the journeys not over. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘pick up from where you left off...’
Peter’s restoration helps us understand our own calling to forgiving love. To love the way Jesus loves is to be towards others the way God in Christ has been towards us. This includes offering others the same forgiveness we have received. If we fail to forgive, then we fail to live out the implications of the gospel we proclaim & we ignore this new command Jesus gave us to love one another. Loving the way Jesus loves always starts with understanding how much God has loved us. When it comes to forgiveness, we find that, because of the cross, he does not count our sins against us. We have all denied Jesus like Peter in many ways, yet we are still forgiven.
The same Peter who experience Christ forgiveness wrote in 1 Peter 4:8 “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” This is what forgiving love does... It’s doesn’t go around exposing the sins others have committed against us; that is what resentment does... Love protects, love forgives, love seeks reconciliation & look at what our reconciliation cost Jesus & we have been called to love the way Jesus loves... Let me finish with these words from Lewis Smedes;
“Love lets the past die. It moves people to a new beginning without settling the past. Love does not have to clear up all misunderstandings... Love prefers to tuck all the lose ends of past rights & wrongs in the bosom of forgiveness—and pushes us into a new start.”
Church cannot survive & thrive unless we learn to forgive the way Jesus forgives...
Do you ever get irritable or impatient? Is there one person who just winds you up? They don’t have to say or do anything; their very existence just irritates you... Whether it’s at home, work, driving in the car or waiting to be served in a restaurant, there are situations & people that just irritate us. This morning we’re going to look at three phrases in 1 Cor. 13. “Love is patient” (or longsuffering), “not easily angered (or not irritable) & “always trusts.” All the aspects of love described in these verses are connected to each other; but upon reflection I believe these three (along with always perseveres) are closer in relationship to each other. So we’re going to look at them together under the heading patient love.
To help illustrate this patient love we’re going to look at two stories from the life of Jesus. The first is Jesus feeding the 5000 in Mark 6. This story will help us learn what it means to be patient & not irritable with others. The second story we’ll look at is that of Lazarus in John 11, this story will help us see the importance of patient trust in God’s greater purposes. Let’s turn to Mark 6 & read verses 7-13 & 30-44 together.
Let me quickly point out a few things from the story. The 12 disciples go out on their first mission trip which included journeying, travelling light, & staying with whoever would have them. During this time they ministered to many people in different places. We read about their trip in verses 7-13. By the time we reach verse 30 they are back with Jesus, reporting all they had done & taught. We can imagine the excitement in their voices as they shared the stories from their trip... They were likely pretty impressed with themselves after such a period of ministry.
However the location of their feedback time was busy with people & the disciples couldn’t get an opportunity to eat... So Jesus says to them; “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So off they went hoping to get some peace, rest & food after their busy trip. Then it says V33; “But many recognised them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.”
The apostles are tired & hungry after their ministry trip. What happens when you’re tired & hungry? You get more easily irritated & impatient; you also become more focused on your own needs than others. All of a sudden being celebrity disciples it’s so appealing... And we see them growing impatient with the inescapable crowd, but Jesus doesn’t. Verse 34 says; “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” Then in verse 35 it says; “By this time it was getting late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
You can hear the irritation in their tone – “Send the people away...” In fact it seems like they interrupted Jesus’ sermon to tell him to do so. Then Jesus adds to their irritation by making the most ridiculous suggestion; “You give them something to eat...” They want some solitude, not more time with the large crowd. Jesus is now stretching their patience. Would they ever get a chance to rest? Does Jesus not know when to call it a day? One thing we learn from this story is that it takes great patience to be a disciple of Jesus... Do we have the patience to be disciples of Jesus? The patience to be stretched & inconvenienced by his agenda to meet the spiritual needs of people around us!
The disciples thought they were the men after a short term mission trip but Jesus was showing them a glimpse of the ongoing reality of being his disciples. It’s not a one week blitz for the kingdom; it’s the ongoing demands of patiently & faithfully ministering to a world full of people who are lost like sheep without a shepherd. That takes patient love. It’s easy being Super Christian for a week, but to survive & excel as a disciple of Jesus we have to learn that “love suffers long” (KJV). We have to learn to put our own feelings aside in order to patiently & steadfastly love others. And this is exactly what Jesus asked his disciples to do here in this story.
Yes they’re tired & hungry, so is Jesus! But if they are to be his disciples then they need to patiently follow him right until the end of the day, without becoming irritable & self-focused. Jesus is teaching his disciples they need more patience. So instead of sending the people away Jesus takes the little his disciples could find & miraculously provides for 5000+ people! And his disciples get to be the distributors of the miraculous provision of God. Those who patiently persevere with Jesus witness the biggest miracles of all. And guess how many baskets of food where left? Twelve! One for each of the twelve disciples! Point being, if we put others first we will never go without – Jesus will always provide for our needs.
Patience is a virtue which helps us to love like Jesus; irritability is a sin which stops us from loving like Jesus. Irritability sees others as an inconvenience... When the disciples were irritated about how long Jesus was taking, they wanted rid of the people. When we are irritable, we want to get away from people & their problems. We see them as a burden to our lives. Irritability makes us resent others & push them away & distance ourselves from their issues. Irritability causes us to put our needs before the needs of others. Irritability can say some nasty things about others. Irritability criticises & blames everyone else for being the way they are, without trying to understand them...
That’s the problem with irritability; it always sees others as the problem... “They make me so mad... they are so annoying... stuff them, I have my own issues to deal with... they only have themselves to blame... idiots... I have no time for Muppets like him...” But here’s the bottom line: God is not judging our hearts on how irritating others are, but on how irritable we are. James 5:9 says; “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” We need to take responsibility for our own attitudes if we are to learn to love like Jesus loves. Loving like Jesus is to do with how loving we are, not how lovable others are. And maybe it would surprise us how less irritating others would become if we became less irritable!?
We are called to show loving-patience towards all people. 1 Thess. 5:14 says; “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” In church life & ministry we come across all sorts of people, as summarised in that verse, but we are called to “be patient with them all” (ESV). This is one way we demonstrate love towards them. Eph 4:2 says; “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” 2 Thess. 3:5 says; “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.”
Love enables us to bear & persevere with people we would otherwise write off, it also helps us to patiently persevere in doing good to others even when we don’t feel like it – when we are tired, hungry & drained. In the story the disciples got irritated because they got tired of Jesus doing good... 2 Thess. 3:13 says; “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” This is the kind of patience we’re called to. Gal 6:9-10 says; “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.”
So it’s clear that we are to act patiently towards all people, especially our brothers & sister in Christ, but what about demonstrating patient trust towards God. In the story the disciples also needed to learn to be patient with Jesus. His compassion for people was clashing with their desire to eat & rest. This is another thing we need to learn: To be a disciple of Jesus means making our personal desires secondary to his purpose. This means being prepared to change our schedule & put others things on hold, including dinner. This will take patience love towards God & others. Let’s consider the patience trust we need towards God in the second story we’re going to look at. Let’s turn to John 11.
Paul has told us love is “the most excellent way.” And he chose to begin his portrait of love with the words “Love is patient.” This shows how important patience is in Christian discipleship. Paul also ends verse 7 by emphasising love “always perseveres”. You cannot persevere without patience.
The kind of patience Paul mainly has in mind is patience with people. Phil Ryken says; “It is the ability to put up with frustrations we face anytime we have a relationship with someone who is just as flawed & every bit as fallen as we are.” However as well as being patient with people it is important for us to be patient with God. You might think why would we have to be patient with God? Can God be irritating? Well for one, God does not plan according to our time table. He works in his own time & we can get irritated by that. Nor does God do things according to our logic. Sometimes he does things the wrong way round, from our perspective anyway, just to remind us he is God. This can be frustrating for people who are prone to be impatient & for people who like to be in control...
In order to live patient lives we not only need to avoid being irritable with people & circumstances, we also need to learn to trust God more... One of the reasons we get impatient is because there are so many things in life we cannot control which we wish we could. But note, when God makes us wait it is always because his plans are bigger & better & wider & more spectacular than ours.
In the story we see firstly that God is in control from beginning to end. From the perspective of Mary & Martha everything seemed out of control. Their brother was dying & Jesus showed up too late to make a difference, or so it seemed. However we see that Jesus was in control of the situation all along. We see that from his declaration in verse 4; “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for the God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” We see it in his words to Martha; “Your brother will rise again.” We see it in his question & commands; “Where have you laid him..?” “Take away the stone...” “Lazarus, come out.” Jesus was in control all along & knowing & believing Jesus is in control in the difficult times in our lives helps us live lives of patient trust towards God.
We see secondly that God is at work in more ways than we know. His plans were bigger & for the benefit of others – including the disciples (14) & the crowd (42) & God (4). Jesus was working something out. He was very deliberate in his delaying tactics. This might seem cruel, but it wasn’t. Verse 5-6 say; “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Lets us go back to Judea.” That’s sounds strange... but by delaying Jesus was making room for a bigger miracle...
We also see Jesus’ plans were bigger than one family. Jesus also had his disciples in mind. Verse 14 says; “So he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Jesus’ bigger picture included increasing the trust of his disciples. Then in verses 41-42 he prays; “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” & then says “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus was also working for the good of the crowd. Jesus was not being cruel; he in fact loved more people by waiting until his good friend died before he acted. None of this made sense until the miracle happened! But when Lazarus walked out of that tomb it all made perfect sense...
We can patiently trust in the goodness of God even when life doesn’t make sense. We can trust that he is working out more than we can know & that there will come a miraculous moment when it will all make perfect sense. Knowing this helps us to remain patient through all the ups & downs of life.
Thirdly we learn that God permits suffering... Jesus let this family go through suffering for the glory of God & the benefit of others, as well as for the purpose of increasing their trust in him. The NT tells us very plainly that suffering is part of the Christian life. Philippians 1:29 ESV says; “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him buy also suffer for his sake.” In chapter 3 of the same letter Paul writes; “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Paul writes to Timothy (1 Tim 1:8); “join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.” Romans 5:4-5 says; “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In his first letter Peter writes a section on suffering for doing good & another on suffering for being a Christian. Then as he’s beginning to close he says (5:10-11); “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
This family was called to suffer a little while for the glory of God. And because they suffered their faith (as well as the disciples faith) in Jesus grew stronger & faith in Jesus was also birthed in the hearts of others. The Bibles calls us not only to believe in the power of healing but to also believe in the power of suffering. Knowing that this is part of what we are called too helps us live lives of patient trust... God’s plans are much bigger than our comfort & ease. He loves us & others too much.
But we will finish today on this last point: God will make sure that everything turns out well in the end. The raising of Lazarus is one of the clearest signs in the Bible that Jesus has the power to make everything right. Jesus could have performed a miracle right away. But then we would only have a miracle of coming back to health, not a miracle of coming back to life. Jesus waited for his Father until the time was right, then he commanded Lazarus to come out. Be patient, Jesus has a bigger plan. Things can never get so desperate that he cannot turn them around. Sometimes he just wants us to see that. We can trust him. He knows what’s he’s doing even if we don’t. Love always trusts the One who always loves, even if it hurts for a time. As it says in Psalm 30:5; “weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” No matter what we face in this life Jesus has guaranteed for us an eternity of rejoicing! Trust him.
This is something to remember when we get impatient: God will making everything come out right in the end. Jesus is never early & never late but always right on time. And He is not indifferent to the sufferings we go through, any more than he was to Lazarus & his sisters. “Jesus wept.”
In his love, he has a plan to bring all our sufferings to an end. His great day will come at exactly the right moment. When it comes, we will see his glory. Then we will know he was in control all along, working everything for good, even what we suffer, and there was never any reason for us to be impatient at all. “Love... always trusts.”
Enhancing the Lives of Others
In these verses Paul takes the idea of love & describes it as a person. Of course love is a person, “God is love” & Jesus is the incarnation of his love. These verses are a portrait of him! They are also a picture of the love with which he loves us. If we want to see what these verses look like lived out, all we need to do is look to the Person and work of Jesus.
We see his humble love in his leaving the glory of heaven to take on the flesh of our humanity. We see his patience with all those who pressed around him for healing & help... We see his selflessness in Gethsemane, when, on his way to the cross, Jesus did not insist on his own way. We see him bearing all things in how he suffered for us on the cross. From beginning to end, our whole salvation is a story of the never failing loving-kindness of Jesus!
As we meditate on these verses we’re not going to follow the exact order. This is appropriate because these verses are a portrait not a biography. When you study a painted portrait things just stand out to you. You don’t start in one corner & systematically work your way across. You admire it & as you do different things stand out to you. This is the approach I’m taking with these verses as we admire them in light of the backdrop of the rest of Scripture...
As we fix our eyes on Jesus through these verses let us understand that this love Jesus has for us is the same love he has called us to love one another with. 1 John 3:14 says; “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” This is how vital loving the way Jesus loves is! 1 John 4:7-12;
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
These verses teach us love is evidence we are truly born again & in relationship with God. We’re told our response to God’s love for us ought to be love for one another. And verse 19 of the same chapter states; “We love because he first loved us.” This is why meditating on his love for us is vital for our spiritual growth: It helps produce the same love in our lives & as it does it will rid our hearts of envy, boasting, pride, self-seeking, irritability & other such sins which stop us truly loving.
Let’s begin our study on these verses by focusing on three simple words: “Love is kind”... That’s one of our two primary texts for today. Love is kind. Seems very simple! We like it when people are kind to us. When we think of kindness simple things come to mind, like helping an old lady across a street or giving someone a gift. Truth is we have all been kind & received kindness at some level. But while kindness has this simple side we also need to grasp that kindness is much bigger than we first think.
If kindness was only doing simple things like I mentioned above then it would be within our natural reach, & we could do it without Divine help. But kindness is not so small, & when we study what the Bible says on the subject we soon discover that kindness is a high calling. The whole story of the Bible could be summed up as God’s extraordinary kindness towards us, especially in sending his Son to save us.
On one side kindness can be the small things we do for others, but on the other side it is big enough to summarise all God has done for us. And knowing God’s measureless kindness towards us is what will make us into genuinely kind people.
The word Paul uses for kindness here is unique. This is the only place it appears in the Bible, or in other literature of its time. In fact it seems Paul invented a new word to express this aspect of love by turning a noun into a verb. Paul’s word captures that love is kind in the sense it expresses kindness, it cannot help but do so because that is what it is! It’s an active word, as are all the words Paul uses to describe love here. This underlines that love is not a feeling but an action. We don’t feel to love we choose to love. Loving is not primarily about emotions. It’s about doing right not feeling right. In fact it includes showing kindness to people we don’t feel like loving. This is reassuring & challenging. Reassuring because even if our hearts feel cold today we can still choose to love, challenging because even if our hearts feel warm we have not loved until we move to action.
These verses teach us that love is as love does. This is not to say we never feel love, of course we do & it is better if we do & we should pray that we do more. However when it comes to true love what we do is more important than how we feel... 1 John 3:18 says; “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” We are called to actively love when we feel like it & when we don’t. After all do you think Jesus felt like dying on the cross? No, but he done so because he loved us! 1 John 3:16 says “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” We know what love is then, by the action of Jesus for us, not by his feelings! Phil Ryken writes; “Love is the way we live for God even when we do not happen to feel particularly loving.” This is our high calling.
Kindness is part of how we actively live for God. Gordon Fee defines kindness as “active goodness on behalf of others.” Lewis Smedes calls kindness “loves readiness to enhance the life of another person.” I love that definition. We should always be ready & eager to enhance the lives of others in whatever we can. This is why God has called & gifted us...
Our calling is not to enhance ourselves but to enhance the lives of others. Our gifting is not to build something for ourselves but to build up others. This is what the self-seeking Corinthians needed to hear? Isn’t that why they had to be reminded that love “does not parade itself” (KJV); is not “self-seeking”.
We should ask ourselves questions like: How am I enhancing the lives of others? What has God given me to enhance the life of others? What can I do (or not do) to enhance the worship experience of others when we gather together? Why do I do what I do... to enhance my own ministry or profile, or to enhance the lives of others? What really makes me tick?
Being kind also includes not doing things that hinder other people lives as well as doing things that enhance their lives. In fact sometimes the best way to enhance the life of another is to sacrifice something we enjoy for their good. For example it would be unkind to have a beer in front of a struggling alcoholic. It would unkind to hold onto your seat on the bus when a heavily pregnant woman needs it more. It would be unkind to make the person with only one item behind you at the checkout in Aldi’s wait until you get your full trolley scanned through & paid for. Kindness not only seeks to enhance other people lives, it’s also prepared to sacrifice itself for the good of others, like Jesus did!
The best way for us to learn to be kind is to see it in the character of God; his love is always ready to enhance the lives of others. In the KJV Bible you find the word ‘lovingkindness’. It’s a beautiful word. The word attempts to express the rich OT word for God’s covenant love. Some translations translate this word consistently as steadfast love; others choose to translate it differently in different places (e.g. mercy, unfailing love, faithful love, unending love, compassion, loving-kindness or simply love) to help express the full meaning. The word loving-kindness helps capture how vital kindness is to love. This connection between love & kindness is seen in the NT not only in our text but in other places as well. One such place is Titus 3:3-8:
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
Note how love & kindness are tied together again as well as the ideas of mercy, rebirth, generosity & eternal life. Note how it is the loving kindness of God that changed these people from malicious, envious haters into new people devoted to doing what is good. As Romans 2:4 says; “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.”
So kindness is not to be underestimated. We may be tempted to see it as something small, but here the Bible takes everything God has done for our salvation & basically calls it loving kindness. And because we have benefited from such kindness we ought to do everything we do from a heart of kindness.
Kindness is more than doing nice things for people. It includes that, but it is much more. In fact just because we do nice things doesn’t mean we have been kind. Our motivation has to be right. We can do nice things to manipulate others for our own ends, or we can do nice things because we genuinely want what’s best for others. Kindness is as much about our motivation for doing as our actual doing.
Also kindness includes telling people what they really need to hear, not necessarily what they want to here. Kindness includes disciplining our children for their good. Kindness is simply doing what is best, not for us, but for others... It’s sacrificing our preferences & ease for what’s best for others. Kindness will take us out of ourselves & out of our comfort zones. Kindness took Jesus all the way to the cross...
Let’s think about God’s loving kindness under the light of the verses I read from Titus. Firstly God’s kindness saves people when they are at their worst. Note the words Paul’s uses to describe recipients of God’s loving kindness; foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved... malicious, envious & hating one another. Not a good spiritual CV at all. Do such people deserve kindness? Have such people earned it? What does this teach us about the loving kindness of God? It teaches us it is unearned & undeserved. In fact vs4-5 underlines this further when they say; “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”
God shows loving kindness to people simply because he is merciful, not because we are righteous or deserving. Likewise we should show kindness to people simply because we are called to be merciful, not because others are deserving of it. We are called to love the same kinds of people Jesus loves! This is our high calling! The Beatitude of Jesus comes to mind at this point; “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” Are we merciful? Are we kind like our Saviour is kind?
Secondly God’s loving kindness is life changing. God is kind enough to give us new life & a renewed heart. He does this by making us born again & by giving us his Holy Spirit. Rebirth is the inward work of the Holy Spirit giving a lifeless sinner new & everlasting life. When the kindness of God comes into our lives; it washes away our sins & makes new people out of us. Renewal is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us reshaping our hearts & minds. It’s God’s commitment to never give up on us until we love like Jesus loves.
We can’t give others new life or the Holy Spirit, this is God’s work alone, but we can mirror God’s heart by never writing people off & by generously committing ourselves to their long term good. Phil Ryken writes; “The Spirit is the best of all gifts because he is the gift of God himself. And when God pours out this gift, it is not merely a trickle but a fountain.” In the same way we should be prepared to pour out ourselves for others with generous acts of loving kindness. 2Tim4:6
Thirdly, God’s kindness fills lives with hope. God’s kindness makes us heirs. His grace justifies us so we become heirs who possess eternal hope. No matter how messy or difficult our lives may seem today we can still know that God’s loving kindness has brought the hope of eternal life to our hearts. For this reason we are more blessed than we can comprehend. Our future is as bright as the glory of God. 2 Cor. 4:17 says; “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Since we own such hope we are called to bring hope to others. This is another way we can reflect Christ’s kindness.
So we are called to show mercy to the undeserving, to pour ourselves out for the good of others & to bring hope into their lives. This is what it means to be kind like Jesus is kind. This is how we are called to enhance the lives of others with loving kindness. Here are three ways we can do this.
Evangelistic kindness: We should tell others about God’s loving kindness. One of the kindest things we can do is tell others about the kindness of God. God can show people more kindness than we ever can, so it is kind to tell others about his kindness. In fact it would be unkind not to.
Practical kindness: We should do what we can for people around us. If we have something that would benefit them we should give it to them. 1 John 3:17 says; “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity in them, how can the love of God be in that person.” John the Baptist said; “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” And if people need help in some practical way we should be prepared to alter our plans & give time to help.
Gifted kindness: We should use our gifting to love others. The context of these words about love is spiritual gifts. Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:1 “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts...” Our gifts have been given not to enhance ourselves but to build up others... If fact perhaps one way you can tell if you are really gifted in an area is to ask yourself: Does it enhance the lives of others when I do what I think I’m gifted to do? Our gifting & calling has been given to enable us to love more effectively, to enhance the lives of others. If it is not doing so then it may not be our thing... If you have been gifted then your gift will make room for you...
Using our gifts to love others also means we will express kindness in different ways. A teacher will express kindness by using his teaching gift to enhance the lives of others... Likewise, a cook will use their gifting to enhance the lives of others. This is part of what it means to be kind, using our God-given gifts to enhance other people’s lives.
God has shown us kindness upon kindness by saving us, changing us & giving us hope. We ought to show kindness upon kindness to others by telling them about his kindness, sharing our possessions & time with those who need it & using our gifting to enhance the lives of others.
Let us learn to be kind from the kindest One of all, may our lives point to Him! Everything we do ought to be from a heart of kindness. Kind is what we are called to be.
Life Group Guide
What Love Is Not
When Jesus was preparing his disciples for life after his death, resurrection & ascension one of the most important things he said was:
John 13:33-35 “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one and other.”
According to Jesus then, this is how his disciples are to be primarily recognisable – by their love for one another. This is the most important aspect of ‘Sharing Jesus’ there is. If we cannot embrace his costly love for us & extend it to one another, then we are in danger of hiding his love from others. This is really the final part of the ‘Sharing Jesus’ series as well as the first part of our new series – ‘Loving the Way Jesus Loves’. The last series highlighted Christ’s costly love for sinners... this series will highlight how we are called, changed & empowered to love as he loves.
Do we love the way Jesus loves? Do we love others the way Jesus has loved us? Is it even possible to do so? There must be a way we can if Jesus commands us to! (Focus on your own heart...) One of the aims of this series is to cut right into the depths of our hearts like a surgeon’s knife. Our motives will be challenged; our thinking on what love is & what it isn’t will be challenged.
The New Testament makes it clear that salvation results in a transformed life. We saw this last week in the story of Zacchaeus. Relationship with Jesus resulted in a transformed life, the fruit of which was repentance in both his attitudes & actions towards others. 2 Cor. 5:17 says; “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come.” The fruit of New Life is described in texts like Gal 5:22-23; Eph 5:9 & Col 3:12-15. However at its most basic level it can be summed up in one word – LOVE. 1 John 4:7-21 underlines that love is the mark of genuine Christianity (cf. Rom 12:9-21). And of course we know the greatest commandments are to love God & our neighbour.
What is love? 1 John 3:16 NRSV answers; “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This highlights again the words of Jesus we begun with; “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
This love that Jesus talks about & which he exemplified on the cross isn’t just any love. We’re not talking about friendship or romantic love, or charity as we understand it today. This is a love that goes much deeper. A love that transcends all other kinds of love & purifies them! This love Christ speaks of is the Mount Everest of Christian discipleship & from its peak we see the fullest view of the Christian life. In the Greek this love has a special name to identify it from lesser loves – agape. Agape is one of the rarest words in ancient Greek literature (which tells its own story), but one of the most common in the NT...
This agape love is the love Jesus commands us to love God & our neighbour with, to love one another with & to love our enemies with. Sadly however professing Christians & churches have seldom reached the dizzy heights of Mount Agape. It’s easier to climb Mount Doctrine, or Mount Activity, or Mount Position than to reach the highest peak of Mount Agape. Yet the supreme characteristic that God demands of his people is still agape love! The most famous verses on such love are found in 1 Cor. 13, this our primary text for the series. Let’s read verse 1-8 together:
“And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
This is one of the most famous parts of all of Scripture, mainly because it is often read at weddings. It is the Bible’s most complete definition of love & the chapter ends by declaring love to be the greatest of God’s gifts. As familiar as this chapter is however, it is probably not understood as well as it should be. When Paul wrote these words he was not giving us something nice to read at weddings. The love he writes of here is not romantic love (eros), but the selfless & sacrificial love of Jesus (agape). Instead of preparing people for marriage then, Paul was desperately trying to show a church which was divided by self-centredness, super-spirituality, & power hungry people that there is a more excellent way to do church – the way of selfless & sacrificial love.
These verses have been written to challenge our deepest motives. In reality they set a standard any honest Christian knows they fall way short of. None of us can claim to have loved like this... There is an easy way to prove it, read verses 4-8 again & this time insert your own name...
Interestingly these most descriptive verses on love say more about what love is not than what love is. Did you notice that? Verses 1-3 teach us we can have a lot of gifting & faith but not love. We can understand everything but still not love. We can even give everything away, including our very life, but still not love. Then in verses 4-6 we’re told what love does not & is not... In fact the only bits that describe love in positive are the first five words of verse 4, the first three words of verse 8 & verse 7. This is because understanding what love isn’t helps us to understand what love is. One of the aims of these verses is to highlight & remove the sins that stop us loving the way Jesus loves...
No one can hear the gospel clearly from the life of a loveless Christian. Let me put that statement a number of other ways. No one can hear the gospel from the life of an envious Christian. No one can hear the gospel from the life of an arrogant Christian. No one can hear the gospel from the life of a rude, or irritable, or resentful Christian. No one can hear the gospel from the life of a Christian who rejoices in what is wrong - lies, half-truths or sin of any kind - rather than truth. This is why these words are aimed at dealing with sins that stop us loving the way Jesus loves.
Love is so essential to Christianity it makes everything else genuine. Without love nothing else is genuine. That is the big point that comes through in the first three verses of this chapter. This is why it is so important to know what’ love is & isn’t. Listen to verses 1-3 again:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Note Paul is writing in first person, indicating he is preaching to himself as much as anyone. He needs his words to impact & shape his life & ministry. This is true for every preacher & minister. When Paul talks of tongues of men & of angels he is talking about every use of language, from great oratory of human languages to speaking in the most spiritual off languages. One could master a human language so to captivate audiences, another could speak in the most beautiful of heavenly languages, but if there is no love it is empty noise. There may be plenty of volume in a gong but there is nothing more. Anyone who is obsessed with saying at the expense of being is nothing more than empty noise. Gongs can produce a lot of noise but they do not make very good music. When Paul used the word gong here he was probably referring to what was used in the worship of pagan deities. They would go crazy beating gongs & banging cymbals in the hope of getting the attention of their god’s... Paul is basically saying that they could have the greatest orators preach & spend the whole worship time singing in heavenly tongues but without love they would be no better off than those crazy pagans in the temple down the road...
Likewise we could understand everything there is to be understood in science, business or philosophy & know the Bible & Christian doctrine inside out. But without love we are no better off than the person who knows nothing about anything. Or we could have the most impressive gifting & faith to produce the greatest of miracles but without love our ministries & lives amount to nothing. Paul is measuring all the things the Corinthians held dear against love & saying that in comparison to & without love they are of no value. For, it is only love that makes Christianity genuine... Then he goes on & says even if we give everything away including our lives – even if we get burned with the martyrs – but have not love we gain nothing. At this point let’s remember Jesus words:
Matt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
One of the biggest warnings Jesus ever gave, & it was for doers! Love is not measured by what we do but why we do what we do. Love is not measured by what we give, but why we give what we give. Love is not measured by what we have in terms of gifting, knowledge or faith but by how & why we use what we have. And love is not measured by what we say but by how & why we say it, & by if our lives back up what we say. Here is the bottom line; you can make the most impressive & outrageous of sacrifices with right or wrong motives... You can do it to build a reputation or get position for yourself, to impress others so they will tell you how great you are, to cover the sins & avoid the issues you don’t want to deal with. In fact it is even possible that every good thing you or I have ever done was from wrong motives. And Paul is telling us here that without selfless agape love everything else amounts to nothing. This is sobering thought, so much for a nice little poem to read at weddings.
Of course only God can see into our lives perfectly on this point. I cannot judge your life perfectly & you cannot judge mine... But the point is: GOD CAN SEE! PERFECTLY! Why we do what we do! Every motive & intention of our hearts is as clear as day to him. Hebrews 4:12-13 says
“For the word of God is living active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul & of spirit, of joints & marrow, & discerning the thoughts & intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked & exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Love is about doing the right things for the right reasons. No matter how impressive our spirituality, our grasp of doctrine, our social action or our sacrifice; if selfless agape love has not been our motivation is does not count... I want to emphasise at the beginning of this series that this is the love we are called to love one another with... God is calling us to do everything out of love. Otherwise we are wasting our lives. This is a hard & heart searching teaching.
I need to emphasise something else before I finish today. I don’t want what I say now to take away any of the challenge, but we need Gospel Hope if we are to truly rise to the challenge... It’s popular today to simplify the gospel by suggesting it is simply to love God & love people, as if this makes the Christian life easy... But the irony could not be greater when we analyze our own hearts under Paul’s description of love. We all know we continue to miss the mark by a long way. According to Jesus 'Love God, love people' is actually a summary of the law, not the Gospel. If we had to love God & people with the love described here to get right with God, we would have no hope of salvation. We cannot produce such love within ourselves; the law only reveals how loveless we are.
Trying to fulfil the law, which calls us to love perfectly, by ourselves is like trying to climb Mount Everest naked & alone. It’s impossible. Thank God however that the only One who ever reached the heights of perfect love keeps reaching down & lifting up sinners to where he is. This is our only & certain hope: Jesus fulfilled the Greatest Commandments for us, & for those who trust in him, the Holy Spirit has begun to write the law of love on our new hearts.
As always we only have one hope, we only have one place we can look if we are to find Good News & see this genuine love produced in our lives. We cannot look to ourselves; we cannot discipline ourselves to love like this... If we are going to love the way Jesus loves then we need to know his rescuing love for us. 1 John 4:19 says “We love because he first loved us.” Romans 5:5 tells us; “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Here we find the hope for our loveless hearts. Our hope of becoming agape lovers is the Person of Jesus & his promised Holy Spirit. Only Jesus can produce this love in us by his Spirit, this is the only way we can fulfil the new commandment given by Jesus. This is why the tagline on our website is not simply ‘Love God, Love People’... but instead; ‘Loving God & people through the power of Good News of Jesus’. For that is the only way it is possible!
Philip Ryken comments that; “Paul encourages us to read the Love Chapter in a Christ-centred way by the dramatic shift he makes between verses one to three, where he speaks in the first person, and verses four to eight, when love is personified...” Whenever we talk about loving, we always have to go back to Jesus. The love described in this chapter is really his love & only his Spirit can produce it in us. So as we study through this description of love in the coming weeks, we will turn again & again to Jesus in the gospels, to learn from the Saviour of our loveless hearts. We are his disciples. We will never learn how to love by working it up in our own hearts but only by having more of Jesus in our lives. 2 Cor. 3:18 says; “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We behold Jesus & the Spirit changes us to be like him, that is it!
Earlier we saw how far off the mark verses 4-8 sound when we replace the word love with our own name. It reads very different, though, when we put Jesus in place of ourselves. That’s the Good News, Jesus in place of us! “Jesus is patient & kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endured all things. Jesus never fails.”
Let’s welcome his love into our lives afresh by fixing our eyes on the One who loves like no other. Admit you are not the lover you should be & ask Jesus to change your heart. Tell him ‘Jesus you are everything I am not, take my unloving heart & make me everything that you are.’
Life Group Guide
Weddings are always a special day in our own culture, and Jesus’ first ever miracle being at a wedding shows how special he regards marriage between a man & woman... However the way a Jewish wedding at this time was done was very different to weddings we’ve been at. The wedding celebrations could last up to a week. It was one big party... The responsibility for organising everything lay with the groom, so every wedding was like ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ minus the €10,000. In our culture it’s generally the woman who is left to do most things.
To run out of wine was very embarrassing for the groom, almost unforgivable in fact. It may even have opened him to a potential lawsuit from the relatives of the bride. Getting sued by the in-laws is not a good start to married life. So this is potentially a pretty embarrassing time for this groom and his family.
So what happens? Jesus’ mum, Mary, puts him on the spot. It’s says in verse 3 of the story; “The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no more wine.” “Dear woman that’s not our problem,” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” Jesus almost seems a bit moody in how he respond’s, I mean none of us would ever talk to our mum’s like that, right? However Jesus words don’t sound as blunt in the language the NT was originally written in as they do in our English translations. Jesus was not being rude, but while he was not being rude he was nevertheless making something clear. He had a very specific mission from his Father & Jesus was making it clear that he would be entering into that mission, a mission that would take him all the way to the cross... From now on Mary needed to recognise him not so much as the son she had raised but as the Son of God who had come to do his will alone. How we view Jesus is important...
While Mary needed to learn that her relationship with Jesus had to change because of Christ’s unique identity & purpose, we still need to acknowledge she showed thoughtfulness towards these poor people & as well as remarkable faith in Jesus’ ability to turn the situation around...
Verse 11 teaches us this was the first miracle Jesus ever did. This means he never performed any miracles during his childhood or in his early adulthood... It also means that up until this point his mum had never seen him do a miracle. So it’s not like she had seen him do miracles all the time... If this had have been later in his ministry then she would have seen him do lots of miracles, but it wasn’t – this was his first ever miracle (in human flesh anyway). So it took remarkable faith in Jesus for his mum to believe he could turn this disaster of a wedding party around.
It’s the same for us, if we are going to see the power of Jesus displayed then we have to feel compassion towards other people’s situations & exercise the same faith in Jesus to turn things around... We need to continually turn to Jesus & expect him to bring about the needed changes in our lives & the lives of others. Our hope is that he can make the difference.
It’s not what we have to say that will change people’s circumstances, it’s not our advice; it’s what Jesus has to say! It’s not our involvement in people’s lives that will bring the needed change, it is Jesus’ involvement. Sometimes we make it too much about us & our involvement. If fact perhaps some of us need to invite Jesus to deal with our own issues instead of trying to get involved in fixing everybody else’s. We are not the fixer of our own lives never mind anybody else’s, Jesus is! Sometimes we just need to get out of the way & hand things over to Jesus like Mary did here. Mary saw the problem but she happily handed the responsibility for solving it over to Jesus. After this she’s not mentioned again in the story. She didn’t desire to be the centre of attention, or to be the hub that everything revolved around, she was happy exalting Jesus as the One to listen to. It’s not our responsibility to fix people’s messes, it’s our responsibility to highlight that Jesus is present & then let him speak...
This is why Mary says to the servants in V5; “Do whatever he tells you”. She understands she doesn’t have the solution to this family’s wine problem, but she knows the One who can make the difference. She seems to take Jesus’ point about him following God’s will; but she still expects him to do something. She realised it’s not for her, or the servants, or anyone to give Jesus orders. It’s not for them (or us) to tell Jesus what to do or when to do it. It’s for him to tell us what to do & when to do it. He sets the agenda, not anybody else! We exist to serve his purpose, not the other way around. However we can be confident that our salvation—our good—is wrapped up in his purpose. In fact we will not find the true purpose of our lives until we learn to “Do whatever he tells [us].”
Jesus’ mum basically entrusts the situation into Jesus hands, she puts him in control of the circumstances & expects Jesus to fix the wine problem. She gives the problem to Jesus. We need to do the same, to put Jesus in control of the circumstances, to hand the problems we find ourselves & others in to him & then trust him to do whatever needs done.
Jesus tells the servants to fill the six water jars. Remember at this point no one has seen Jesus do any miracles yet, so this must have seemed very, very strange & random... Sometimes Jesus will ask you to do strange & random things... (It didn’t make any sense at the time, but it made perfect sense in the end...) These stone water jars that Jesus told the servants to fill to the brim were used for religious washing ceremonies. When they had filled them to the brim as Jesus asked he said to them;
V8-10 “Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies.” So the servants followed his instructions. When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. “A host always serves the best wine first,” he said. “Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!”
Let me point a few things out from these verses. Firstly, the MC noted that the normal way of doing things was to serve the best wine first then the poor wine. Jesus broke with the normal custom, as he often did. Jesus often does things in the opposite way the world does... He didn’t come to follow the pattern of this world, or the pattern of a religious system or a particular culture in this world; he came to lead us in a new direction altogether according to his pattern... (He didn’t come to follow...)
Secondly, often the way of the world is to offer you its best first in order to lure you in, but then in the end it leaves a bad taste in your mouth... However with Jesus the best is always still to come...
Knowing this fills our lives to the brim with hope and gives us strength to keep living for Jesus. He keeps the best wine until last.
Thirdly, when Jesus provided for the grooms need by turning the water into wine he saved him from the embarrassment that came with his lack... Likewise when Jesus went to the cross he did so to save you from the embarrassment of coming short of the standard of a holy God on judgement day. He provided for our greatest need & saved us from our lack of righteousness...
Fourthly, Jesus didn’t come to do only what was necessary to save us from embarrassment and judgement. He came that we might know and enjoy the favour of God abundantly and eternally. That’s why he saves us! In the story he didn’t only provide what was needed, he went over & above. Wine represents joy and blessing in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 10:19 says; “A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes merry.” Psalm 104:14-15 says; “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man.” The Bible warns very clearly about the dangers of alcohol, how it can get a grip on your life (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35). The Bible also teaches drunkenness is sin (Gal 5:2; 1 Pet. 4:3). However wine in and of itself is not evil. It’s how it is used that is either good or evil. In Judaism wine was part of feasting & represented the provision and blessing of God, which of course brought great joy to his people’s hearts.
The wedding party running out of wine can be seen then as symbolising the spiritual emptiness of the people’s religion. The religion of their day did not lead to joy; quite the opposite in fact, it was a heavy burden on people enforcing endless rules & robbing them of joy. Some reacted against this by forsaking religion altogether & rebelling... However both empty religion and rebellion leave people empty & both rob people of joy in the end. Only Jesus can fill people with lasting joy because only Jesus can cause God’s blessing and favour to remain on people forever. The answer to emptiness is not religion or rebellion, it’s Jesus. Following Jesus is not meant to make people miserable or glum, it is meant to lead to real joy and happiness... Jesus comes to fill our lives with joy and gladness.
Lastly, note that Jesus asked them to fill the water jars to the “brim” (NIV,ESV), and when the jars were filled the change from water into wine just happened. Jesus didn’t say or do anything. It just seemed to happen...
Here’s the thing, in the gospel of John water is seen as symbolic of the Holy Spirit (John 4:14; 7:37-39) and it is seen as a fulfilment of many OT promises of transformation (Jer. 31:29-34; Ezk. 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-32). So it’s very possible this first sign (as John calls) it is pointing to the reality that their religion will not see change and transformation until it is filled with the Holy Spirit. Likewise, churches & people today (including you and me) will not be transformed until we are filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit. And we need him to come & bring such change every day.
As churches & individuals are filled over and over again with the Holy Spirit change just happens, that’s the power of the gospel—that’s what you and I need today more than anything. Change just happens when we are filled with the Spirit of Jesus. He turns the water into wine! Jesus, when he ascended, didn't leave us a religious system to keep us in line, he sent his Spirit to make us fully alive! He did this because what we need most is not a rule book that stops us misbehaving too much, but his Spirit to change our hearts.
SHAKING KINGDOMS (Haggai 2:20-23)
Haggai’s forth message comes on the same day as his third. This time the message is directed at Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah. It’s not only important for a prophet to hear messages from God, it’s also important for him to know who those messages are for... All the people needed to hear from God, but as a leader Zerubbabel especially did. He needed the encouragement found in these verses. Zerubbabel lived in difficult & dangerous times. The work had not been going well. The people had been discouraged. The building of the city walls had not even begun; therefore anyone could invade the city before the temple was complete. There were a lot of uncertainties & God’s people were vulnerable. As governor Zerubbabel carried the burden of responsibility more than anyone. This message is given primarily to encourage, strengthen & assure him.
V 20-22 “The word of the LORD came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, “Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, saying, I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother.”
GOD WILL SHAKE EVERYTHING
Zerubbabel was the grandson of King Jehoiachin, and therefore of the royal line of David. But instead of wearing a crown & sitting on a throne like many of his ancestors Zerubbabel was the humble governor of a struggling remnant, trying to complete the building of a seemingly inglorious temple. This was potentially a discouraging situation for a royal prince to be in! He could have complained about having a tougher lot than his predecessors, or thought that he deserved better, but instead he obeyed the word of God. So God gave him a special word of encouragement through the mouth of Haggai. While the nations around Jerusalem seemed larger & stronger he could rest assured that the Lord would care for his people as he always has.
The imagery of this final message is that of shaking kingdoms. The kingdoms around Zerubbabel may have looked strong & powerful but none of them were built to last. This was proven true. All the great empires that surrounded Israel in Bible times have fallen. This is also a reminder to us that only the kingdom of God is built to last forever. History has been full of kingdoms rising & falling. Even in more recent history we have seen empires rise & fall. Think of the British Empire... & the Soviet Union... The truth is every empire in this world has an expiry date apart from the kingdom of God. Much of what appears strong today will be gone tomorrow. In fact even at present we can see powerful (& not so powerful) nations shaking under economic pressure. In the face of this we should encourage ourselves that we are part of a kingdom that cannot be shaken. This is why it makes absolute sense to abandon our lives to building the kingdom of God in spite of the difficult it seems to bring at times. Everything else will eventually fall.
Empires can be as small as oneself or big enough to span the globe. So the main thing we need to grasp is the pointlessness of investing one’s life in something that will inevitably fall. When something is built on human personality or human strength & glory or anything other than the Word of God it is destined to expire. Jesus said in Matt 24:35; “Heaven & earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Isaiah 40:8 says; “The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
These verses in Haggai talk of God shaking the heavens and the earth & overthrowing human kingdoms. We need to make sure we are building on that which does not pass away. This is the second occasion Haggai has used this image of shaking nations in this chapter. Verses 6-8 talk of him shaking the nations & then here in this final message God brings up this idea of shaking again. The phrase heaven & earth highlights the fact that everything will be shaken. The writer of Hebrews uses this imagery of Haggai to refer to the end times. This helps highlight that there was an immediate & future application to these verses. Listen to what it says in Hebrews 12:25-29:
“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
So this shaking is to ensure that nothing but the kingdom of God remains. It’s part of the necessary preparation for the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom on earth so he can reign as King without any rival kingdoms. These verses warn us to be ready for this coming reality. They also encourage us to be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken & to respond with appropriate worship. Then the section finishes with a reminder that our God is a consuming fire in that he will burn up everything that is not part of his eternal kingdom. The images of shaking & fire essentially say the same thing...
In First Corinthians chapter three we find Paul addressing one of the issues in the Corinthian church. The particular issue arose because people were beginning to follow different personalities. Some preferred Apollos, some Peter & some Paul. So the potential was there for little rival kingdoms, built on the personality of good men, to develop within the kingdom of God. However Paul being a godly man refused to let this happen. He basically said that without God none of them were anything, for only he can bring growth & increase. Paul then shifted the analogy from a field to a building site, which is more in line with where we’re at in Haggai. Listen to what he says in verses 10-16;
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
GOD’S UNSHAKABLE KINGDOM
The verses in 1 Corinthians make sure we understand there is only one eternal foundation—the person & work of Christ. There is no other foundation we should be found building on & we can only build with others who build on this same foundation. These verses also highlight that we need to make sure we are building with the right materials. These materials include right motives & they also challenge us to make sure we get the right materials from God’s eternal warehouse rather than the warehouses of this world, which is passing away in its current form. The verses also note that it’s not how much work we do that matters but what sort of work. They also highlight how there are promised rewards for seeking first the kingdom of God. So it’s not a case of us firing on ahead & building what we like. It’s a case of us building carefully under the direction of the Word & Spirit of God – this is the only way we can genuinely partner with God in building his unshakable kingdom.
Psalm 127:1-2 says: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that your rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
In this Psalm we see how God is the builder but that he also includes his people in the building work. We also see he is the one watching over the city, remember the walls of the city were not built in Haggai’s day so this particular Psalm would have been very comforting. In fact Zechariah paints an even more powerful picture of God being their protection. Zech 2:5 says; “And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.” This Psalm also seems to imply that if we need to miss a lot of sleep to build what we’re building, then we’re probably not building the kingdom of God. “For he gives to his beloved sleep” it says. The kingdom of God is not a kingdom built on anxious toil, it is a kingdom built on confident hope!
Let’s remember one more thing before we move on to the last verses of Haggai. Let’s not forget that what Zerubabbel & the people were building seemed like nothing compared to what it once was, it also seemed as nothing compared with the other kingdoms round about them. These kingdoms looked powerful & mighty but in reality they were but a few years away from falling. Sometimes we can be tempted to look at what we’re building & then look at other things being built in the world & think: “What is the church compared to this or that.” But remember, many of the things that appear strong today will be gone tomorrow. Things are often not as they seem! A. W. Tozer said; “We must meet the uncertainties of this world with the certainty of the world to come.”
We are part of the only kingdom that endures forever! Every other kingdom is passing away but the kingdom of God is still coming... It’s has already come in part but one day the King will return & on that Day we will fully see just how enduring & powerful his kingdom is. Until then we walk by faith & not by sight. Until then we cling to his promises with the hands of faith & confident hope. All the kingdoms of this world are shaking but the Kingdom we belong to is resting firmly on the sure promises of God.
Haggai continues “On that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, the son of Shealtiel, declares the LORD, & make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you, declares the LORD of hosts.”
GOD’S SIGNET RING
The signet ring was a stone carved with the symbol of the person in power. It was used by pressing into clay tablets to authenticate what was written on them. That is, it was much like a signature today. The signet was precious so it was kept on the ruler’s finger or on a cord around his neck so that. Though the nations & even heaven & earth should be shaken, Zerubbabel would remain safe on God’s hand. He would be kept secure until God has done all the things spoken about.
In these verses Zerubbabel is also called “my servant”, an exclusive title reserved for specially chosen people, & he was indeed chosen by God. His ancestor, Jehoiachin, had been rejected by God, but he was chosen. God was reversing the judgement & renewing his promise that the Davidic line would not die out, but would one day give the world a Saviour. That is why we find Zerubbabel named in the genealogies of Jesus (Matt 1:12; Luke 3:27”). He was near & dear to God & his family would continue until the Messiah came from it. Jesus of course is the ultimate signet on God’s right hand. For by him the reality of the unshakable kingdom of God was signed & approved once & for all! In him all the promises of God are yes & amen.
This message would have encouraged Zerubbabel to stay on the job & finish the work God gave him to do. He was special to God, chosen by God, the servant of God! He was as near & dear to God as a king’s signet ring & he was also part of something big & significant. These are things he needs to know, these are things we all need to know!
This is true for each one of us. We are all special to God & he wants to use our lives to stamp his mark on this world so that his unshakable purposes are accomplished in & through us. As you read the OT, you see how the history of salvation unfolds from age to age, always moving towards the fulfilment of the messianic promise. Many people played different roles in the story, but each of them was important. Abraham founded the nation, Isaac & Jacob built it. Joseph protected it & Moses redeemed it. Joshua gave them their promised land & David established the kingdom. In spite of sin, suffering, difficulty & failures, the Davidic line never ceased, & the day came when Jesus, the Son of David, was born to save his people & the world. We remember the ‘big names’ of the salvation story... but how often do we think of Zurubbabel? His story is a humble but very important part of God’s bigger story which he played faithfully as our OT record, which is all God asks of any of us...
Donald Miller says: “Every day you live is a page. Every year a chapter. Your life a book. What is it about?” Is the story of our lives about playing our part in building God’s unshakable kingdom? Or is it a story of trying to build a kingdom for ourselves? What is it honestly about? Are we living for what will be shaken to pieces, or are we living for what is unshakable?