I love Acts 20! As a shepherd entrusted with the care of a local church, I get a lot of mileage out of these farewell words of the Apostle Paul to the church leaders in Ephesus. Paul spent three years shepherding and building the church in Ephesus – longer than he spent with any other church. He poured out his life as he invested in theirs.
As he prepared to depart from them, Paul left the elders with important words for all who would shepherd God’s people.
Paul reminded them that he had never hesitated to preach or teach anything that would be helpful to them. I get the sense here that Paul did not focus on their felt needs, but instead, ministered to their actual needs.
What sorts of things would be included in a list of actual needs? Well, the “10,000 mile high” answer would be, “the whole counsel of God.” Here are a few particulars: The character and will of God. The person and work of Jesus Christ. Our sin and need for Christ’s Gospel. The person and work of the Holy Spirit who comforts, ministers, and guides us – who molds and shapes us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. How to live godly lives in a fallen world. How to bear witness for Christ. All we have to do is read Paul’s epistles and the Book of Acts and we get a pretty good idea of what Paul covered in his preaching and teaching.
Furthermore, Paul didn’t preach only from a pulpit to the masses. Like the pastoral giant, Richard Baxter, who would use Acts 20 as one of the foundations of his ministry some 1,600 years later, Paul went from house to house – teaching both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance as well as place their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ if they would be saved.
His work in communicating this message was the cornerstone of his ministry in Ephesus. He said in verse 24,
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
His faithfulness to this blessed task was what enabled him to say in verse 26 that he was, “innocent of the blood of all men.” For he did not hesitate “to proclaim to [the church at Ephesus] the whole will (counsel) of God.” In other words, there were no essential doctrines of the Christian faith omitted. Paul covered everything that would build them up in their faith and bring glory to God – when his words were popular and even when they were not.
I’ve always admired Paul, or any pastor, who ministers so faithfully. Preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God can be hard, especially when it’s what a person would rather not hear. Yet it’s part of a shepherd’s call – whether that shepherd watches over and leads a congregation, a family, a small group, Sunday school class, or a Christian friend.
I’ve heard it put this way before: If you knew you only had five years to minister to someone, what would you want to make sure they heard, understood, and began to put into practice before they left your influence? Paul had only three years. And we don’t have to guess what he spent every minute preaching and teaching. We need only read the Book of Acts and his epistles to know the heart of Paul’s focus.
The Question for Us
That leaves us with this question: What are we teaching the people entrusted to our care during the time we’ve been given? That is a question that is not only for pastors, but also for parents, Sunday school teachers, small group leaders, and mentors, just to name a few.
We could apply the question to any of us who have Christian influence in the lives of others. In that sense, we are all shepherds who need to ask ourselves that penetrating question. We are all called to pass on the whole counsel of God to this generation of followers and would-be followers of Christ, as well as the next. It’s what Christ meant in his Great Commission when he told us to make disciples by teaching others to obey everything he commanded. He also said in John 8:32, that if we would hold to his teaching, then we are really his disciples.
God’s Word, the “whole counsel” to which Paul referred, will soothe the wearied soul. It will be a balm to the hurting. For others it will encourage, build up, lead, guide, correct and convict. For the rebellious and hopeless it can present inexpressibly good news. For others it will prick the conscience and even stir up anger. Yet we can be assured it will accomplish what God desires for those whom God has entrusted to our care, to our spheres of influence. And that, along with the joy of obeying God in such things, should be all the motive and affirmation we need.
Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you. After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.  So I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well. If I love you more, will you love me less? …  Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening. (2 Corinthians 12:14–15, 19)
There are many examples of bad shepherds in the Bible, those with misguided motives and self-centered behavior. However, the Apostle Paul is by no means counted among them. Like anyone placed in leadership, he was occasionally under criticism or suspicion. But his life was a continual witness to the purity and goodness of his motives and obedience to his Lord.
Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that he did not want their possessions – their money and material goods, their power or influence – he wanted them. He had labored alongside them for the sake of this church. He told them not only would he spend his own money on them and give them what he had, but he would even spend himself – his very being – for their sake. That’s how much he wanted to see them grow in grace.
Paul told them that all he had done, and was doing, was for their strengthening, for building them up in their faith. His great desire was to equip and edify them to know and follow Christ Jesus the Lord.
This should be at the heart of every shepherd of Jesus Christ. And that list of “every shepherd” is a long list indeed. For it is not merely those who have been ordained by the church who are shepherds, but also those who are mothers and fathers, Bible study teachers and small group leaders, youth counselors and Vacation Bible School volunteers, just to name a few.
I wonder how many shepherds today are “spending and being spent” (as the KJV puts it) on behalf of their flock – those entrusted by God to their care. I wonder how many would look more like those chastised shepherds of the Old Testament who worked from unworthy motives.
To help you discern where your heart is on this, take some time to reflect on the questions and next steps below. Ask God to search your heart and weed out any impure and ungodly motives. And ask him for a fresh filling of his Spirit to renew you and give you the same heart that animated the faith and ministry of the Apostle Paul.
It’s good for us to ask ourselves these tough questions. The discernment process is not about self-condemnation. Instead, it should serve as an aid to help us see our need for renewal in this vital calling to shepherd others. Let us recommit ourselves to be faithful shepherds for our Good Shepherd, that we may be counted worthy to serve him and be a blessing in the lives of others.
A few of you may have heard of John Baillie. His most popular book is called A Diary of Private Prayer. I have been using it since 1993, almost every morning. It’s a very rich devotional tool that, no matter how often I use it, still draws me closer to the Lord.
I have not read many things by Baillie, but a few years ago I stumbled upon a collection of various sermons he had preached over the years. They made up a little book entitled, Christian Devotion. I enjoyed reading it, but the best part of the book, for me, was a short biographical chapter written by his cousin. She beautifully revealed the man behind the devotional I have been using for years.
My favorite part of the chapter was the following description of his study – not just a few facts about what it looked like – but the life that took place in that study. I know coveting is a sin, so let me say in the most sanctified way I can... I wouldn’t resist the opportunity, should God provide it, to have a similar study (as well as a similar ministry that took place in it!). Here’s his cousin’s description of his study…
But for those who knew him in his own home in Edinburgh, the most vivid memories of John are set in his study there, that grave book-lined room, with windows shadowed in summer by the trees of the big garden. It was a quiet room, with the noises of our modern world kept outside - no telephone, no radio, no typewriter. And it was a room with three clear focal points. There was the big uncluttered desk by the window where John sat for many hours of the day writing, in his clear beautiful handwriting, sermons, lectures, and articles, and dealing punctiliously and courteously with the endless steam of letters which came, asking him to preach, to lecture, to advise…
Empires and Pigpens: Solomon and the Meaning of Life
Selected verses from Ecclesiastes
What Does God Have to Do with It?
Over twenty years ago I watched a television talk show that had a discussion I remember to this day. I don’t remember which of the world’s problems was being solved, but I do remember an exchange between the host and one of the guests. The host asked, “Don’t you believe in God?” to which the guest replied, “Yes, but what does that have to do with the way I live my life?”.
That may sound alarming for some, but the idea expressed by the guest is not all that unfamiliar – throughout history or in our own day.
George Barna, whose research group surveys the religious beliefs and attitudes of the American people, has written extensively on such topics and continues to discover that the beliefs a person professes does not necessarily impact the behaviors of that person.
In one of his books, Barna discovered that while 74% of those polled strongly affirmed that there is only one true God, who is holy and perfect, and who created and rules the world, only 47% strongly agreed that their faith in that same God was relevant to the way in which they lived their daily lives.
Rembrandt and Warhol
That attitude moved one writer to observe that in the 1660s, Rembrandt placed himself in one of his paintings of Jesus being raised on the cross, in an effort to show that he contributed to the need for Christ’s death. And in the 1960s, Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s Soup cans. In the writer’s opinion, the contrast in paintings reflected what he called, “the curious emptiness and meaninglessness of our modern culture.”
I’ll let art critics hammer out the merits of that writer’s interpretation of the paintings, but there has certainly been a lasting struggle in our world to find meaning for our lives. Some throw themselves into their families, pursue upward advancement at work, seek better health and social status, or fill their time watching sports and enjoying more and more leisure, just to name a few.
None of these pursuits is inherently wrong, but for many, they do point to what may be considered a bothersome emptiness that nothing seems to fill. This is the message of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it, he testifies to his life’s pursuit to find real and lasting meaning in his life.
He writes in Ecclesiastes 1:12-13,
"I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens."
He had been searching for truth, wisdom, and meaning in the many activities that filled his days, but his conclusion to these reflects only pessimism and discouragement. Verse 14 is Solomon’s summary to these pursuits. He concludes,
"I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
His feelings express the plight of poor Sisyphus of Greek mythology. You may remember that Sisyphus was condemned by the gods. His punishment? He was sentenced to roll an enormous boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side, and then to repeat the task again and again and again, without end.
His grueling labor did not solve a problem, create anything good, or enable him to grow as a person. Nothing beyond the task was accomplished by his effort. It was truly meaningless. It was the very definition of futility.
Solomon felt the same way Sisyphus must have felt. Solomon sensed an emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Throughout Ecclesiastes he continually asked, “is this all there is?”.
An Unlikely Candidate
Let’s remember who Solomon was. He was the wisest, richest, and most powerful man of his day. Therefore, when a person like him asks the sorts of questions we find in Ecclesiastes, we need to tune in and hear what he has to say.
Dismayed and discouraged, Solomon found himself unable to discover any real and ultimate point to all his effort. There didn’t seem to be anything that contributed lasting value to his life. Instead, he seemed to think that none of his accomplishments would even be remembered.
Many of us have heard the quip, purportedly uttered by a successful CEO, “You better enjoy your position while you have it, because after you retire, they don’t return your calls anymore.” That’s what Solomon was afraid of. His outlook in Ecclesiastes revealed a life that was highly invested in temporal attainment and fame, and not a life that cared much about God’s eternal perspective.
He mourned over the meaninglessness of his existence and he had reason to, because for Solomon, his “great accomplishments” had been built on sand. And after several decades, Solomon began to discover that his foundations were beginning to crumble. But he was honest. He admitted this. And he asked the hard and honest questions.
Many in our day, perhaps even you, shy away from the tough questions - large, overarching world-and-life-view questions, such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? How should I live my life? What’s my ultimate destiny?
As one writer put it,
“To be utterly lost in the woods is unfortunate. To be absolutely unconcerned about it is unreasonable.”
It is indeed unreasonable for us to walk aimlessly through the woods of life without knowing why we’re there or where we’re headed.
Encounter with a Pigpen
The parable of the prodigal son sheds light on this for us.
In the parable, the younger of two sons takes his inheritance and leaves his family and responsibilities to go off to a “far away country.” Why did he want to leave? Adventure? To find himself? Independence? Pure pleasure? Perhaps a little of each. Whatever the reason, it seems he didn’t believe he could pursue those things while he lived under his father’s roof. Perhaps he believed that the freedom of living on his own would enable to him to become who he wanted to be.
Yet it was the result of that pursuit in which he lost his inheritance and found himself living and eating with the pigs, no better off than those who served his father. Worse in fact. His experiment failed miserably. His quest for freedom resulted in enslavement. He was imprisoned by his unbridled desires, passions, and ambitions. In a peculiar reversal of fortune, he became the least free person he knew. He completely lost himself. I can only imagine that, as he sat in the pigpen, eating leftover pig food, he must have asked, “How did I get here?”
Perhaps that’s what Solomon was asking himself? He had been given unequalled wisdom, wealth, fame, and power, and he squandered it on building an empire to himself. Solomon must have been asking similar questions as the prodigal son: “How did I get here?” “What’s life all about?”
The prodigal son found himself not only in the position of a hired hand, but now treated worse than those who served his father’s family. Thus, it was as he sat there in his misery among the pigs, that he realized what he had given up when he left his father’s house. He came to understand how good he had it when he lived at home. Perhaps he even came to appreciate that true freedom is not the absence of responsibility but fulfilling it. To live according to one’s true identity and calling.
The Good Father
When the young man decided to return home, he did so with the hope of becoming like one of his father’s hired hands, for he knew how well they were treated by his good father. What the prodigal son would soon learn was that his good father is much like our good Father. He doesn’t merely accept us a servant, but restores us as his sons and daughters, with all the inheritance he graciously promises and provides for his children.
It’s only as we gain this understanding of what true meaning is, and where it comes from, that we can begin moving toward becoming all God created us to be. Our quest for self-fulfillment and personal freedom, detached from our identity in God and his calling in our lives, leads to meaninglessness and pigpens. Solomon confessed at the end of Ecclesiastes that it is only as we return to the Father that we truly find ourselves. He summarizes his findings in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14,
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
We are able to live the lives we were created for only when we are in a right relationship with God and align our lives with his will and character. And that kind of relationship and life come only through faith in Jesus Christ, the very Son of God.
That is our response to the guest’s question on the talk show: “Yes, I believe in God but what does that have to do with how I live my life?”
Our response: Everything!
Life is genuinely meaningful and significant only when we find true, abundant, and eternal life in Jesus Christ. As one author concluded,
“If we fail to see find it, we miss the whole point of our existence. We might make a great name for ourselves in the world, we might lack nothing in material goods, and people might bow before us. Yet we will have failed to find the true meaning that God desires for our lives.”
When the father embraced his son, the young man had not only found his way home, he had finally found himself.
Thanks be to God.
1 Corinthians 15:1-19
In his book, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Christian philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, recounts a conversation he once had with a former student of his.
“There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year,” the student remarked to Craig. “What’s that?” Craig asked, just to make sure he heard his student correctly. The student repeated the same line, “There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year.” “And why is that?” Craig asked. “Because they found the body,” the student replied.
Craig commented on this exchange by saying,
“Despite his irreverent humor, my friend displayed a measure of insight often not shared by modern theologians.”
Craig’s student understood that the Christian claim is not that Jesus was “resurrected” figuratively or metaphorically in the hearts of his followers, but that he was raised bodily from the dead. And if his actual body had been found, there would have been no resurrection from the dead. Nothing to celebrate. No Easter.
This is the Apostle Paul’s testimony in our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15.
Various and Spurious Denials
Throughout my ministry, I have observed a variety of ways the resurrection of Jesus has been denied, sadly sometimes, even from those who profess faith in Christ.
One of the earliest denials of Jesus’ resurrection goes back to the New Testament itself. It is what’s called, the “Conspiracy Theory.” In Matthew’s Gospel we find the Jews explaining away the resurrection. There we discover the chief priests bribing the guards who were stationed at Jesus’ tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, we read,
When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Other ways it has been denied has been to say that everything that happened can be explained naturally, not supernaturally. Some say Jesus didn’t really die, but that he took medicine to make him appear to be dead. Then, when he was placed in the tomb, he woke up and went on his way. Others say the disciples went to the wrong tomb. If you kept up with the Jesus Seminar in the early 90s, you may remember that their conclusion was,
“After the crucifixion, Jesus’ corpse was probably laid in a shallow grave, barely covered with dirt, and subsequently eaten by wild dogs.”
Finally, there’s even one philosopher who suggested that Jesus had a long-lost twin brother who came to town and fooled all the disciples.
As you can tell from just these examples, there are great lengths people will go to in order to avoid dealing with the risen Lord.
The examples just mentioned represent complete rejections of the bodily resurrection of Jesus by unbelievers, or perhaps those on the fringe of Christianity.
The Problem in the Church
The problem inside the church, however, is another way in which the resurrection of Jesus is denied. It’s a subtle form we have to pay close attention to or else it may sneak by us. It can best be illustrated by the sentiment of one theologian who wrote in a newspaper column,
“If the bones of Jesus Christ were found tomorrow, it would make no great difference to me. I would go on going to church as would a majority of Christians.”
For this particular theologian, the important thing is not what happened to the body of Jesus, but what happened to the spirits of the apostles. A similar view was raised a number of years ago in a Methodist newspaper. The author couldn’t understand what the big deal was concerning whether or not Jesus was actually, bodily, raised from the dead. “The important thing is that we come together like the early church and love one another,” he claimed. I had a classmate in seminary once tell me the same thing.
Of course, that response ignores the issue of “why” the early disciples came together and loved one another in the first place. Perhaps we should take them at their word when they tell us they actually saw the body of the risen Lord. In our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes clear that whether or not Jesus really came back from the grave, is a very big deal.
If Christ is Dead
Paul is very logical in his response to doubts about the actual (bodily) resurrection of Jesus. Paul begins in verses 13-14,
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Paul was smart enough to know that if Christ was still in the tomb, then he was still dead. And if Christ is dead, then the Christian message a useless lie, a religion that declares a lot of things that just aren’t true. If Christ is dead, then the Christian faith is futile.
He continues in verses 17-19,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
In other words, if Christ is not risen from the dead, then there’s nothing behind the faith we proclaim. It’s powerless. There’s no Spirit of Christ who dwells in you. All that talk about the forgiveness of your sins is worthless. There’s no use talking about salvation. God has not honored Christ’s words, life, or death.
If Jesus remains dead, then the death of Jesus was just one of thousands of deaths on Roman crosses. Tragic perhaps, but nothing more.
And if Christ is dead, Paul says, then those of us who believe in him now “are of all people most to be pitied.” We’re no better off than the person who is dying of an incurable disease who puts all their eggs in the power of positive thinking.
But Christ is Risen
But the good news, Paul declares, is that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (verse 20).” That’s the greatest fact in all of history! That’s the fact that changes everything and everyone who believes and trusts it and gives their very lives to it.
All we have to do is look at Paul himself. As Saul of Tarsus, he was a living nightmare to the early Christians. But then he personally encountered the risen Christ. Paul went from one of the greatest enemies of the Christian faith to one of its greatest missionaries.
He was dramatically transformed from an intolerant, bitter, and proud persecutor of the church to a humble servant of the Lord Jesus. Not only did his relationship with Christ change, but so did his relationship with followers of Christ. He came to love them, helped them grow in their faith, and spent his life making more of them.
Was this radical change in Paul’s life the result of nothing more than a psychological warm feeling or was it something more? Paul tells us over and over again that this change was the result of meeting the risen and living Christ! He was so convinced of this that he gave his life as a martyr for his faith in Jesus.
What was true of Paul’s life was true for all the disciples. They went from frightened lambs to bold lions of the faith, traveling the Roman Empire, bearing witness to the risen Christ. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only things that makes sense of this change in their lives.
Our heavenly Father vindicated our Lord Jesus by raising him from the dead. The resurrection revealed that death was not the winner, for Christ defeated even death itself. It was this belief in the resurrection that enabled the disciples to proclaim their crucified Lord as God’s Messiah.
If they didn’t really meet the risen Christ – if they really didn’t believe he was raised from the dead, is it likely they each would have kept up their delusion or charade, all the way to their own persecutions, and ultimately, their deaths? One historian commented that if the disciples didn’t truly believe Jesus was raised from the dead, then the Christian faith would be nothing more than a dead folk religion of the first century.
He Can Transform Us, Too
But he lives! And just as the disciples believed, and just as our hymn proclaims, “We serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that those of us who live two thousand years after the fact can still be in a relationship with him today. It means he’s not dead, but alive! The same risen Christ who transformed Paul and the other disciples can transform us today.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means we can have hope in the midst of trials, suffering, sorrow, despair, and pain.
A figurative, metaphorical resurrection can do none of that.
Alister McGrath tells the story that in Soviet Russia, right after the Communist Revolution in 1917, a government official was tasked with crushing the spirits of the remaining Christians and, ultimately, ridding their country of Christianity altogether.
So, he gathered the people of a particular town so he could discredit and disprove Christianity using all the clever arguments he could muster. He ranted for hours as he sought to show the people just how ridiculous their faith in Christ was.
After he finished, feeling quite satisfied he had done his job well, he offered the platform to anyone who dared to respond to him. A young priest took him up on his offer and came forward. The official told the priest he had two minutes. “I won’t need that long,” the priest replied.
And in a very meek and humble way, the priest approached the podium. After looking at the people for just a few seconds, the priest threw his hands high into the air and shouted, “Christ is risen!”
To which the people responded as one, “Christ is risen indeed!”
And so he is.
Thanks be to God.
To grow strong, we have to go deep.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7)
The Root of the Righteous
There is an old saying that suggests if something is to grow tall it must first grow deep. These underground foundations matter, whether we are talking about wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7:24-27) or branches attached to a deeply rooted vine (John 15:1-11). Tozer’s words, written over 60 years ago, still ring true. Many in the church today seem impatient with the hard, ordinary, and often behind-the-scenes work required to grow our roots deep in the fertile soil of communion with and knowledge of God.
In our day of activism and activity we are often, as Tozer put it, preoccupied with appearances. But when a seed is planted in rocky and shallow soil, the root can’t go deep, which causes what growth there may be to soon wither away. (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21). The impressive appearance of today’s rootless activity can quickly fade into impotent irrelevance tomorrow. We were created for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). God’s Word not only makes us wise for salvation but also equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Therefore, let’s sink our roots deeply into Christ and his Word so our good works will bear much, good, and lasting fruit.
A Maundy Thursday Reflection
John 12:20-23 - 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
His Time Had Not Yet Come
Throughout the whole of John’s Gospel, which represents the whole of the public ministry of Jesus, our Lord says over and over again, things like, “my time has not yet come.” Or John himself, as he narrates his Gospel, reports that crowds were not able to capture Jesus because his time “had not yet come.”
Therefore, in our Scripture, we learn that Greeks (probably God-fearers, but Gentiles nonetheless) came looking for Jesus. They wanted to see him.
The fact that these non-Jews came to see the Lord gives us a glimpse of the scope of why Jesus came. His death would not be for the atonement of Jews only, but for Gentiles as well. Clearly this is what John wanted us to understand.
His Hour Had Come
Several years ago, I watched the movie, “The Gospel of John,” which captured this scene beautifully. When Jesus was told that Greeks desired to see him, the actor poignantly portrayed Jesus responding in a somber and reflective manner. Of course, his acting decision was speculative, but some speculations are closer than others. I believe his expressions would have been very close to how Jesus must have responded when he realized, “his hour had come.”
Jesus’ words of response in John 12 seem fitting in light of his experience later at Gethsemane, found in Matthew 26:26-44.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
I sometimes think we suffer the consequences of an “over-familiarity” of a text in Scripture. We’re so used to hearing or reading it that it can lose its powerful punch. We often fast forward through the details to get to the “good parts,” which usually means the parts we like or make us feel comfortable. This scene from Gethsemane is an example of what I’m talking about.
Perhaps we think to ourselves, “since Jesus knew he was going to be raised from the dead on the third day, his journey to the Cross was not that big a deal for him. After all, he’s God incarnate, and he knows how the story ends.
Yet you can’t read this text from Matthew’s Gospel and come away with that perspective. Reread and take in the significance of these verses again,
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (emphasis mine)
Man of Sorrow
He wanted his friends with him, praying for him. He was sorrowful. Overwhelmed. Troubled. He was sweating drops of blood. This was no walk in the park.
And then, moving through the story, Matthew tells us that our Lord fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”
“May this cup be taken from me.”
Let’s not move too quickly past that part of the verse. Let’s absorb it for a moment.
In 28 years of ministry, I have cried only a small handful of times while preaching a sermon. Two or three incidents were during funerals, as you can imagine. But the time that wasn’t related to a funeral was when I preached from this verse. Why? It’s hard to know for sure, but I think it was how this moment in the life of our Lord really hit me, perhaps for the first time.
Would the mocking, beatings, betrayal, nails, and all the rest be painful, even devastating? Absolutely! I don’t want to minimize any of that. I’m sure it must have been excruciating in ways that none of us will ever really comprehend, despite all the medical reports describing it.
But to have the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom Jesus had had an eternity of inseparable, uninterrupted, joyful, intimate union and fellowship, now “turning his back” on his Son, must have eclipsed any of the physical pain Jesus was experiencing.
For Jesus to bear the filth of our disgusting and overwhelming sin, fallenness, and brokenness must have been truly overwhelming to the One who knew no sin, yet became sin for us.
The realization of all he was going to face must have led our Lord to feel and experience all that Matthew reported to us and more. In the quiet of the garden, who wouldn’t have cried out for another way to complete the mission? Was Jesus really going to have to endure the agony of the Cross and all that went with it? There was no other way. And ultimately Jesus knew this was his Father’s will, as his prayerful response indicated. By God’s grace, our Lord was faithful to his Father, to his mission, and to us.
Our Lord will be arrested tonight.
He will be crucified tomorrow.
Let’s not rush to Easter just yet.
A Transforming Truth
One of the most powerful biblical truths that has transformed both my life and ministry is the touchstone proposition that Jesus Christ is Lord over both the temporal and the eternal. To paraphrase Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, there is not a square inch in all the universe that Jesus Christ doesn’t claim as his own.
That means Jesus Christ is Lord over our salvation, theological, philosophical and ethical views, our thoughts, words, behaviors, attitudes, values, family life, work, checking account, priorities, political views, what we watch on TV and the Internet, what we read, our friendships, our service and witness, and so on. He is Lord over it all. That means he has the right to exercise authority over all of it and may properly expect our obedience in every sphere of our lives. In fact, Jesus asks us what’s the use of calling him Lord if we’re not going to do what he commands (Luke 6:46).
The Pathway to Freedom
To be sure, he is a loving, gracious, good, patient, compassionate, and merciful Lord, but he is Lord nonetheless and we may not rebel against him with impunity. Amazingly, once we come to know him and submit to him as our Lord, he invites us to go deeper in our relationship and know him as brother and friend. The paradox is that only as we submit to his Lordship in every sphere of our lives do we become free enough to pursue all he has created, redeemed, and called us to be.
A New Worldview
This view of Christ’s Lordship ought to inform the way we see the world in which we live. Like a pair of eye-glasses with the proper prescription, we can only see things aright as we look at the world around us through the lens of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I love the way C.S. Lewis put it. He wrote,
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Our fallen nature prevents us from seeing everything perfectly, but we should know because Jesus is Lord, we are able to see the world much closer to the way he desires us to see it.
Whether We Recognize Him or Not
The truth is, Jesus is Lord over heaven and earth whether or not we choose to recognize his Lordship. However, we are able to live far more faithfully when we are living in harmony with who he is. Things don’t work well when we’re trying to be our own Lord. Have you noticed?
Is He Your Lord?
Part of my own calling is to serve others by helping them come to a place where they too will bow before Christ, confess him as their Lord, and live in joyfully harmonious submission with that reality. I deeply desire to help folks understand what it means to submit to Christ’s Lordship in every sphere of their lives, beginning with their salvation. It’s vital to realize the Christian faith is not a self-help program that will be of use to anyone (or even make sense) apart from a person dying to self and becoming a new creature in Christ. Only then can a person live the life God calls them to live. Only then is Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, living in and through them by his Spirit (Romans 14:9).
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