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.

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