Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Prophets Foretold And Angels Long To See

What Prophets and Angels Long to See by Dave



Get into groups of two or three. Assignment: Say hi to your friends. Guess what picture this is and have some fun discussing your answer in your group.

Before we go to the answer, let us turn our attention to God’s word.
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things” (I Peter 1:10-12).

This picture is one of the oldest depictions of the cross (200-300 AD), and it is not a flattering one. It is actually an ancient drawing on a wall found in a Roman guardhouse. Yes, graffiti existed ever since walls were invented. In fact, it is an anti-Christian mockery depicting someone worshiping with his hands raised before a cross. Beneath are the words, “Alexamenos worships his God.” On that cross is crucified a man with the head of a donkey (a symbol of stupidity at that time). Even today, the preaching of the cross is described by some of the world’s intellectual elite as vicious, offensive and “barking mad” (Dawkins). So this picture offers us historical insight into how the crucifixion of Christ was seen as something shameful, weak and plain silly by Roman guards who may have imprisoned this unknown Christian named Alexamenos. To them, the preaching of the cross seemed utterly foolish.

And that is the historical background that Peter addresses in the letter that we read a moment ago…a church going through trials, persecution and ridicule from the broader culture. We are in the third installment in our sermon series on 1 Peter (website).

Persecution doesn’t usually happen overnight. It starts with disinformation: lies, ridicules, rumors, conspiracy theories against minority groups. (“Christians conspire to set up a Christian Prime Minister”) And the state just keeps quiet or worse, actively uses its powerful news agencies to spread them. Then it leads to discrimination where the rights and freedom of the minority to practice their faith i.e. seizing of Bibles by state agencies or restrictions by government policies, laws and regulations. Then the ground is made ready for passive persecution. That happens when individuals/mobs harm people or destroy properties while the state turns a blind eye to it. When it hits rock bottom, the state uses its power to actively destroy property, arrest or execute people because of their faith. I will leave you to discern how far down the spiral Malaysia has come as a nation.

But whether it is violent persecution or passive discrimination, the Christian community in Peter’s time faces increasing pressure to give up their commitment to Jesus. The question they are asking every day: “Is this worth it? What am I giving up for? Is the faith I hold on to worth all these troubles and sacrifices? Isn’t it easier to just give in?”

That’s why the apostle Peter reminds us how precious this faith that we have embraced is. He wants to encourage us: Realize how valuable this good news of grace that we now have with Christ. It’s far more precious than anything the world has to offer.  

How does he do that? Firstly, Peter tells us that this is the salvation that prophets have predicted all along.

Look at verse 10-11: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.

We learn something here about the inspiration of biblical writings. These prophecies were written by men who searched carefully and enquired diligently about the promised salvation. On rare occasions, God dictated to the prophet Jeremiah (26:2): “Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.” But they were not just passive, almost unconscious type writers in God’s hands. The prophets were actively seeking, trying to find out how and when this promised King will come. And at the same time, in and through this whole process, in the midst of their searching, the Spirit of Christ within them is speaking to them and through them… the Holy Spirit is revealing things to them, the Holy Spirit is pointing them to Christ, to say and write things that they could never have come up with on their own.

Why is this important? If you misunderstand this, you will get into problems. Well, I have spoken to friends who started to take their Bible studies seriously. Maybe they took up some seminary classes or read journal articles to analyze the texts and its forms. And a few of them are really troubled when they suddenly realized that the Gospels or the letters of Paul were written by human beings. “David! Oh no! Do you know what I found out today? These books were written by people, in a particular context, for a specific purpose, with introductions and conclusions and everything in between. That makes me doubt everything. How can they be actual revelations from God?”

And I want to say: “Hello? Of course they were written by human beings-lar. Do you expect it to drop down from heaven?” It’s only a problem if you think that if it is divine, it cannot be human. And if it’s human, it cannot be divine. But the Bible never made such claims. When we say that all Scripture is inspired, what we mean is that the Holy Spirit guides the human writers and reveals in such a way that the original written words of Scripture were also the very words of God. The Holy Spirit is superintending that entire process that the result is the Word of God in the words of men. 2 Peter 1:21: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” They are both human and divine.

Now the goal of the Spirit’s revelation is to show Christ. To point to His suffering and the glories that would follow.

Just a few months ago, we looked at how the death and resurrection of Christ had been clearly foretold centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah (53). And we can see how detailed, lengthy and specific these biblical prophecies were compared to vague and generic so-called predictions of John F Kennedy’s assassination, for example. The amazing thing is: Isaiah is not the only prophet to do so.  

There’s prophet Micah (5:2) who predicted that the Christ will come from the town of Bethlehem, from among the clans of Judah:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

The prophet Zechariah even predicted that this chosen King would enter Jerusalemrighteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (9:9). It’s like bits and pieces of this jigsaw puzzle were disclosed over hundreds of years to give us hints and clues about this Messiah. And all of them fit nicely in the person of Jesus.

In Psalm 22, King David foretold the sufferings of Christ as he hung on the cross - to be abandoned by God the Father, to be mocked and insulted by people, to have his hands and feet pierced, and to have his garments divided by the casting of lots. Jesus quoted part of this Psalm and applied it directly to Himself just before He died.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
    “let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
    since he delights in him.”

Dogs surround me,
    a pack of villains encircles me;
    they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
    people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
    and cast lots for my garment.”

Not only the sufferings of Christ, Psalm 110 also predicted the glorious exaltation of the Messiah when He shall reign and be seated at God’s right hand to be a priest forever:

The Lord says to my lord (that is, Jesus):
“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”
The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying,
    “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
Your troops will be willing
    on your day of battle.
Arrayed in holy splendor,
    your young men will come to you
    like dew from the morning’s womb
The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
“You are a priest forever,
    in the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.

The crucified Messiah is also the triumphant King who will put everything to right. He has ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father and reigns in the midst of His enemies. In light of all these prophecies, our resurrected Lord said to his disciples on the road to Emmaus: “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” The cross must come before the crown. Why? Because that’s what has been prophesied. And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

2) This is the salvation that the church now proclaims. 

Look at verse 12: It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.

The goal of all Scripture is to point us to Christ. This is why the Bible is divided into two parts: Old Testament is written before the coming of Jesus and New Testament written after His life, death and resurrection. He is the main theme of all Scriptures.

The Old Testament prepares and promises the coming of this perfect King. It gives people clues, hints and symbols about who He is, where and how He will come, what He will do and so on. The New Testament records eyewitness accounts of those who have seen and heard him. It unpacks the good news of grace and explains to us the meaning of what Jesus taught and did 2000 years ago. So Christ is prophesied in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. He is the main character in the story.  

For Christians, this unity in such diverse writings over thousands of years and fulfilled prophecies are not by random accident. It is evidence that the Bible is inspired.

We can see this more clearly after Christ has appeared, after His suffering and glory, and then when we go back to the Old Testament, we can begin to make sense of how Christ fulfilled everything in it. (Sixth Sense)

But how would a prophet like Isaiah or Micah understand fully all that they had written? If you were to ask Isaiah: Who is this child born of a virgin? Or who is this suffering servant pierced for our transgressions? If you were to ask Micah: “Who is this future king from Bethlehem whose origins are from ancient times?”

They would probably answer: “I’ve been trying to figure out myself how that will come to pass. But I don’t fully understand what that means. Part of that prophecy must be for someone else. It must be fulfilled not for me, but for some future generations”. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you… The prophetic ministry they exercised was for our benefit not theirs, because they were fulfilled not in their days, but ours. They could only point to the future but unable to enter in themselves.

Friends, think about this – What the prophets predicted but could not understand for centuries, we can experience and proclaim today. This is the grace that has come to us. This is the good news that we received. This is the amazing grace that we are now privileged to share with others. What a privilege!

If we don’t find this grace amazing this morning, maybe for some of us, it’s ordinary grace… same, old, predictable “I’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times” grace. What have I missed? What keeps grace from being amazing? Maybe it’s because we do not understand who we are at all. We have a self perception problem. We like to think of ourselves as basically good and nice people. If we’re not that bad, then God’s grace is not that great. If we have committed only a little crime, then God’s mercy is little. But maybe you don’t have to be a criminal to be a sinner. Our hearts long for things that we shouldn’t desire. Our affections are full of idols. Maybe it’s our careers, financial security, even families, or just a life of pleasure, ease and comfort. These idols mini-gods that we bow down to and worship control and destroy us. We do not long for and pursue God as we should. We are a lot more sinful than we realize. We need to correct our self perception problem. 

If we don’t find this news good this morning, it’s because we have a distorted understanding of who God is: “Of course, if God exists, He is quite relaxed about sin. It’s not a big deal. He’d not bothered by holiness or concerned about His moral laws. God loves me, wants me to be happy and forgives me. It’s his job to forgive anyway. It’s unfair of Him to be angry at good people like me.” Make no mistake about it: God is more holy that we realize. He has zero tolerance for sin. The wages of sin is death.
When you come to think about it, real forgiveness, any forgiveness is costly suffering. Recently my tenants damaged my apartment door and owed me one month’s rent and RM 800 electricity bills, I can either ask them to pay all or we can share the costs (50%) or I have to absorb the full cost of this myself. Someone has to bear the payment. Forgiveness is a form of suffering.

Since forgiveness means absorbing the payment of sin yourself instead of making the guilty pay for it, should it surprise us that when God forgives us, He went to the Cross and die there? He is the Judge Himself receiving the punishment. It is nothing like primitive gods that demand human blood for their wrath to be appeased but God became human to offer his own blood so that he can destroy all evil without destroying us. 

The essence of sin is we human beings substitute ourselves for God while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. 

Church: Our message is not “good advice” on how to improve moral behaviors or build healthy self esteem. It is not “good laws” a set of dos and don’ts that govern everything you wear and eat. Our message is “good news” of salvation from sin and death… That Christ must suffer and die to take upon Himself the guilt and punishment that is ours. He absorbed our sin, our curse, our brokenness so that we could be free. That He is raised to life again and reigns in glory so that we may have new life, a transformed life to glorify and enjoy Him forever.

True preaching is Christ-centered and gospel-saturated. Church: That is the message that the people in Puchong needs to hear. That is what every sermon on this pulpit aspire to proclaim every Sunday. That’s why I am excited to know that Rev Wong is keen to bring in the Alpha Course, an opportunity to share the good news with our friends in context of meals and community. Would you pray with the leaders of this church that we become more effective in our evangelism, in our outreach, in our gospel growth?

3) This is the salvation that angels long to watch and comprehend. Last sentence in v12: “Even angels long to look into these things”.

Books have always been a friend in my spiritual journey. That’s why I set up a book table at the back so that people can freely borrow one home to be their spiritual companion too. You’d find books on spiritual disciplines, engaging culture, movie review, evangelism, faith and work, biography and creation care. But my library has not always been like that.

In my younger days, I was obsessed with books about angels and demons. Not the Dan Brown novel, mind you. How I long to have eyes opened to see the invisible spiritual realms! Christians can be very fascinated with dreams, visions and Hollywood shows like Supernatural or Constantine that give us juicy insider information into how angels look like, how they operate and even how to command angels to do our bidding. Wouldn’t it be nice to gaze into the ‘other side’ to find out more about warrior angels, messenger angels, arch angels, fallen angels, guardian angels and how to be touched by an angel?
But the Bible never tells us to peek into the other side, much less to order angels around. In fact, verse 12 tells us that the angels long to look at and understand our salvation. Here’s the funny thing: we are so fascinated by them but the angels themselves are more fascinated to see the amazing grace that is ours. They are standing on tiptoe, as it were, like someone at the back of a crowd trying to watch a parade. They are so eager to understand God’s grace that they stoop down from heaven to gaze at what’s happening on earth.

Ray Pritchard says this: “During the Renaissance, a painter named Tintoretto painted a version of the Last Supper. We see Jesus and his disciples gathered around the table. Perhaps Jesus has just said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” There is a sense of drama and tension as the disciples struggle to understand. Above the table, an oil lamp gives off clouds of smoke and angels were painted in the smoke, watching from above, their faces strangely curious, as they too wonder at what the Son of God is about to do. That’s exactly the idea Peter is driving at…

Why would the angels marvel at our salvation? The answer is simple. There are no “saved” angels because salvation is not for them, but for us. Jesus died to redeem fallen men and women, not the angels. There are good angels and bad angels; there are obedient and disobedient angels, but there are no “saved” angels. Only humans can be saved. Only we can be redeemed. We alone of all the creatures in the universe can experience the wonders of God’s saving grace. This fascinates the angels, and causes them to study and ponder the mysteries of a salvation they do not share.”

Here is the gist of Peter’s message: God loves you so much, the angels are amazed. They are curious about grace and mercy and forgiveness. They’ve never experienced new life, the second birth, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, or the wonder of deliverance from sin. That which we have experienced in Jesus Christ, the angels never knew and will never know. We are far more privileged than they. 

Do we realize this privilege that is ours? What the angels wonder at but never experience …We understand and experience every single day. We have privileges even the angels don’t have. Do we realize that we are privileged beyond our dreams? What the prophets have long predicted but never understood, we now enjoy and share in Christ. We live in the reality of their prophetic fulfillment."

So don’t take it for granted. Don’t give it up so easily. Don’t be distracted from it. Treasure and guard it well. Go deeper into it. Share it. It’s far more precious than anything the world has to offer.

There’s a famous 19th century Scottish missionary, doctor and explorer of Africa named David Livingstone. He was disappointed to see Christians concentrated in one city because he believes that after a local church has been founded, the native leaders should be trained and move on to new un-reached areas. And so he went and gave his life to the people in the interiors of Africa. When people asked about him leaving the benefits of England, he replied:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

Yes, there are sacrifices to be made if you want to attempt great things for God. It could mean worries, exhaustion, suffering even danger. Yes there is such a thing as sacrifice. If we could only see the privilege that is ours in Christ, if we realize the privilege that is ours in the gospel, in the cross, in the grace of Christ, all these are counted as nothing. I never made a sacrifice. If we only knew the privilege that is ours, we’d be unstoppable.

And do you remember our friend Alexamenos (the guy who was ridiculed because of his faith in the cross of Christ)? There’s something else that you need to know. In the next chamber, not far away, there is another scribbling on the wall written in a different hand writing. It is probably a response by an unknown person in his defense. And it just says this: “Alexamenos is faithful” or “Alexamenos the faithful”. Despite the ridicule and imprisonment and perhaps even martyrdom, he has remained faithful till the end. He knew that His Savior is worth it. Because here’s the thing: We now know the good news the prophets never knew, and we now experience the grace that the angels wish they knew. It’s worth everything that we may be called to give. It’s worth it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Isaiah 53: Prophecy of the Suffering Messiah



Luke 18: 31- 34    
31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.
--------------------------------------------------------------  

This painting is called The Shadow of Death. It is not portraying any event recorded in the Gospels. Rather, it depicts an imagined scene. Here Jesus is portrayed as a young man in the carpenter’s workshop before his public ministry had begun. Tired from work, he stretches his arms. His face carries a mix of rapture and agony. His shadow is silhouetted against the wall across his tool board, creating the impression of his body on the cross. In the corner, his mother Mary looks up, aghast to see the shadow of the cross looming over her. If you look carefully, you see that she is opening a chest that contains gifts from the wise men – gold, frankinscense and myrrh which represent his kingship, his divine glory and his death. Although this painting is not historical, it does truly depict a biblical insight that the shadow of the cross hangs over the entire life of Jesus.

In the ancient world, there were three “supreme penalties” that people fear the most. What are the worst methods to punish criminals to death? Beheading was a horrible way to go, being burnt alive was worse (more painful but sometimes, people died from inhaling the smoke before the fire reached them). But the most extreme death penalty one can have was by crucifixion. You catch a glimpse of how violent and agonizing a crucifixion looks like in the movie The Passion of the Christ.

And that is Jesus’ destiny prophesied in Scripture. It is his mission on earth. It is the reason He came.

That’s not something you would expect. Our Muslim neighbors would stress that the prophet of God cannot be allowed to be mocked and crucified. Or suffer defeat. Surely God will protect his servant by rescuing him and replace someone else to be crucified instead. We don’t want that kind of hero. According to a 16th century document called the “gospel of Barnabas”, Judas Iscariot was supposed to have substituted Jesus on the cross. You may like to know that manuscript written in Italian is more than 1500 years removed from the actual event. So it’s not a reliable historical source.

But the Gospel of Luke, written within only a few decades from the death of Christ, shows us that our Lord was not surprised by what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. He knew it was coming. He anticipated it. He was going to travel to the holy city one last time to celebrate the Passover. Jerusalem is the city where the temple is located, the sacred place where heaven and earth meets.

So Jesus rounds up His disciples and tells them that He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him. They will flog him and kill him. 

You may think: “Oh well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. John the Baptist his predecessor was also executed earlier. There was no freedom of speech in those days, right? So what’s so special about Jesus’ death?”

Well, in the case of Jesus, look at verse 31 here, his death and resurrection happened so that “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled”. It has been foretold in Scripture. It has been predicted beforehand.

In other words, it may look to bystanders as though Jesus is the victim of betrayal and political conspiracy and mob violence and mock trials and corrupt religious leaders. Yes, we see that a lot in this cruel world. But what Jesus says is breath taking: I am in charge here. It’s all taking place just as Scripture has foretold. Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up. Jesus already predicted when he died, how he died, and when he rose from the dead. Yet he still made that journey to Jerusalem. Why?

1) Because all that prophets have predicted hundreds of years ago must be fulfilled.

You see, Jesus is not just another human prophet. Rather he is the ultimate goal of all prophecy. He is their purpose. He is the fulfillment of what the prophets have foretold. What was predicted hundreds of years before had come true in his life. If you are considering the claims of Christ and wonder if there is any good reason to suppose that His life and death are unique, here is a powerful clue: Fulfilled prophecies.

Let me read to you a prediction written in the 16th century and you tell me what event is being fulfilled here:

The great man will be struck down in the day by a thunderbolt,
An evil deed foretold by the bearer of a petition.
According to the prediction, another falls at night time.
Conflict at Reims, London and a pestilence in Tuscany.
(re-kan-s, tas-kanee)

Whose death do you think is being predicted here? You would never have guessed by just reading it. The answer is: The assassination of John F Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Who do you think wrote these four lines of prediction? Nostradamus.
OK, thunderbolts and gunshots: not terribly dissimilar. And the great man was struck down in the day, as John F. Kennedy was. The other falling at nighttime would be Bobby Kennedy (five years later).

Science Channel: Now, it can work if you want it to, but do you really think a Secret Service agent reading this passage in 1963 would have cause to be concerned?
Probably not. It is so vague, vague enough to mean any other great leader killed during day or night. And it doesn’t even say there were related as brothers. And what of Reims, London and Tuscany? Their deaths were not related to any conflict or pestilence in those places. Not a terribly impressive prediction.

Now let us return to the death of Christ. Where was it prophesied that the Promised One, the Messiah will die a violent death and rise again from the grave? It would be amazing if such prophecies were true. But were they really talking about Jesus? Or were they just too vague like this one?

Around 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah made one of the clearest predictions of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It shed so much light to what He was doing that the book of Isaiah came to be known as the ‘fifth gospel’ apart from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  

I would like to read with you a portion of this prophecy about the suffering and vindication of the Messiah in Isaiah 53: The God of Israel says:

See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (resurrection, ascension, exaltation?)
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.
 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (rejection by people in life)
Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, (the Roman spear pierced Jesus’ side)
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (substitutionary atonement language)
He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth. (Did not fight his arrest, accepted suffering)
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested? (False accusations, corrupt trial)
For he was cut off from the land of the living; (means: His suffering led to death)
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death, (Even though Jesus was poor and crucified people are left to the dogs, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea)
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth. (He has committed no crime or sin deserving death)
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his seed and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
(This is all about the resurrection. Jesus would suffer, die, and buried in a rich man’s tomb. And then, after the suffering, he’d get out of his grave, he’d see the light of day, he’d enjoy life again, he would accomplish his mission to justify many and take away sin, that he’d reconcile us to God. “It is finished.” He will be satisfied to see His people, his seed prosper)
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Sin bearer)

Now, who is This Servant of the Lord? Who is Isaiah talking about in its original context? Some interpreters would say, in its original context, the servant of the Lord refers to the nation Israel. Israel has always been persecuted by the sinful Gentile nations and suffered greatly because of the transgressions of others. Think of Nazi Holocaust and similar tragic episodes throughout their long history. Yes, sometimes in the book of Isaiah the servant of the Lord is clearly the people of Israel (Isaiah 41: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.”). And sometimes the servant refers to the prophet Isaiah himself (Isaiah 49:5) "And now says the Lord, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him." Here the prophet Isaiah is the servant who brings the people of Israel back to God.

But in Isaiah 53 the servant cannot be the prophet or the people. Because the Servant is portrayed as substituting himself for both the prophet and the people of Israel. Verse 4: "Surely he [the Servant] took up our pain and bore our suffering." Verse 5: "He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities." "Our" means "me, Isaiah" and the people of Israel. So this mysterious Servant is not the people of Israel and not Isaiah, because he is the substitute for both of them. His job is to restore Israel and bring light to the Gentile nations.  

Who then is this Servant of the Lord? Ancient Jewish rabbis understood it to refer to the Messiah. So it is not surprising to find that Jesus clearly understood this prophecy as being fulfilled in his own life and ministry. He is the suffering servant who is crushed for the sins of the people. What will soon happen to Him in Jerusalem is fulfillment of this prophecy. He himself said, "The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve (to be a Servant) and to give his life a ransom [a substitute!] for many" (Mark 10:45).  

In all the history of Israel, no one comes close to fulfilling this prophecy apart from Jesus. In Acts 8 there is an Ethiopian eunuch (a diplomat) who was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip joined him in his chariot. The eunuch asked, "Of whom does the prophet Isaiah speak, of himself, or of someone else?" Philip opened his mouth and beginning from this scripture he proclaimed Jesus to him (Acts 8:35).  

Let me remind all of us that this was written 700 years before Jesus was born and there was no way Isaiah could have known it unless it was revealed to him. This passage is packed with details about the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

2) Why did Jesus die? Why did He press on to Jerusalem knowing certain death awaits him?

What is the meaning of His death? Actually it would be more accurate to say there are multiple layers of meanings in the Cross of Christ. Like a diamond, it has many sides. The cross is God’s victory over the powers of Satan because sin and death have no dominion over those who are in Christ. It is Jesus’ non violence unmasking the corruption behind oppressive powers. The cross is Christ satisfying God’s holy requirements in the law. The cross is a demonstration of how much God’s love is for us. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us so our indifference melts away. The cross inspires us to follow Him in self-sacrifice and self-giving.

All these are precious ways of understanding the cross of Christ that should we should recover. And I would also point out that all this is true because sacrifice is at the heart of the cross. Jesus took up our pain and bore our sins. He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. It was the Lord’s will to crush him as a sin offering.

What the movies like Passion of the Christ or the historical books cannot show us is what goes on spiritually on the cross. They cannot show us the reality that we are separated from God by our sin. That God is alienated from us by His holy anger. God doesn’t lose his temper for no reason at all. His anger is provoked always by sin.

 Some people say this is not fair. This is like me saying “You offended me. So in order that I can forgive you, I must go and beat up Yoong Zhen first”. Some even call it ‘cosmic child abuse’ – an angry Father punishes his own innocent son for the wrongs of others. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what the cross is about.

Firstly, Jesus is not an unwilling third party here. He is not forced to do it. He willingly embraced the Cross for the joy set before him. He and the Father are one in this plan.

Secondly, God the Father so loved the world that He gave his only Son. It is not as though he is reluctant and needs to be pacified by Jesus. Precisely because God is love that He has made a way for sinful men to be forgiven without ignoring sin… without downplaying sin. It is not just another man that the Father is punishing for our sins, but Jesus the embodiment of God took upon Himself the sins of us all. The One who passes judgment now steps down and receives the penalty.  

It is in the death of Christ as a substitute and sacrifice that sin is removed and God’s wrath is absorbed, so that God can look on us without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is cleansed (expiated) and God is satisfied (propitiated).

It is not justice. But it is grace. God is showing us the love and mercy that we do not deserve.

3) When Jesus predicted His death, the disciples were clueless. They did not get it. Does it surprise you? How can that happen? Is it because they couldn’t hear properly or what? Or are they confused because what Jesus predicted was not what they wanted to hear? Could it be that their misunderstanding is caused by their refusal to understand? 

They are ever hearing but never understanding because they wanted a kingdom that brings judgment down on the bad guys. The Messiah should not suffer. He should cause our enemies to suffer. We want a Messiah who brings power, prestige and deliverance to us. A crucified Messiah is not what we would expect. He is supposed to be the one crucifying others. Lest we become too harsh on the disciples, let’s ask ourselves: Do we really understand any of this? What kind of Savior are we looking for? What kingdom are we expecting?

Do we seek a kingdom where God blesses us with a lovely spouse who is always loving; always understanding and agrees with us all the time? A kingdom where we are blessed with above average children, always fun to play with, always healthy and obeys us all the time? A kingdom where our nasty colleagues get fired and evil people get zapped right now? A kingdom where our bank account grows steadily and keeps us safe and secure?  

But the focal point of Jesus’ mission is not our comfort. It is sacrifice. And that’s hard to understand and if understood, it’s even hard to accept. Take up your cross and follow me. Die to sin, be alive to God.

Here is Jesus saying: I must go to Jerusalem. I must go to the cross. Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone and lonely. But if it dies, it breaks forth into new life and produces much fruit.

The Christian life begins when we are forgiven of our sins and the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. So our discipleship is shaped by the cross and the resurrection from first to last. As we die to our selfish pride, die to our greed and sinful ambitions, die to the mindset of the world, we become alive to God, alive to His purpose and design for our lives, alive to what it means to be in community.

Only through death can we experience newness of life and joy in Christ.

And I wonder: How would we die to sin today? Is there a legitimate pleasure that is controlling us, entangling us from walking closer to God? Is there something that our Lord is asking you to let go? Is He calling you to obedience in some area in your life? Perhaps He is calling you to sacrifice comfort to pursue something much greater? Are we shaped by the self giving pattern of Christ?

Friends, the cross and resurrection of Jesus is a once-off event that changed history. But death and resurrection is also an ongoing process in our spiritual life… dying to self and being raised to new life is the shape of Christian discipleship. We have a cruciform spirituality. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Manifesto For Evangelism

Once upon a time, there was a village of fishermen who loved to fish. They gathered to form a fishing society with the vision to promote fishing all over the country. They published books on the benefits of fishing as a hobby and as a career. They organized seminars on the latest technology for boats, baits and fishing equipment. At these forums, they sang songs about the joys of fishing. They also hired experts to research on the migration patterns and breeding habits of various fishes. They were so busy with all these activities that there was no time left… to fish.

Until one fine day, a young girl actually decided to sail out to the ocean and cast a net into the waters. Lo and behold, she caught a huge load of fish. Instantly she became famous. She was invited to write a book about her adventures. She was asked to share her amazing experience at fishing conferences and travel the world to lobby for cross-cultural fishing. Of course, she too became so busy that she forgot… to fish…

This is a parable... Spend 2 minutes to discuss what this parable is about. When Jesus called his disciples, He said: Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.  This is a call for them be with Him, to give their lives to Him and bring people into His kingdom. It’s a call to evangelism… to make disciples of all peoples. And you can’t make disciples unless you are first a disciple. We find those fishermen funny but more often than not, we Christians can be a lot like them. We can attend trainings, read books and sing songs about evangelism so much so that the only thing we forgot to do is to evangelize. Really… how much of our personal life or even our church activities can really be intentionally evangelistic?  

Ouch… this is going to be a tough sermon this morning. Whenever the topic of evangelism crops up, I think a lot of us squirm with a sense of guilt… a sense of inadequacy… believe me, I know that feeling all too well. But there is hope because Jesus says come to me, follow me, learn from me, trust in me and I will make you fishers of men. There’s a promise. He will do it. He will make us fishers of men. But will we follow?

Romans 10:13-15
For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?                                                                         And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”


CDPC Puchong: We are a SIMPLE church. We are committed to preaching through chunks of Scripture week in, week out to see how all of them point to our Savior the Lord Jesus. Our desire is for all of our lives (in the workplace, family and in the city) to be shaped by His truth, His grace and His justice. One of our key values is to make disciples of all people groups… ergo, City “Discipleship”. This year, we really want to focus on Making Disciples (through evangelism, pastoral care and growing leaders). That’s our top priority. Why? Because we want to be a gospel-centered church. Because if we don’t do that, then we are not living up to our name. And because “gospel”, “community” and “mission” are at the heart of the book of Romans.

As you may know, this month, we are continuing our exposition on Romans 9-11. We have journeyed through 8 chapters last year and it’s good to just back up a little bit and see where we are. What is the purpose of this letter? Well, Paul is writing because he plans to go and bring the gospel to Spain. And he plans to stop over at the church in Rome first for evangelism, for ministry and for mutual encouragement. So it’s like a mission newsletter – Paul needs some assistance to preach the gospel somewhere which no one has gone before. He needs the church’s support in prayer, help and perhaps finance. Mission is always a community project, a church project. Even an apostle doesn’t want to go it alone. But the church in Rome doesn’t know him personally so he wrote this epistle to introduce himself as an apostle to the Gentiles and what his gospel message is all about. He ended up writing up one of the most important and influential books of all time but it’s good to remember that he didn’t set out to write a theological textbook. Its core concern is missional. It’s a manifesto, a public declaration for evangelism.

And the other main purpose of writing the epistle relates to a problem faced by the church itself. It was culturally mixed with a Gentile majority and a Jewish minority. The controversy of whether obeying the law and circumcision as boundary markers that segregate you as a member of God’s people was unsettling the church. There were those who wanted to obey food laws and ceremonial regulations, and others who didn’t. Paul wanted to step in and say: The people of God are defined by faith in Christ alone. Your cultural, ethnic differences are transcended by Christ so you now stand united in the gospel of grace.

Guess what? That means gospel, mission and community are at the forefront of the epistle. David Chong didn’t come up with these brilliant ideas by himself, in case you are wondering. It’s not just a CDPC idea. It is a biblical priority. They are all central concerns in the book of Romans, and if you miss those things, you haven’t grasped it yet.
From the passage we read just now and the rest of Romans 9-11, we can see at least 3 things about

1)      The urgency of evangelism
2)      The hope of evangelism
3)      The purpose of evangelism

If you recall, the broad outline of Roman goes something like this imaginary chat. Paul says: “I am eager to preach the gospel. I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes (first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles).”                                                          Why, Paul, who do they need to be saved? “Because God’s holy anger is revealed against all who suppress the truth in wickedness.”                                                                    

Well, how have they done that? “The Gentiles have suppressed the knowledge of God available to them in creation and the moral law written in their hearts. They are without excuse. The Jews have the revelation of God’s written law but they break the law. They cannot keep the law. So all of humanity have sinned and come short of God’s standards.”

What then is the solution? That’s why the gospel is so urgent. Why it’s so necessary.   
We need the righteousness of God that is given though faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. All who believe are declared righteous (not guilty) on the basis of what Christ has done on the cross. He redeemed us from sin. He turned away God’s holy anger through His sacrifice for us, on our behalf. Not by obeying the law, but by what Christ has done for us – His life, death and resurrection.

That’s why there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, bumiputra or non-bumiputra: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Saved from what? Our universal need is to be freed from the guilt of sin. From the controlling power of sin. From the condemnation of sin. Saved from God’s holy judgment. There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, Indonesians, Malaysians, Egyptians and Americans. We are all sinners and we all need Christ for salvation. All nations (the entire human race) must hear the gospel. That’s the scope of evangelism: It’s world-embracing. Among us are young people who have traveled hundreds of miles, away from home and family, to be here in Malaysia precisely because of this urgency, this longing to see Christ lifted up, adored and treasured in hearts of peoples from every nation. A sister here told me of a Bible study she’s part of with a Mongolian, Mainland Chinese, Omani, American and Egyptian. Like United Nations. Wow, wouldn’t you like to be part of a Bible study like that? Isn’t that beautiful?

My heart’s desire for CDPC is that we become partners in the gospel with these young people and support them in any way we can. My heart’s desire is that we all catch a glimpse of Paul’s heart, his longing, his agony, his yearning for the salvation of people… “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”  (Romans 9) Of course, it is not possible for him to trade places with anyone… but he so loved his people so much, that if it were at all possible, he could wish that he was condemned in hell for the sake of his people, that they may know and enjoy Christ. Can we say the same thing for anyone who is spiritually lost? Paul can’t die for anyone’s sins, but Christ was cursed so we could be blessed. Christ was cut off from the Father so we may enter into His fellowship. There is only one Savior.

But Paul is reflecting His Master’s heart… he yearns for their salvation so much that he was ready to cursed for their sake. That’s the heart of carrying the cross. The only people for whom I have that kind of anguish and sorrow are for my own father and mother who are not yet believers. For them, yes, I could gladly and willingly wish if it were at all possible to trade places with them. But that’s nowhere near the kind of sorrow and love that Jesus and Paul had for the salvation of even their enemies. Those who rejected and opposed them… So our prayer this morning is that the Holy Spirit would melt our hearts and give us the same intensity, the same love and longing. That’s the heart of mission, the urgency of evangelism.
The hope of evangelism:

To call on Jesus’ name is to ask Him to save us according to who He is and what he has done. See, you are the one who must call on the name of the Lord. Nobody can do it for you. And everyone who calls on His name will be saved. There is no such thing as a person trusts and obeys the gospel but gets turned down by God. “Sorry, I know you decided to put your trust in Christ alone but so sorry, you are not one of the chosen ones.” It doesn’t work that way. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  

But the problem is: there are a million and one reasons why people would not want to call on His name. They are too busy. They are too obsessed with what the world has to offer. They are too self-satisfied with their own achievements. They thought it would cost them too much freedom. You know, if you have ever tried to share the gospel, there are just so many, many obstacles/excuses that people give for not coming to faith. What hope is there for us to bring our friends into our homes, into this church to listen to the gospel? It seems like a distant fantasy… Maybe in our hearts we have given up hope long ago so we have stopped even trying. What’s the use? What’s the point? I know that feeling…

But then again, that’s exactly how we once were, right? We too were once hardened in rebellion against God, we too were once too proud to acknowledge Him, we too were once substituting other gods instead of worshiping Him. We were too worldly. We were just like that. What hope did we have?

That’s why Paul says in Romans 9: “It does not, therefore, depend on your human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. He has mercy on whom he has mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” There is no hope unless and until God overcomes our rebellion by His love. There is no hope unless and until He opens up our blind eyes by the light of His word, and until the Holy Spirit melts our heart of stone and replace it with a heart beating with new life.

The only thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless is the sovereign grace of God… The only thing that gives you and I hope in pressing on with the gospel is the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. The only thing that keeps us going when all hope is lost is the assurance that God so sovereign that he can bring the most hardened sinner to faith… That’s the hope of evangelism that drove missionaries and evangelists to the ends of the world. That’s the hope that drives us (CDPC) to be salt and light in Puchong.

Back in those days, people do not have the Internet or television so important news from the king travel by means of a herald. The herald would run for many miles to the marketplace and announce the good news: Our king has returned to Jerusalem. He will restore the nation. You will all return from exile. So Paul quoted Isaiah: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace and salvation. The logic is simple there can be no salvation without calling on Christ, and no calling on him without faith, there is no believing in Him without hearing him, no hearing without the preaching of the gospel and no preaching without preachers sent. And so Christ sends you and I to be heralds of the gospel.

Now, what is the purpose or goal of evangelism? Evangelism is not an end in itself. Mission exists because worship does not. Evangelism gathers and unites us with the people of God, an inclusive community that transcends racial barriers… a family united in Christ of both Jews and Gentiles. In Romans 11 the picture is that of an olive tree where believing Gentiles like wild olives are grafted in and believing Jews are grafted back. We share the same history of faith that extends back to the promise to Abraham. We stand in solidarity with the persecuted people of God all over the world. The way we worship together, the way we serve each other and treat one another especially when we disagree and have theological differences should model the gospel of grace.

But the ultimate goal of evangelism is the glory of God! That’s why Paul ends chapter 11 with worship – “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen”. All that exists came from Him… He is the creator… all that we are and all that we have are sustained through Him… and why everything came into being and what is the reason for their being? The answer is: For Him and to him are all things. He is the source, the means and the goal of all things.

So we have seen the urgency of evangelism, the hope of evangelism and the goal of evangelism… You may wonder: How can we evangelize? What should we practically do?

Let me share this true story from Michael Ramsden, whom I met at a youth conference in Bali. He is an evangelist in Europe

Conversations over the course of normal, ordinary life that points the way to Christ … Sometimes we just plan a seed, other times we soften the soil. Sometimes we water the plant, other times we reap the harvest. It is God who makes it grow and bear fruit.

And I really have nothing more profound to say today than that.

Talk to the people you meet in church this morning… especially those whom you have never met before. Our guests who are here for the first time… The last thing you want to see when you bring a friend or student from Oman to church is to see her checking her Facebook alone at one corner while the rest of us were chatting among ourselves… Be welcoming, get to know people and where appropriate, pray for them… invite them over for lunch… Show them the hospitality of Christ… Serve them… Fetch them home, if necessary… Befriend the families who come to the library… Play and read story books to their children… It is holiday season with the Lunar New Year coming this Friday. A lot of us will balik kampong, visit relatives, friends, colleagues and open houses… Those are the contexts in which conversational evangelism can happen. 

Let’s not become fishermen who were so busy singing and talking about fishing that they have no time left to fish.