The disciples thought they were going to die, on the Sea of Galilee in ‘a furious storm’ (Matthew 8:24). Indeed ‘the boat was being swamped’ (Luke 8:23). They are at the end of their resources, but they do turn to Jesus. We hear their panic in Mark 4:38 ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ In the middle of the storm Jesus sleeps on a cushion (Mark 4:38). What do we learn about Jesus from this? Consider Matthew 8:24 Jesus slept.
24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” 26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. 27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
Matthew 8:24-27 (NIV)
1. An evidence of humanity
Jesus slept because he needs sleep. He experienced the same kind of human needs as any of us, including tiredness (John 4:6) and thirst (John 19:28). The range of human experience is shared by Jesus. What we read here provides clear evidence of Jesus’ humanity. What the Son of God has taken into union with his divine nature is human nature in its entirety – a body and a soul, with the sole exception of sin. It is human nature just like ours. As we defend the deity of Christ, we must equally vigorously defend his humanity. Early heretics such as the Docetists were influenced by Greek thought and could not conceive of deity in union with humanity. The church from the outset understood the importance of the Lord’s human nature. Hebrews 2:17 tells us that ‘he had to be made like his brothers in every way’ in order to provide salvation – human sin must be dealt with by a human Saviour, who is also fully God. We must not forget that as Jesus slept in the boat (according to his human nature) he also reigned over the entire universe (according to his divine nature) – as stated in Hebrews 1:3.
2. A testimony of faith
Jesus sleeps soundly in the midst of the storm. Note his response to the disciples’ panic – ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ (v26). He sees that the issue at stake is faith (or their lack of it). Jesus’ sleeping in the storm is a testimony of faith. This is apparent in the psalms, which we can take as being all messianic: Jesus is the primary speaker. Thus we apply Psalm 23:1 first to him –he says, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, expressing faith in his Father’s loving care for him and provision for him in all circumstances. This trust was what Satan chiefly attacked in the temptations (Matthew 4:1ff). The Saviour also speaks in Psalm 4:8 ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’
3. An example to follow
Jesus according to his human nature is the exemplar of the godly life his people are to live. We see in him what a Spirit-empowered human life is to look like. In his sleeping in the storm there are lessons for us:
(i) Our humanity: we are creatures with limitations, including bodies that need rest. It is foolish to disregard the proper care of the bodies that God has given us, suggesting we are wiser than the Creator. Note Psalm 127:2 ‘he grants sleep to those he loves’.
(ii) Our faith: trust in the Lord is a great source of security and peace. This is not a guarantee of sound sleep but the believer trusting in the Lord is freed from many burdens and anxieties that others bear. Psalm 4:8 ‘I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’ That should be our prayerful desire and aim, even in trials.
We are bombarded from all sides by words – especially with the advent of the internet and social media. The big question is – which words are worthy of our attention? Which words should we believe? Generally, we have to ask – do we trust the source? This challenge was posed right at the beginning of human history – Genesis 3:1 ‘Did God really say…?’
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” 4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
1. The temptation we encounter
Genesis 3 provides a historical record of Satan’s temptation of our first parents. What happens concerns two individual human beings, although as our representative, Adam’s actions also concern all of us. Satan however uses the same method to attack God’s people in all ages, so we are to learn from this account what to expect. Satan begins with a question designed to provoke questions on Eve’s part (v1). The aim is to get Eve to evaluate God’s word critically – is his prohibition reasonable or fair? Eve exaggerates the prohibition – ‘you must not touch it’ (v3). Satan then progresses to an outright denial of the truthfulness of God’s word – ‘You will not surely die’ (v4). Is the God who gave the word to be trusted? Often we face the same basic temptation – do we trust the word of God, even when it goes against what we desire, or it is difficult to understand, or it is questioned by ‘experts’, or it is mocked in society around us. We may be tempted to question God’s word in Scripture.
2. The choice we must make
The word of God and the word of Satan present 2 rival interpretations of reality. The whole of a person’s life is involved in this contest. Which interpretation will we believe and act upon? We have two ‘words’ offering diametrically opposed ‘world and life views’ – which one will guide us?
(i) The word of the Creator: given by authoritative revelation. This provides the standard for all the big issues – how we can have accurate knowledge, how we are to understand our true identity, and how we are to conduct our lives.
(ii) The word of the rebel: Satan opposes God’s truth in every way possible. He is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). His rival word is a false interpretation of reality.
In Eden we see human beings trying to occupy the place of God. Instead of submitting to the Creator and his word, Adam and Eve set themselves up as judges of truth. This refusal to accept our God-given position is the root of the sin that requires a Saviour.
3. The example we are to follow
Christ himself provides us with the perfect example of how we are to receive and use God’s Word. In his redemptive work, he is unique, but in his earthly life, he is our example. Note the statement in 1 John 1:6 ‘Whoever claims to live in [God] must walk as Jesus did’. Jesus’ fundamental commitment was to obey the divine Word – ‘your word is truth’ (John 17:17). Every part of the Saviour’s life was governed by the Word – ‘I have come to do your will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:7). This is clear in his response to Satan’s temptations – ‘it stands written’ (Matthew 4:4,7,10). We are to be imitators of him, with all our thinking and living to be done in joyful and loving submission to the Word of God.
As we exit lockdown and begin services of worship again, what should our thoughts be? We may experience all kinds of anxieties and concerns, but as Christians, our focus must surely be on the Lord. Much has changed, but he has not. Consider Psalm 115:12-13.
12 The Lord remembers us and will bless us: He will bless his people Israel, he will bless the house of Aaron, 13 he will bless those who fear the Lord— small and great alike.
Psalm 115:12-13 (NIV)
1. God has remembered
Our basic attitude is expressed in v1 ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory’. The fundamental reason is ‘because of your love and your faithfulness’. These truths lie behind the statement of v12. The verb refers primarily to the past – ‘The Lord has remembered us’ (ESV). This then describes his fixed attitude and so NIV reads ‘The Lord remembers us’. When Scripture says that the Lord remembered, it is not merely referring to his having exhaustive information about us – it speaks of his saving action on our behalf. The Lord saves those he remembers. He could remember our sins, but instead, we have the language of grace: ‘I am he who blots out your transgressions…and remembers your sins no more’ (Isaiah 43:25). The name he uses is significant: ‘the Lord’, the God who makes a covenant of love with his people.
2. God will bless
The Lord’s remembering us in grace includes all the provision we require, yet he loves his people so much that he goes on to give rich promises: ‘The Lord…will bless us’ (v12). The future is always uncertain (as James 4:15 reminds us) and our present circumstances emphasise that uncertainty. If we focus on the uncertainties we will become worried, fearful or even depressed. The ultimate solution is to focus on the Lord. In the full light of the New Testament we see that all blessing comes through Christ whose redemptive work has made all necessary provision. Hence we have the promises of Philippians 4:19 and 2 Peter 1:3. Note 3 times, ‘He will bless’ – absolute assurance.
3. God is to be feared
The promise of blessing is only for ‘the house of Israel…the house of Aaron’ – God’s own people. The language of 1 Peter 2:9 shows that we can apply these words to ourselves as Christians (see also Galatians 3:29). As v13 shows, the blessing is for those ‘who fear the Lord’ – who love and reverence their heavenly Father. The blessing is for ‘small and great alike’ – the only qualification is godly fear for the Lord who saves us. With such an assurance those who fear the Lord can face whatever the future brings.
One of the most controversial doctrines of the Christian faith is election – the belief that God has chosen some for salvation and not others. ‘That’s not fair,’ many say. ‘Why doesn’t he choose everybody?’ is a frequent question. Some of the questions cannot be answered – we are, after all, dealing with an infinite God whose ways are often beyond our understanding. There are vital things about election that we can understand, however, because God has revealed them to us.
For the Christian, election is in fact a doctrine that is full of encouragement – a source of joy and thanksgiving, not a perplexing puzzle. Let’s consider some of these great truths as we turn to Ephesians 1:4 Chosen in Christ
1. The nature of election
In v3 Paul gives thanks to God the Father for ‘every spiritual blessing in Christ’. Salvation is rich and wonderful. Why do we receive such bounty? The answer is given in v4 ‘For he chose us in him…’ The origin of salvation is not in us but in the God who elects. Note 4 elements:
(i).It is sovereign. ‘he chose us’. The reference is to ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v3). This does not exclude the Son and the Holy Spirit since all the persons of the Trinity are involved in all God’s works, but it is particularly the Father to whom election is ascribed.
By its very nature, this action is an exercise of sovereign authority. The Father selects, sets apart for himself, a certain group of people. From start to finish this is God’s work. It is a bestowing of grace – love to the utterly undeserving. It is something done freely by God, not conditioned in any way by the objects of his choice. This is underlined by Paul in Romans 8:29 ‘those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’. There ‘foreknowledge’ indicates the inauguration of a relationship of redeeming love that will result in salvation.
(ii).It is personal. ‘he chose us’. Who is in view? This cannot be confined to Paul and his original readers. The whole description is cast in terms of the universal church and the reference is clearly to all believers. But the choice was exercised before they were believers. Indeed most of those to whom Paul refers had not yet been born. The biblical evidence forces us to conclude that it is sinners whom God has elected. This fits with Romans 5:8 ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. This is the wonder of grace – it is for the unworthy.
God’s gracious election does not apply to a faceless multitude but to specific individuals. Those saved can delight in the personal love of God that they experience. Notice Paul’s reference in Galatians 2:20 to ‘the Son of God who loved me’. Election is not a cold, impersonal decree.
(iii). It is Christ-centred. ‘he chose us in him’. The identity of the one in whom we are chosen is clear from v3. It is in Christ. He is the foundation of election.
What does it mean to be chosen in Christ? We find in the New Testament clear evidence of a people being given to Christ in eternity. As he prays to the Father, he refers in John 17:6 to ‘those you have given me out of the world’. He says that he will ‘give eternal life to all those you have given him’ (v2). We also have a reference in Revelation 17:8 to names ‘written in the book of life from the creation of the world’.
For those given to him, the Son of God undertook to do all that is necessary for their salvation. In the plan of God laid before creation he took on the role of the Representative and Surety of his people – ‘he is the surety [or ‘guarantee’] of a better covenant’ (Hebrews 7:22). Christ assumes our debt of sin and at the cross discharges that debt fully. The whole of salvation centres on the person and work of Christ.
(iv). It is eternal. That is the significance of the words ‘before the creation of the world’. Before ‘time’ even existed, only the timeless God existed. Election is an eternal decree of God that is not dependent on any of his creatures. As a result, it is certain to be fulfilled. That is a great source of reassurance to his people. Our sins and failures, and there are many of them, do not thwart his purposes.
This statement also underlines the fact that election is not due to any merit in us. Think of the contrasting examples of Jacob and Esau: Romans 9:11 tells us that God chose Jacob ‘before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might stand’. Election is entirely by grace.
2. The purpose of election
Our all-wise God does all things for a purpose – nothing is random or by chance. We can therefore be sure that election is purposeful. The ultimate purpose of all of God’s works is the manifestation of his own glory. He does, however, also have other purposes in what he does. In this verse, Paul indicates what we could call the proximate purpose of election. He mentions two aspects of it:
(i). Holiness. ‘he chose us to be holy’. The outworking of the decree of election is the redemptive work of Christ which transforms those God chooses into holy people. We are changed from sinners into those who increasingly share in the holiness of God. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ‘It is God’s will that you should be holy’. At conversion sinners are declared to be holy in God’s sight. That is the justification that changes our standing in relation to God’s law. Following on from that, sinners are throughout their lives made holy in thought, word and action. That is lifelong sanctification, the work of the Holy Spirit in us as we use the means of grace that God has provided. Ultimately, beyond this life, our holiness will be complete as we experience glorification. All this flows from election.
(ii). Fellowship. ‘in his sight’ or ‘in his presence’. This indicates that those who are made holy are also brought into personal fellowship with our gracious God. That is the supreme privilege conferred by election. We have living communion with the Lord. As John states in 1 John 1:3 ‘our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ’. As our holiness grows, so does the closeness of our fellowship. That is a great cause for thanksgiving and a stimulus to seek greater holiness, as we anticipate the day of perfection in glory.
The Transfiguration 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) 7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
‘I wish I had been there’. Are there events in the Bible that make you wish you had been there? Maybe the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the Law at Sinai, David defeating Goliath, or in the New Testament, the birth of Jesus or the raising of Lazarus? One of the most striking episodes in the Gospels, and one which left a deep imprint on the memories of those who were there, was the transfiguration of Jesus – what would it have been like to be there?
In Mark 9:1 Jesus speaks about some people not tasting death before they see ‘the kingdom of God come with power’. Immediately afterwards three disciples accompany him to the top of a high mountain and there see something of the glory of the King and his kingdom. Let’s consider Mark 9:2-10 The Saviour transfigured.
1. His transformation
During the whole of his ministry on earth Jesus appeared to be just like any other man. He grew up from a child and lived a normal human life, sharing our human nature with the sole exception of sin. Although he was the Son of God, nevertheless, as Paul says, ‘he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2:7). He veiled his divine glory for the period of his humiliation on earth. He never ceased for a moment, however, to be the perfect reflection of his Father. He was ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3).
The eternal Word (John 1:1) came in servant form. On the mountain top, however, 3 disciples were privileged to see something of the radiance of the Son of God. On the mountain, away from the other disciples, the veil was partly drawn aside: ‘he was transfigured before them’ (v2). Each evangelist describes it in his own way. Mark says, ‘his clothes became dazzling white’ (v3), using the homely image of a bleacher. According to Luke, his clothes became ‘as bright as a flash of lightning’ (Luke 9:29). In Matthew’s account, ‘his face shone like the sun’ (Matthew 17:2). What the 3 disciples saw was almost beyond description.
The language used in the Gospels draws on the description of the ‘Ancient of Days’ in Daniel 7:9. It is the very glory of deity, an indication of Jesus’ true identity. Peter writes later that ‘we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16). He is the eternal Son of God, sovereign and glorious. Here we have a foretaste of the glory to come at his resurrection and, ultimately, at the Last Day when he returns. The suffering and death of the Saviour should not blind us to his deity and glory. He is worthy of all of our worship and service.
2. His conversation
At the transfiguration, Jesus is not alone. As v4 tells us, ‘there appeared before them Elijah and Moses’. They represent the Prophets and the Law, summing up the whole of the Old Testament. Their presence at this crucial event is a visible token that what they spoke and wrote about is fulfilled in Jesus. They were permitted to appear with him and also they ‘were talking with Jesus’. Here is an indication of the reality and the closeness of the fellowship enjoyed in heaven, even before the final resurrection. That surely is encouraging knowledge for us to have.
What was the subject of their conversation? We are told in Luke 9:31 ‘They spoke about his departure which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem’. The focus is on Jesus’ death. Notice how it is described: it is (literally) ‘his exodus’. His leading the people of God out of the bondage of sin was foreshadowed in the bringing of Israel out of Egypt. In Jesus there is true liberation – as he says in John 8:36, ‘if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’. In him, God’s eternal plan of salvation is being brought to fulfilment. In his conversation with Elijah and Moses, there is a joyful anticipation of victory at the cross and the empty tomb.
3. His vindication
In v7 we are told ‘a cloud appeared and enveloped them’. It is a manifestation of the presence of God, as in the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites during the exodus. In it, God reveals himself yet at the same time veils himself. There is also a ‘voice’ (v7), again a reminder of the voice heard at the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exodus 24:16). The transfiguration recalls in so many ways God’s meeting with his people at Sinai, again at a mountain.
The voice of God speaks an authoritative word: ‘This is my Son whom I love’. The Father identifies with his Son, as he did at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism (Mark 1:11). The words used signify ‘my only-beloved’. The unique eternal relationship between Father and Son has not been broken by the incarnation. The Father expresses his full approval and endorsement of the path that Jesus treads. The Son has successfully resisted all temptations to turn aside and he is now strengthened for his final walk to the cross. Thus the Saviour is given great encouragement by his Father at this vital moment. He will lay down his life for his people and will accomplish full salvation for them.
‘Listen to him’ is the Father’s command. Jesus is the authoritative Revealer and Redeemer. We must hear and obey him. The only proper response from us is to submit to his every word and trust in him for salvation.
4. His prohibition
It is no surprise that the 3 disciples are amazed, afraid and confused – who would not have been? As usual, Peter is the one who speaks, although ‘he did not know what to say’ (v6). He proposes putting up three shelters for Jesus, Elijah and Moses, perhaps to prolong this amazing experience. They have been the privileged recipients of a special revelation of the Lord’s glory and they are still struggling to grasp its significance. What does it tell them about Jesus’ identity and his mission? As yet they are not ready to put all the pieces together – only later, with the help of the Holy Spirit will they do so, and realise that he is the Messiah who has come to save.
If you have undergone some amazing experience, your first thought will probably be to tell someone else. The disciples’ natural reaction is certainly to try to tell others, probably beginning with the rest of the disciples. Jesus, however, ‘gave them orders not to tell anyone’ (v9). There is the danger of misunderstanding his true mission and raising expectations he will not fulfil. An end to the prohibition will come: ‘until the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. In the light of his completed atonement, the whole story can be told. We have the duty to proclaim the message of what Jesus has done to save sinners and how we have met with him in a life-changing way. We have seen his glory and look forward to the full revelation at his return.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16, Christ Exalted and Compassionate
It is not easy to live the Christian life in our world. There are many pressures on those who seek to follow Christ consistently. In our present circumstances, where there is much suffering, uncertainty and fear, we can find our faith tested and we may be tempted to give up. We need not think we are unique in this respect. The recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews faced many pressures on their Christian faith and some were tempted to give up and go back to Judaism. The writer has much to say by way of challenge and encouragement. Let’s consider Hebrews 4:14-16 which turns our thoughts to our great Saviour.
1. The exaltation of Christ
The focus of encouragement must always be Christ and what he has done for his people. Here the writer demonstrates the superiority of his work as Priest over that of any earthly priest. He writes in v14 ‘we have a great high priest’. There are several reasons for his greatness.
The writer begins with his present position of glory – Jesus has ‘gone through the heavens’. The Saviour has ascended to the Father, who has ‘seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms’ (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:20). Jesus has been granted the place of supreme exaltation. His exaltation is based on his earthly work as Priest, and so he is referred to as ‘Jesus’, his earthly human name. As Priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of his people. The price has been paid – that is the good news of the gospel.
Notice also that he is called ‘the Son of God’ – he is a unique High Priest, indeed he is God himself come in human flesh. On that account, his sacrifice has infinite value. It is sufficient to save multitudes. It manifests perfect divine love. His work is fully accomplished and so he sits at the Father’s right hand. He is not paying a fleeting visit to heaven. He remains in the Father’s presence to intercede for us (as 7:25 tells us). That is a tremendous encouragement.
2. Let us hold firmly to our faith
The practical effect of having such a great High Priest ought to be steadfastness in our faith. To people tempted to give up their faith the writer says ‘let us hold firmly to the faith we profess’. The essentials of that faith have already been stated in the first part of v14 – a Saviour who is both God and man, who by his death and resurrection has made atonement for sins and who now reigns over all things. That is the core of the gospel, which is not negotiable.
To an unbelieving world, these truths seem ridiculous – the gospel is ‘foolishness to the Gentiles’ (I Corinthians 1:23), provoking ridicule or hostility. You may well have experienced something like that. Such a reaction may shake our faith, we may begin to waiver in our commitment. However, we must not give up the truths that determine our eternal destiny. We know our High Priest personally and we are committed to him and his cause.
The idea of ‘hold fast’ includes a holding forth of the truth of the gospel to a Christ-rejecting world, whatever the response. People need to hear these truths and in troubled times like ours, some will be more open to listening to the gospel. We do have new opportunities.
3. The compassion of Christ
Such an exalted Saviour might seem cold and distant. Does he understand the pressures we have to face? The writer reassures us that we do not need to worry on that account. Jesus has an unequaled capacity to understand. It is not the case that he is ‘unable to sympathize with our weaknesses’ (v15). His exaltation has not destroyed his humanity.
It is marvelous news that he was ‘tempted in every way just as we are’. Nothing in human experience, except sin, is foreign to Jesus. In fact, he was tested to an extent we will never face. He spent 40 days in the wilderness battling Satan (Matthew 4:1ff); he was challenged to come down from the cross (Mark 15:30). Jesus made a public profession before the Jews and Pilate and so he knows the pressures that entails.
Notice too the end of v15 ‘yet was without sin’ – he never capitulated to pressure or temptation. That does not distance him from us so that he does not understand our struggles and failures. Instead, it shows how he endured far beyond the point where we would give up and so knows the full force of temptation in a way that we do not. Our Saviour endured all the kinds of trials we face, including the temptation to give up when our faith is under pressure. Jesus, however, came through it all triumphant and he understands us and our struggles fully. That should be a great encouragement in our trials, especially when we feel we have reached our limit and cannot carry on any longer.
4. Let us approach the throne of grace
In v16 the writer makes a very practical application of what he has just said about the compassion of the Lord. We are exhorted to be praying people. He exhorts us, ‘Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence’. What would once have been the throne of judgment for sinners like us is now a place of grace for Christians. On that throne is a crucified and risen High Priest. We can thus come ‘with confidence’, not rashly or self-confidently, but in humble faith, not fearing rejection or wrath.
What will we obtain? We will obtain ‘mercy’, dealing with our past failures, and ‘grace to help us’, for present and future needs, whatever they may be. The Lord’s supply will not fail. He promises, ‘my grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9). Help comes ‘in our time of need’ – at the right time, not before we need it. Grace is always provided for our present trials. So we dare not be prayerless. To neglect prayer is to say we can cope without the Lord’s help, and we know we cannot. With such wonderful assurances, let us trust in the Lord and approach the throne of grace daily.
14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
One of the first effects of the arrival of coronavirus was panic buying. Suddenly supermarket shelves were cleared of a range of goods, sometimes the obvious, sometimes the unexpected. Whoever thought that toilet rolls would be so valuable? The results were unnecessary shortages and unfair pressure put on the vulnerable. Most stores have had to introduce some form of rationing to ensure that all customers are provided with the basics.
Uncertainty is hard for most people to live with. Fear of not having the essentials can be paralysing. Concern for survival would crowd out most other thoughts. For the Christian in such circumstances the temptation may be to focus on those needs to the exclusion of spiritual matters. Our proper Bible-based perspective can be lost and our outlook becomes very like that of the world around us. Paul in prison faced great uncertainties, yet his focus was on the Lord and he was confident God would provide whatever he needed. In Philippians 4:14-20 Paul shows where our trust is to be placed.
1. Thanksgiving for God’s provision
Sometimes the pressure of trying circumstances makes us forget God’s goodness to us in the past. Paul does not fall into that trap. He recognises that gratitude for past blessings and past answered prayers stimulates us to depend more fully on the Lord’s provision now and in the future.
‘It was good of you to share in my troubles’ (v14), he writes. Paul’s certainty that God will supply the strength he requires (v13) does not lead him to despise material help sent from Philippi during his time in prison. In fact, it is clear this is one of the ways in which God supplied his need. The God who provided manna (Exodus 16) can equally well provide by means of his people’s actions – ‘I am amply supplied’ (v18). The provision is viewed from three points of view:
(i) Paul. Their generosity relieved his material needs (v18), but even more important was the expression of fellowship the gifts represented. Note ‘share in my troubles … shared with me’ (v15) – they expressed love and unity in Christ. That explains Paul’s joyful spirit despite hardships. Fellowship should be expressed in all kinds of caring actions.
(ii) The Philippians. They were enriched by their giving – how is that possible? Note ‘what may be credited to your account’ (v17) – as if by giving to Paul they made an investment of material things that would produce a spiritual dividend. This is not a crude ‘payoff’ mentality, yet God does bless generosity (Proverbs 11:25). Giving is not to be done for profit yet God blesses the generous.
(iii) The Lord. The giving of the Philippians pleased God. Note the very striking words ‘They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God’ (v18). The act of giving and its motivation delighted the Lord. This emphasises the God-ward dimension of giving – it is to be done as service to him, for his glory.
2. Trust in God’s promise
The Philippians’ gifts are but one example of a general principle stated in the promise of verse 19 ‘my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’. These words are full of encouragement for God’s people. They help us face difficult and challenging times, such as those in which we are now living. There are several things here to notice:
(i) The Scope. We need to be careful, of course, that we do not try to make the verse say something that it does not say. This is not a promise that Christians will receive from God absolutely anything that they request. There are varieties of supposedly ‘Christian’ teaching that suggest we can ‘name it and claim it’ – that if we have enough faith, God will give whatever we ask. That is not what the Lord promises. He does not offer us a blank cheque that we can fill in however we wish. Often we do not know what would be best for us – we ask amiss or with selfish motives. No good parent will give his child everything he asks for, and our perfect heavenly Father will certainly not do so. The promise relates to ‘all your needs’ – the things we need in order to live for his glory and to serve him as he has planned. We are assured unequivocally that these things will be provided, and we can rest content with not having things we think we need or would like.
(ii) The Author. Paul speaks of ‘My God’ – the God who loves him, who has saved him and who will provide for him. This is the God who accepted the ‘fragrant offering’ of the gifts made to Paul by the Philippians (v18). Our God is concerned for both bodily and spiritual needs. The physical is not beneath the notice of the Creator (see Psalm 145:16 ‘You satisfy the desires of every living thing’). More than that, as Ephesians 1:3 reminds us, God has ‘blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ’. Have we not proved his ability to provide many times? People make promises that often they are not able to keep, but God is able to supply our needs. Paul says that [literally] God will ‘fulfil all your need’. His infinite love and wisdom decide what is a need and what is a desire, and he makes no mistakes. Desires are sometimes granted: needs always are.
(iii) The Source. Problems have arisen in shops recently when demand has outstripped supply, sometimes by a considerable margin. The resources of the Lord, however, are unlimited. Paul refers to [literally] ‘his riches in glory’. The resources are infinite and can never run out. The key to blessing is made clear – the riches are ‘in Christ Jesus’. All God’s provision flows to us through Christ. How is that so? The answer is that his saving work secured every blessing that his people will ever require. By his death and resurrection, Christ has secured not only forgiveness of sin (wonderful as that is). He has also secured all that we require to live the Christian life, to face every trial that he permits to come to us and to reach final glory. Christ is now ‘head over everything for the benefit of the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). Our Father has already given the greatest gift – Christ himself as our Saviour – and so all other gifts will certainly follow. Listen to Paul’s assurance in Romans 8:32 ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ United to Christ, we are in the place to receive God’s infinite provision.
(iv) The Supply. It is abundant, not just the bare minimum for survival. Notice that God supplies ‘according to his riches’. It is not merely ‘out of his riches’, but ‘according to his riches’. The Lord supplies in proportion to his infinite resources. He is not like a millionaire throwing a few coins to a beggar – that would be ‘out of his riches’. To those who themselves give generously, God will give ‘A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over’ (Luke 6:38).
Note also the certainty of the supply. Paul does not use the language of possibility. He does not suggest that God ‘might’ or even ‘probably will’ meet all our needs. He simply states that he will meet them. This is not an arrogant statement since it expresses the very opposite of self-confidence. Our confidence rests on the nature of the God who promises and on the full the provision made in Christ once for all. You can share Paul’s confidence when you look to the Lord and trust in him.
In view of such a promise, Paul bursts out in praise in the doxology of verse 20 ‘To our God and Father be glory forever and ever’. He ascribes ‘glory’ to ‘our God and Father’ because this is his doing, from start to finish, and all the glory is his. Evidence of our Father’s provision should fuel worship and praise from his people, even when they are called to endure hardships and trials. Sitting in prison, writing this letter, Paul knew what it was to practise what he preached. Let us do likewise.
Once it seemed that the greatest threat to the world was nuclear war. To some extent this threat has receded, yet the world is still threatened by e.g. war, terrorism and ecological disaster. Now suddenly we have been confronted with the threat of disaster in the form of the coronavirus which has changed life for all of us in many ways. On a personal level in the coming days we may face crises of various sorts – sickness, bereavement, unemployment, strained relationships. The people of God also face the threat of spiritual enemies. How can we cope? Psalm 46 turns our thoughts to God, the one on whom we can rely in every crisis.
1. Strength in time of trouble (v.1-3)
The psalmist begins with an affirmation of faith – ‘God is our refuge and strength’. This perspective runs through the whole psalm. He begins with certainties, before looking at the turmoil around him. ‘Refuge’ speaks of an unchanging God who provides shelter for his people (see also John 10:30). ‘Strength’ reminds us of a God who indwells the weak to give strength for action. We are not to sit inactive in the midst of a crisis. Remember Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13 ‘I can do everything through him who gives mw strength.
The rest of v1 reads (literally) ‘very much found to be a help in distress’ – there is personal experience of God’s help in the past which helps us in the present challenges. To have the help of the Lord in a crisis we must have sought and found him as our Saviour. Jeremiah 29:13 ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’.
Verses 2-3 describe the worst imaginable crisis, when the most secure features of life collapse. Still ‘we will not fear’ – even the seas are under the sovereign control of God (Psalm 93:4). It is good to be able to remind ourselves that even the coronavirus is under the Lord’s sovereign control. Sometimes the Lord does not spare us such crises, but he is in control, his love never fails (see Habakkuk 3:18). The Lord’s strength will be sufficient to carry us through, whatever he has planned for us (as Paul found – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ‘my grace is sufficient for you… my strength is made perfect in weakness’.).
2. Grace in time of need (v.4-7)
In sudden contrast to the roaring of the waters – ‘There is a river’ (v4) – a picture of calm and serenity. It is a river ‘whose streams make glad the city of God’. The city is not Jerusalem, which has no river, but the spiritual community of the people of God, the church (see 1 Corinthians 3:16). Every believer is part of the city, and holy because God dwells there.
This is the river of God’s grace, flowing through the church, refreshing and sustaining all his people. God is a ‘fountain of life’ (Psalm 36:9). He gives life, physical and spiritual. He refreshes our souls when we feel dry and weak. He provides for all our needs, not merely for some of them (Philippians 4:19 ‘My God will supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus’). If we look to God in times of need, he will supply exactly what we require. We may not know exactly what we need, but the Lord knows and makes no mistakes in what he gives.
‘God is within her’ (v5) – that is the secret of the strength and stability of believers. If we rely on what the world provides, we will be overwhelmed. Regarding the church, however, ‘she will not fall’. That stands in stark contrast to the falling kingdoms of the world (v6). All the powers that oppose God will come to nothing. In v7 we have a ringing affirmation of faith and trust in the Lord. His name ‘Lord of hosts’ reminds us of the infinite power of our God, greater than an disease. ‘God of Jacob’ speaks of the grace of the Lord to undeserving sinners whom he loves with an everlasting love. In him we have everything we need.
3. Peace in time of battle (v.8-11)
The psalm ends with a summons to all to see the evidence for the power of God. These are ‘the works of the Lord’, the one who is the covenant God who never forsakes his people. God has stretched his hand against the enemies – the ‘desolations he has brought on the earth’. The Old Testament provides many examples. These are a foretaste of what he will still do. ‘He makes wars to cease…’ – but in a fallen world perfect peace will not come until the Lord returns and ushers in the new creation, ‘a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Peter 3:13).
It is a glorious prospect, and God’s peace can be enjoyed by his people even in the present. The turmoil we face at the moment is not war, but a virulent disease, and yet the principle is the same. The Lord is able to give his peace to his people in the most difficult circumstances. Verse 10 is a command to God’s enemies to ‘Be still and know…’ He rebukes those he has defeated. All will ultimately acknowledge him as God – ‘I will be exalted’. We are assured of the fulfilling of God’s goal that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (Philippians 2:10). What a joy and privilege to bow willingly by God’s grace.
The psalm ends in an expression of faith and confidence: ‘The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress’ (v11). God will not fail us. We have all we need to face whatever hardships his providence brings, coronavirus included, and to pass through them in a manner which glorifies his name. It is a wonderful assurance to have.
It’s here! Covid-19, coronavirus, is here. We wondered what would fill the headlines and column inches after Brexit – now we know. Seemingly out of nowhere – in fact probably out of a market in China selling wild animals for meat – a new plague is sweeping the world. It has moved on from China to its neighbours, especially South Korea, and on to Europe, with Italy worst affected so far, and that hasn’t been the end of the spread. In many parts of the world, precautions are being taken, and multitudes are taking to wearing (largely ineffective) masks in an attempt to avoid infection. Who knows where it will appear next or what the consequences will be?
Already in parts of Europe radical steps are being taken. Badly affected areas such as Italy and neighbouring countries are in virtual ‘lockdown’. Many sporting and other events are postponed to unspecified future dates. Anyone who returns from a trip to any infected area who thinks he or she may have been affected is to ‘self-quarantine’ – whatever precisely that means. Airlines are already being hit by the vast reduction in numbers willing to fly. Predictions of greater restrictions to come are everywhere, as governments prepare for the ‘worst-case scenario’. Swathes of the UK population are being confined to their own homes except in very limited circumstances. Will the infection ‘peak’ in the UK in two or three months, or will coronavirus turn out to be a seasonally recurring infection? Who can tell? The production of an effective vaccine by the beginning of next year, it seems, would be a triumph of speed and ingenuity.
As various events are called off,
limitations on large gatherings are imposed and other restrictions are put in
place, it is clear that not only is the coronavirus a powerful factor – the fear
of the coronavirus is equally powerful. Some
international events are being cancelled less because the virus poses a threat
and more because fear of the virus makes people unwilling to travel or
assemble. We are living in a climate of
fear, fed by daily updates on the number of coronavirus infections in our
locality. Suppose we had similar daily
updates on all kinds of other diseases – flu, heart attacks, various
cancers? Could a panic epidemic be far
Not all fear is bad, of course. It can be a valuable motivator to take sensible precautions for ourselves and others. Those with no fear can be highly dangerous. We do have to ensure, however, that our fears are directed at appropriate objects. Notice the Lord’s words in Matthew 10:28 ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ Crucial for every man and woman is the ‘fear of the Lord’ that is the fruit of his grace and is also ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111:10), the fear that recognises who the Lord is and submits to him in the repentance and faith that embrace salvation. In the context of that godly fear, all other fears are to be evaluated.
Even the greatest saints
experience a measure of fear on occasion.
Recalling his initial ministry in Corinth Paul can write that ‘I was
with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling’ (1 Corinthians 2:3) – an
encouraging thought for any Christian seeking to share the gospel. Fear, however, is certainly not the dominant
force in the life of a child of God.
Notice Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:6, where he says that believers are children of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, ‘if you do good and do not give way to fear’. He is not denying for a moment that there are frightening things in the world – there is no naïve ‘let’s pretend’ in Peter’s outlook – and Christians know that in addition to all the perils that every human being faces, they are in the midst of spiritual warfare with an enemy who longs to destroy them. Nevertheless, we may be delivered from fear if our attention is focussed on the Lord who is almighty, the Lord who loves us with infinite love, the Lord who has promised, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5).
It is in the light of that promise that the writer to the Hebrews continues, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’ (v.6, an allusion to Psalm 118:6). We know that, in one sense, man (and disease, and many other things) can do a lot to us. Christians die as martyrs, Christians die of coronavirus. We do not live in some protective bubble that others do not have. Nevertheless, nothing comes to us, whether it is the attacks of Satan or the onslaught of coronavirus, that is outside the control of our sovereign God, whose providence governs all things. Thus we have a peace that passes human understanding (Philippians 4:7) and are set free from fear. We are, in truth, ready for anything.