He Staggered Not Through Unbelief
My first verse comes from the Song of Deborah:
Listen to the village musicians
gathered at the watering holes.
They recount the righteous victories of the Lord
and the victories of his villagers in Israel
And another very well-known and loved verse:
Abraham staggered not through unbelief. (Romans 4:20)
Or in another translation:
Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God.
Both verses have been in my mind because on a Tuesday night in Greenock we have been rehearsing the mighty acts of God and the quite miraculous way He has kept and guided us as a church throughout many decades. That verse, ‘Abraham staggered not through unbelief,’ has been in my mind because it’s a verse that spoke to my father when we were buying the present Glasgow church and other buildings at the same time, and so we were stretching ourselves a bit with three different properties, and he felt that verse lived for him: He staggered not through unbelief.
It’s a lovely thought for Abraham. His faith was tested and tried until he became known as the ‘father of the faithful’, and he didn’t stagger – he didn’t waver – at the promise of God. Now if we stagger, it generally means that we don’t actually fall: when we stagger we can nearly do ourselves an injury, but we manage to avoid it. But Abraham didn’t even stagger – he didn’t even waver. And this whole principle has been on my mind, of the finding a trust in God, a belief in His action and a belief in His promises that means we do not waver at all in our hearts.
I do remember once in my own life being faced with a very difficult situation, and knowing that it was critical that I should not waver even for a moment, and that Christ could look into my eyes and I into His, and I would know that I had not doubted Him for a moment, and He would know that that was true. But very often we are content to have a kind of faith that staggers, and sometimes we can fall, until in many Christian lives there comes an acceptance of defeat. This can be defeat in various areas. It can be in the realm of giving into temptation to do wrong, and I think that basic Christianity teaches us there is a better way than that. In the case of maturer Christians there can be defeat in various circumstances of life that have not come about through our own choosing, but there comes a wavering in faith, a staggering through unbelief.
Faith works by love, and I think that over the years Abraham had discovered and believed in the faithfulness of God and the love of God. And here we surely have such a tremendous advantage, for we read:
God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
The love of God has been interpreted to us through Jesus Christ. Again, in the words of another lovely verse:
For we know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love. (Romans 5:5)
And when we know that we are loved, but most of all, when we know we are loved by God! – take time to meditate on that, until that love fills our hearts, our minds, our spirits, and we act and live in the strength of it.
But we can be faced with real trial. We can be faced with that which really tests us. And in Isaiah we read of the occasion when the armies of the Assyrians under King Sennacherib came up to Jerusalem to beseige and destroy her, and the generals spoke in such a way that the people could hear them, shouting: ‘Don’t trust in God! Just come out, just surrender, and you then can live at peace.’ Is that not a true principle for us also? – that the enemy says: ‘Don’t be so extreme in your Christianity! Don’t be so serious in your separation to God, and trying to walk in His way. Just surrender a bit. You can’t trust Him.’
But Abraham believed God against all circumstances. And in Hezekiah’s time, these Jews inside the city were in a terrible position, because the Assyrian army had just swept everything else before it. They said: ‘Don’t think your God will defend you! He won’t.’ The story unfolds at some length. Eventually, during an interval when the army has departed for a little, a letter is sent to King Hezekiah:
Don’t let your God, in whom you trust, deceive you with promises that Jerusalem will not be captured by the king of Assyria. You know perfectly well what the kings of Assyria have done wherever they have gone. They have completely destroyed everyone who stood in their way! Why should you be any different? (Isaiah 37:10-11)
The people were terrified, and Hezekiah was distressed. But we read this lovely verse:
After Hezekiah received the letter … and read it, he went up to the LORD’s Temple and spread it out before the LORD. (Isaiah 37:14)
Unlike Isaiah the prophet, to whom he had gone for help, Hezekiah wasn’t a giant of the faith at that time. He had gone first to Isaiah, but now he goes straight to God, to His temple, to tell Him it all - he shows it to Him. And so can we. We can just spread it all out before Him. We don’t need a great prayer of faith. We don’t need to work out any principle. We just say: ‘O God, You are my Father. You are my Saviour. You do actually love me. Here I am. Help!’
I love something that Billy Graham (such a man of God, used so deeply) said. When somebody asked him: ‘How do you pray to God? How do you do it – what do you say?’ he said: ‘I sit on my verandah for hours, and I look at the hills, and I just say: “O God, help me! O God, fill me with Your Spirit!” And I just say it over and over again.’ A great man of God, but he beseeched God to help him, God to fill him. And that’s what we do: ‘O God, help! O God, fill me with Your Spirit!’ and spread out the letter of life before Him.
What we find is victory. Victory in our deep inner spirit, not just in the outworking of circumstance, but in our deep inner spirit. That’s where Abraham found victory and walked with God. How much more, of course, does that apply to Christ! Could it be our inheritance too?
And what we find is that victory is very sweet. We can become used to defeat – and I am sometimes dismayed in reading modern Christian literature how it almost seems to me to be accepted that Christians will keep falling. But the Bible says:
He is able to keep us from falling. (Jude 1:24)
If we begin to accept the notion that we just keep on falling, then we will keep on doing it and accept defeat. But surely we can become addicted to victory, because it’s very sweet, the taste of victory. The passage about Hezekiah and Sennacherib once many years ago spoke to me and rescued me. I was a much younger Christian, still, I suppose, becoming spiritually stabilised in some ways. I was at a church Camp, staying alone in an old caravan, and God spoke to me through it. And I have never forgotten the sweetness of victory. It became an abiding principle.
What the victory led to was the opening up of Christ’s words, where He said: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I am the door of the sheepfold. Come in by Me and you’ll find pasture.’ I found the pasture was very rich and very sweet. And this is the place to live, a place where we glorify God, because we trust in His unfailing love and faithfulness. He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love. He so loved the world He gave His only Son. What more could He do to show to you and to me that He is our faithful Friend?
Golgotha - The Place of Triumph
Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle. (John 19:17–18 NIV)
For some interesting material in the first part of what follows, I am indebted to Kathie Lee Gifford’s book The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi.
We are accustomed to thinking of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as being a tremendous demonstration of the power of God over the power of the enemy:
And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it [that is, in His Cross]. (Colossians 2:15)
That is a wonderful picture of something like a Roman triumph. But what this book drew my attention to is how much that last day in the life of Christ mirrors a Roman triumph, particularly in the time of the emperors. A Roman emperor’s triumph was a bit like his coronation. Let me describe to you first of all what that was like. For the Roman emperor, the soldiers at the Praetorium (the government building that tended to have soldiers and his guard there) – placed their purple robe on the emperor, put a wreath on his head, and shouted: ‘Hail, Caesar!’ There was then a procession along the Via Sacra (The Sacred Way, in Rome) to the Capitoline Hill, on which stood the temple of Jupiter. There a bull was sacrificed by someone who had been carrying the means of putting that bull to death. The emperor would then be offered wine, which he would refuse. Then he would go up the steps of the Capitoline Hill, with one person on each side of him. The people would hail him as their saviour, and they would say: ‘Hail, Caesar! Lord and God!’ And then they looked for a sign from heaven to confirm his deity.
If you read Matthew’s gospel you will see the parallel, which would be very obvious to the people in Christ’s day, more so than perhaps it has been to us:
Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and called out the entire regiment. They stripped him and put a scarlet [or purple] robe on him. They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, ‘Hail! King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and grabbed the stick and struck him on the head with it. When they were finally tired of mocking him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him again. Then they led him away to be crucified. Along the way, they came across a man named Simon … and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. And they went out to a place called Golgotha. (Matthew 27:27–33 NLT)
They nailed Him to the cross, as we know, with a thief on each side of Him. And we know also the signs that came as Christ died. They had done all this in mockery, pretending they were acknowledging that He was a King. A fearful tragedy – hard for us to read it and to think of that being done to Christ, and to know that in their drunkenness they would be enjoying themselves and would get more confident the more they mocked Him. It is just a mirror sometimes of society and of the way that Christ and Christianity are still treated. But there He is in His lonely, shaming death on Mount Calvary. He has not come down from the cross, and there is no voice sounded to save Him; no legion of angels has appeared. It seems that He is dying in failure and in darkness.
They looked for a sign to confirm to them that their emperor was divine, and the worship of the emperor became a cult. But there as Christ is dying, the darkness has come over the land from the sixth to the ninth hour. There comes an earthquake – the veil of the Temple is rent in two. We read that the graves in Jerusalem were opened, and the righteous dead came out of these and were seen walking around the streets of Jerusalem. When the people saw ‘those things that were done, they feared greatly’, and the centurion said: ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’ We can feel something of the atmosphere of that there: just at the moment when they would expect their emperor to get a sign, there really are signs, fearful signs, that strike awe into the heart of even the centurion: ‘Truly – surely – this was the Son of God!’
And we see beyond the outward. We see through the veil, and we see what really was happening in the spiritual world. We know that the Lord Jesus Christ went down into Hades; we know that He led captivity captive; we know that He came back and ascended into heaven, bringing many sons to glory. We know, beyond the mockery of Him, that in actual fact it really was His coronation, that it really was and is His triumph, and that He appeared in heaven before God and lives there to make intercession for His own.
There comes into our lives also just that same reversal of a situation, and what seems for ill, when Satan seems to be having the upper hand and can be causing mayhem in your life as you are seeking to follow Christ, in actual fact will turn to good. As Joseph said to his brothers in Egypt:
‘You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.'
When we turn again to look at Him, we see the incredible depth of the triumph that is Christ’s as He goes into the eternal realm. And surely there comes to us a whisper, or a command, from Him: ‘Courage! Be not afraid.’ Our journey is into that eternal glory also. The Jews reckoned time from sundown to the next day: they were marching from evening to morning. And so are we. We are coming from sundown. We are coming through the church’s time of tribulation, but we are going towards the eternal morning, the eternal glory, when we shall see Him, and we will be amongst that number who crown Him Lord of all. We will taste there of His victory. We will see Him whom they pierced. We will see Him who is crowned, not now in mockery, but ‘with the crown wherewith His mother crowned Him in the day of His espousals’. ‘Go forth, ye daughters of Jerusalem, and behold Him.’ Shall we be amongst that number? To see Him crowned, to be one of those who crown Him now not with thorns, but with our love, with our obedience, with our gratitude. And oh, the crown that God gives Him! The crown of honour: ‘This is My beloved Son: hear ye Him.’ We shall awaken one day in the eternal morning; the darkness will be all behind, and it will be forever Light there in the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. His triumph is complete, and the enemy is routed. We have no need to fear, but to believe in Him with all our hearts and share something of His triumph.
Blessed be His Name.
The Trial of Faith
Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not. (Luke 22:31)
Many a sermon has been preached about Peter and these words spoken by Christ. I don’t know how we would feel if Christ had spoken them to us before a trial of faith. I’m not sure how Peter reacted; I think in some ways it maybe went over his head but came back to him afterwards. And I also think that we can very easily misjudge Peter. His denial of Christ is one of the best-known facts of the Christian story, as is Christ’s forgiveness of him. But Peter had come into a desperate hour. He came into deep waters beyond our knowing. Christ could have prevented it happening. He could have engineered circumstances so that Peter was nowhere near that judgment hall, nowhere near that hour when his weakness showed. That wasn’t part of the plan of God, or His plan for Peter and for the future. If you yourself have ever been in a dark place or a very difficult place where you could not find God, you could not immediately feel His help or His comfort, a place where you’re dependent on naked faith, you will know how difficult that can be, and how all the faith that you had and all the strength that you had can seem almost like nothing in your hour of trial and danger.
So it was for Peter. We know that in a difficult moment he denied Christ. I think that was just the spontaneous reaction of a panicked hour, and for Peter I think that a lot of the trial of his faith would be in the afterward. He found himself then in a dark and desolate place, terribly alone. No one could help Peter. We know that he wasn’t necessarily physically alone, because we find him coming with John on resurrection morning; it’s not that he was being ostracised by the other disciples. But he would be in his own spirit desperately alone. I wonder if he remembered sinking in the waves when he’d walked on the water, and how Christ’s hand had saved him. But there was no hand of Christ now: Christ was crucified. Who could help Peter? Surely these words of Christ must have come back to him: “Peter, I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not.”
Have you ever been in any circumstance where you’ve come to the end of your own faith, and that whisper from Christ has come upon your ear, upon your spirit: I am praying for you. We know that we are not making that up, because we read that Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. You see, I think Peter had come to the end of human strength. A few hours before that, we have seen Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and His strength, humanly, was at an end. It was the divine strength of the Son of God that brought Him through, and brings us through: Not My will, but Thine, be done. And so for Peter, he’s at the end of human strength, and he is flung out into a place where he becomes totally dependent on the prayers of Christ. The prayers of others might have been around him – but I think that their agony would be increased, having seen what had happened with Peter. I don’t think they deserted him, but they were in desperate need themselves. It is only the prayer of Christ that could intervene and save Peter in such an hour of such inner aloneness. And what comfort we find, because we will undoubtedly find as we follow Christ – and in fact the closer we are to Christ the more we will find – that there are hours when we are desperately alone in our spirit and there is nobody to help but Jesus Christ. We are dependent on a miracle, and we begin to find out what faith actually is: the faith that trusts when there seems nothing to trust, and no one near.
Peter comes through the whole experience, we know. We know the afterwards, but he didn’t know it at the time. And we can look and say: “Why did Christ allow him so to suffer?” There could be many reasons not known to us. Part of it is probably for our sake and our benefit. But what we do know is that Peter emerged from there with a compassion and a tenderness for others. He was particularly used in healing afterwards. And we know that he had that compassion, because Christ was able to entrust not just His sheep to Peter, but His lambs.
But the second thing, it seems to me, that Peter discovered was faith. He thought he had faith before, but he had really discovered the faith of the Son of God, the faith that Christ had in his Father – something of that, I think, came into Peter. He had found the faith of that Faithful Witness on high who speaks for us, who pleads for us. And to us that door opens also. Do not be panicked in the difficult hour, in the dark place of your soul, but rather listen for that whisper: I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not.
The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.
And it delivered Peter. Somewhere alone on resurrection ground Christ found Peter, There is an interview, an appearing to Peter that we know nothing of, save the fact that it happened. What a moment! He appeared just to Peter, very early on resurrection day. And moments like that come to us also – just Christ. There is no one like Christ. There is no faithful friend like Christ. There is no one who stands by us as Christ does. Samuel Rutherford says: “No one knows all that lies between me and Christ.”
And as I was thinking of this matter, every daily reading that I happened to be looking at this morning had something about faith (not necessarily for this morning – it may have been the day before). Again I quote from Samuel Rutherford:
Faith has sense of sickness [that is, is conscious of its infirmities], and looketh like a friend to the promises; and looking to Christ therein, is glad to see a known Face.
Blessed be His Name.
Christ Our Light
On this week’s Sunday night livestream you will have noticed Andrew standing in front of the stained glass window which has featured in recent weeks at the end of our service. Now completed with a wooden frame around it, it is mounted in the outer vestibule of our Greenock church. It depicts a scene overlooking the Clyde and is ablaze with the rays of the sun. It is looking very beautiful, with the vestibule around it painted white to match the white and black floor, and it gives you a little glimpse before you can actually see it on the happy day when we are back at church. A memorial to Miss Elizabeth Taylor, one of our founders, it has engraved on it lines which she loved and wrote in an extract at the beginning of her Bible, from Myers’ poem St Paul:
So even I, and with a heart more burning
Faint for the flaming of Thine advent feet.
Quite coincidentally, the theme that I have for today is to do with light. What triggered the thought in my mind was two stories that I read in the autobiography of Elizabeth Sherrill, All the Way to Heaven. Many of you will have read it, but some may not, and the stories, which are really wonderful, bear repeating.
The first one concerns a married man with a young American family, whose little boy of five was knocked down and killed at a toll crossing. The father had had a difficult childhood, and having a family of his own had transformed life for him. Not a believer, he was in absolute agony over the death of his son, and he wanted revenge on the driver. The latter was a 15-year-old boy who had stolen his mother’s car keys and was now in prison. This father was pacing up and down the floor outside his bedroom in the darkness of the night, absorbed in his agony and wanting all kind of vengeance. Suddenly into that hallway there exploded light. It was powerful, it was radiant, it was life-transforming – and he knew that that light was Christ. In a moment the hurt of his childhood was healed, and all his bitterness towards the young man went. He and his wife took the young man under their wing, and he became like a family member in their home. This remarkable story illustrates the power of the light that was the Lord Jesus Christ.
The other occasion that Elizabeth Sherrill relates was concerning her own husband, who had just acknowledged that Jesus Christ was the Son of God about 48 hours before this experience. Immediately afterwards, due to be operated on the next day for a tumour in his neck, he had asked the rector in their church to pray for him and felt a tremendous searing flame go through his body. After the operation he was lying in the Intensive Care Unit in intense pain – because he had nearly died on the operating table. They discovered that the tumour had turned to a mere cinder. What had caused the trouble on the operating table was that his lungs had collapsed. But as he lay in intense pain there came striding in to his room the Lord Jesus Christ, and He came in the form of light. And all that John Sherrill could do was to pray for others in the unit, whose suffering was immediately relieved; his pain seemed irrelevant before that light.
God is light. Christ said: ‘I am the light of the world.’
We are invited to walk in the light. I think that many people, and perhaps many of us who have had any kind of revelation of God, in our spirit or with the naked eye, know that He is light, and it is what our hearts cry out for. That light is a wonderful light. It’s a light that brings warmth. To produce light without heat is something that even today we have not discovered. When I was a student I remember reading of the ancient Babylonians (and, I think, Egyptians) that they could produce light without heat, and I remember being told that we cannot do that. That was about fifty years ago. Nowadays we’re nearer it – but still can’t quite do it.
But the light that is Christ you would not want without heat. There’s a warmth in His light. There can be a dazzling ray brighter than the noonday sun. It can be a searing flame that reveals sin in us. But there’s always a warmth in it. He comes in His mercy and His grace with the warmth of that light that shines into our desolation. Light shines through best in the darkness. Some museums have gemstones where you can only see the gems glowing in the dark. And oh, how the glow of the radiance of Christ shines when He comes into our darkened, desolate hearts. For what is darker or more desolate than an unredeemed soul, an unredeemed heart? And in He comes. When we cry out to Him He draws near, and He pours in the warmth of His own being, His own presence, His own love, and He shines within us.
For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
It’s that light that lit the whole world that comes into our darkness, into our desolation, into our need, and into His world. I spoke very recently of the Covenanter who asked that God would throw His cloak over him, and the cloak that He throws over us is the one that our first father lost in the garden of Eden. He was clothed in light. It is wonderful when Christ draws near and we find He is embracing us in light. He chases away our darkness, fear and anxiety – He chases away all thought except of Him, and we are wrapped in a cloak of safety, in a cloak of light that was our first inheritance and was lost and that Christ has won again for us. He is the risen Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings.
And His Name be blessed.
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