Saturday 25 February 2012

Real love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

God’s plan

The big idea in the book of Ephesians is God’s plan: God is working through all circumstances to bring all things under Jesus Christ as Lord.

I remember as a young Christian hearing of God’s plan put to me like this: God has a plan for your life. He has everything under control. His plan is to bless you through Jesus Christ.

That’s true. But what the bible is doing is pointing us to is an even greater truth: God’s plan is to bring all things under Jesus Christ as Lord. How it works out in your life and my life is like this: When things are going well; when God blesses us with good things - like a plum job, good health, a pass in that exam - we give all glory to Jesus. We say, “This isn’t because I deserved it. It is a gift from God. And it comes to me from the cross.”

But more importantly, the big difference is seen when things aren’t going well: you’ve lost your job; you are in a hospital bed, you’ve flunked your tripos - even so, you are able to say, “God is working through all these circumstances - difficult as they are - for the glory of his Son.”

God’s plan is for Jesus Christ to be Lord over everything. So, that’s the big idea. God’s plan. Our praise. Jesus’ glory.

God’s love

How does that fit in with God’s love? Think about it for a moment. How does the love of God connect with the glory of God? That’s the question we’re looking at this week. Because often times, we understand God’s love in one of two ways: (1) God demonstrates his love through the giving of his Son; or (2) I receive God’s love through his forgiveness, blessing and restoration. The first is the knowledge of God’s love; the second is the experience of that love.

And you might be thinking, “Shouldn’t these two ingredients - the knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love - lead us to praise, to thank and to glorify God?” Yes it should. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, it should. The knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love ought to lead us to praise God and thank God for his love.

But often times, it doesn’t.

Firstly, we can take love for granted, the way we tend to take the love of our parents for granted. The very knowledge of the stability of that love, and constancy of that love, leads us to take it for granted. We say to ourselves, “God will always love me. My mum and dad will always love me,” just before turning around doing something that will hurt the ones we love. “God must forgive me. That’s his job.”

Secondly, our hearts are prone to wander - to quote an old hymn. Having experienced God’s love, we are tempted to seek that same experience elsewhere. The bible calls that idolatry. In the Chinese culture, we tend to think of idolatry as bowing down to statues of Kuan Yin in the temple. But the real problem of idolatry lies in the heart. It has less to do with our actions of bowing down to an idol, and more to do with our motivations of seeking fulfilment and even love in something other than God; in the process, making that thing - whether it’s our job, our family, our looks, our achievements, shopping, eating, sex - which are often good things that God has blessed us with, but taking that thing and turning it into God. We end up worshipping our job, our family, our looks, our achievements, shopping, eating and sex. The sad thing is, idols always fail to satisfy, and it’s only a matter of time before we move on to something idol. Our hearts are prone to wander.

To recap: the two truths about God’s love, that is, the knowledge of God’s love and the experience of God’s love, ought to lead us to thanksgiving, worship and praise of God. But often what happens is we pervert these two truths: we take the knowledge of God’s love for granted; we turn the experience of God’s love into idolatry.

Now this is a problem for Christians. In today’s passage, the apostle Paul prays for Christians to know the “love of Christ... that surpasses knowledge.” Aren’t Christians supposed to know the love of Christ? Doesn’t Paul himself say to them that “you (are) being rooted and established in love” (verse 17).

Furthermore, why does Paul pray that Christ might dwell in their hearts through faith (verse 17)? Doesn’t the bible teach us that his Spirit dwells in every heart of every believer?

What Paul is doing is recognising how God’s love is a real struggle for Christians. We’re not talking about unbelievers. We’re not talking about people who have never heard the gospel; who do not trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Paul is praying for Christians who come to church every week, who have grown up in a Christian home, who know their bibles - he is praying for them and for us - because we constantly need God’s help to know and experience the reality of his love.

We will look at this prayer under three headings:

1. Real love strengthens us in our inner being
2. Real love stretches us as God’s people
3. Real love supersedes us to bring all glory to God

It strengthens us, stretches us and it supersedes us. Those are the three points.

1. Real love strengthens us in our inner being

For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.Ephesians 3:14-17

It might seem strange to hear Paul praying repeatedly for strength and power in the lives of these Christians. He asks God to strengthen the believers with power (verse 16), that they might be rooted and established (the word describes pillars that support a building structure - verse 17), that Christians might have power (verse 18) together with all the saints, and finally, that God’s power continues to work within us (verse 20). It is strange because Paul is praying for the strength in order to understand God’s love - not knowledge, not wisdom, not even, experience - but strength. He prays for power.

The reason we think it’s strange is because we see strength as an external quality. It is about having the muscle, having the ability, having that external attribute that enables us achieve that goal and scale that mountain. A strong person is an impressive person. A powerful Christian is an influential Christian.

But notice how Paul asks God to strengthen us with power but in our inner being. Some translations have “the inner man”. It is an internal strength. Elsewhere, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Though our outer self (literally, man) is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

Real love is love that strengthens our inner being. That’s talking about more than just confidence. It’s talking about more than just being a nicer person “on the inside”, or feeling good about yourself.

It is talking about life. God has put his life into you. He has created a new you through his Spirit. The real you.

Meaning: if you do not know God; if you do not trust in Jesus Christ and received gift of eternal life through the cross - the reality is that you’re dead. Ephesians 2 says, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and ruler of the kingdom of the air.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) Outwardly you are wasting away. Inwardly, it’s far worse: You’re dead. Some of you reading this: that’s you. The bible says that you are spiritually dead. And all the prayers in the world to strengthen you outwardly aren’t going to address the real problem inwardly. The man and the woman inside of you is dead to the world and is dead to God. What you need is life. What you need is Jesus.

I say that because otherwise we are going to misunderstand Paul’s prayer. He is praying for Christians who have been made alive through Christ (Ephesians 2:5) even when they were dead in their transgressions. He is assuming that they have already turned to Jesus for forgiveness, reconciliation and new life - not just a changed life - a new life. And it’s that new life that they have received through faith, that Paul prays for.

Well, what is he praying for? He prays for strength that comes from the gospel. Look at verse 17:

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ
Ephesians 3:17-18

The gospel is the fixed point of God’s love and what Paul is saying to us is, “Stay there!” He wants us to be rooted like a tree: A tree doesn’t get up and uproot itself - if it did, it would die. He want us to be established (meaning lay our foundations) in the gospel: your whole life is built on this foundation of the gospel.

Why is this important? The gospel is the only real context of God’s love. It is the cross. When someone asks you, “How do you know that God really, really loves you?” The gospel says look to death of Jesus Christ on the cross. That is where I get my certainty of God’s love for me; my confidence and assurance of the reality of God’s love. It is rooted in actual event in history: Jesus Christ came as a man and died on the cross. He cried out, “It is finished!” to let me know that all my sin had completely been dealt with. There is no more condemnation for me.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

Or as Graham Kendrick puts it in an old song that I love to sing, especially whenever we celebrate the Lord’s supper:

Amazing Love! Oh what sacrifice!
The Son of God given for me.
My debt he pays and my death he dies
That I might live
That I might live

The gospel roots me into the certainty of the love of God by reminding me of the death of Christ. This is real love - that bring me life. That strengthens my inner being.

So the first point was, real love is love that strengthens the inner being. It is love shown us on the cross. It is love proclaimed through the gospel.

2. Real love stretches us as the people of God

Secondly, real love stretches us. And I get that from verse 18 where Paul talks about “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”, which almost sounds like he is describing Ikea furniture. But in what sense does God’s love stretch us?

Here, the NIV (New International Version) English translation may need some clarification. What they’ve done is combine two separate phrases in verses 18 and 19 into a single idea - the love of Christ. So it sounds like Paul is talking about the breath, width, height and depth of Jesus’ love, the way it looks in your bibles in verse 18.

However, this is put rather differently in the ESV. Notice that “the love of Christ” only occurs in the next verse.

Verse 18: may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,Verse 19: and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

You can understand why the NIV has combined the two - it’s just more readable! It is describing the many dimensions of Christ’s love.

But when you separate out the two, what you find is that verse 18 is a request for God’s love to first stretch us, and only after that in verse 19, for God’s love to then fill us in Christ Jesus. Do you see?

And it’s that first component of God’s love stretching us that is vital to our understanding of what Paul is praying for. That’s what he means he talks about the breadth and width and height and depth. He means, “Your categories of God’s love are too small. Your experience of God’s love may even be rather selfish. You think it’s just about you.”

The clue lies in the way that verse 18 begins: “That you may have power together with all the saints.” Paul is talking about the church. When you are with other Christians, your understanding and experience of God’s love is stretched is all directions. It opens your eyes to what God is doing in other people’s lives. It teaches us what it means to live as a community - to be generous, sacrificial, patient and loving. Often times, being “together with all the saints” is an experience that is challenging and even painful. But that is God’s love stretching us. The church is the context of Paul’s prayer for these Christians.

Now there’s another reason why Paul says this. He says so in verse 14, “For this reason I kneel before the Father.” For what reason? Well, then you notice that Paul says the exact same thing in verse 1 “For this reason...” meaning we have to keep on going backwards to find the answer. We finally see the reason in Chapter 2, verse 11 onwards:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:11-13

What is the reason for Paul’s prayer? God has made the outsiders insiders through Jesus Christ. The Gentiles - or non-Jews - were previously excluded, “without hope and without God”. But now, they have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

What God has done is stretched the church. Previously, God’s promise was made to one people, to one race. Previously, God’s kingdom was only for one nation. Now because of the blood of Christ, all peoples from all nations are brought into the kingdom of God.

If we are going to call ourselves the Chinese Church, we need to pay special attention to this. You come here each week and everyone has black hair. Everyone eats with chopsticks. Everyone is the same. And it is all to easy to equate our oneness in food with our oneness in Christ. It is all to easy to mistake uniformity for unity in the gospel.

Jesus Christ died on the cross so that his church would united through his blood in diversity. All peoples. All nations. All languages. All cultures. We need to be careful when we come here each week and see only one people, all from one nation, speaking one language and practising one culture. Because what we might end up doing is rejection other peoples, looking down on other nations, ignoring other languages and alienating other cultures. We may not do this intentionally, but when we focus on just our needs and our church and our mission - forget God’s mission. His plan is to bring all things, every people group, every nation under the lordship of Christ.

Paul prays that our understanding and experience of God’s love might be stretched, in order that, verse 19 says, we might know the love of Christ. What’s going on?

At the heart of Paul’s prayer for these Christians is not their love for God but God’s love for them. The focus is not us, it’s God. Not our love for God but God’s love for us.

Let me use an illustration with adoption. When a son or daughter is adopted into a new family there is great need for constant assurance and love, especially when that family is different racially and culturally. Especially even, when there are other kids born in this family. The adopted child will take one look at their new parents and go, “They are so strange. How can they love me? How can I be a part of this family?” They will look at their new brothers and sisters and go, “I’m an outsider. I’m not loved like them.”

How would you reassure this son that he really is your son? How do you let your daughter know she is in every way loved as your daughter?

We might try to assure them how lovely they look. We look out for talent that he or she has and make special note to appreciate them for it. We affirm their struggles and but help come to see how much potential they have and their unique and treasured role in the family.

Or, we could remind them of our love for them.

Paul’s prayer is in the second sense. As the church is being stretched and searching for assurances, Paul prays that God will give them strength to understand the dimensions of his love for them, not their love for God. Right from the beginning, Paul reminds his readers, God is their Father. In fact, every family in heaven and on earth is named under the fatherhood of God.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives it name.
Ephesians 3:14-15

Meaning: When you look around you in church, at other Christians and believers gathered in God’s name, you should say, “God is their Father as well. I know that he loves me much more than I could every have hoped. But the fact that these brothers and sisters are also his children reminds me that God’s love is much greater than I could have ever imagined.” This needs to happen again and again. It’s what the church is here for: “Together with all the saints,” Paul says. The church displays the immeasurable glory of God’s grace. It stretches our categories of his love shown through the cross of Jesus Christ.

And it’s in this same context of the church that Paul refers to when he speaks about the fullness of God - “That you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.” The “you” in verse 19 is a plural “you”. It’s not talking about you, individually. It is you and me and all of us gathered here on Sundays, or gathered together for bible study. This is God’s fullness - the display of men and women, all of whom different and diverse, but gathered around the Jesus Christ as their Lord.

Real love stretches us but then also fill us as the people of God. That’s point 2.

Real love supersedes us

Finally, real love supersedes us - meaning, it results not just in our good but in God’s glory.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21

We have seen so far that (1) Real love strengthens us - we are grounded in gospel, in the knowledge of God’s love displayed on the cross; (2) Real love stretches us - it constantly challenges us to see afresh the fullness of God’s love so that we can be filled with it; so that we can be overwhelmed by it.

And here we have our final point: (3) Real love supersedes us - it gives all glory to God. Remember that this was the question I posed at the beginning. How does God’s love lead to glorify God?

Or put it another way: How can God be loving and yet command his people to praise him for his glory? Some people have a real problem with that. In their minds, God is like a vain woman, needing to be praised for her new haircut. Therefore, when they hear someone say that God loves them, they think it’s a kind of manipulative love, because God is really just absorbed with himself.

They might then suggest, “If God really loved us, he wouldn’t command us to worship him, or honour him.” This is a real and genuine problem that many people face today - especially amongst students here in a place like Cambridge University - with the idea of a loving God who’s eternal plan is for all people’s to worship him through Jesus Christ. That’s his plan.

So, the question again: Why must God’s love inevitably lead us to worship Jesus Christ as Lord? Answer: Because it is the only love that saves. Because it is the only love that won’t consume us or destroy us.

You see, love is exactly the problem. You might have expected me to say something like “Hate is the problem. Anger is the real problem in this world. Or even that sin is the problem.” No, our problem is love: self-love that leads to our hatred of God; fickle loves that leads to devaluing God (and those around us, for the matter); idolatrous love that leads to unfaithfulness towards God. In our hearts we yearn to love and we long to be loved. But it’s that same love that destroys us.

Except the love of God. Real love that sustains. True love that transforms.

What we see in Paul’s prayer is God’s sustaining love. He is faithful to his promises given to us in Christ Jesus. And God strengthens us so that we remain faithful and steadfast in his love.

What we see in Paul’s prayer is God’s fullness through his love. His is a love shown to his enemies. His is an undeserving, redeeming love that adopts rebellious sinners into his family. And by his grace, he stretches us - well, perhaps it would be better to say that he transforms us - enabling us to love our enemies. As the church gathers as the body of Christ, it becomes a display of the fullness of God’s presence and power of Christ’s sacrificial love - when all nations and all peoples are gathered in worship of God and in love for one another.

One last thing we must see in Paul’s prayer, especially in these closing words of verses 20 and 21 is God’s love for his son, Jesus. In all this talk of love, it is very easy to get caught up in how much God has done for us; what a big difference God’s love has made in our lives. But the truth is God’s love is first and foremost displayed in his relationship not with us, but with his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the obedient Son who loves his Father completely and obeys his Father fully even unto death on the cross. And God is his true Heavenly Father who says of Jesus, “This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), who raises him from the dead and seated him at his right hand, giving all authority and power to Jesus.

So when Paul ends by talking about God’s glory, this is what he means: It is glory that reflects the love of God, not to us, but towards his one and only Son. And Paul’s prayer ends blessing God that this glory is displayed clearly in the church and in the praise of Jesus Christ, for all generations, for all time.

This is the plan of God: That in all circumstances, all creation will clearly see Jesus as Lord of all through his death on the cross.

And this is the love of God: that sinful men and women are redeemed and transformed through the cross into the likeness of Jesus, so that he might have many brothers. It is love that saves us. It is love that gives all glory to Jesus.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-29

Thursday 23 February 2012

Linsanity: from excellence to acceptance

Talented NBA player. Harvard graduate. Asian American. Christian.

The first two qualities might seem impressive enough to your average sports fan, but it's the latter two that have sustained the media's limelight on Jeremy Lin, and propelled this 23-year-old basketball player into international stardom - an overnight phenomenon widely known as "Linsanity".

As Carl Park notes in a recent article posted on The Gospel Coalition, Linsanity is only partly about basketball.

More significantly, it's about that outside experience being recognized by others and, even further, evolving into inclusion. Can what happened to Lin in the NBA happen to him and other Asian American Christians in the broader American church? Can it encourage Asian American Christians to give more of their gifts and leadership to the community---and Community---at large? It sounds grandiose, insane. But, as we've seen the last two weeks, insanity happens.

Are Asian churches only relevant to Asian communities? Should Chinese Churches focus all their efforts only in reaching the Chinese with the gospel? Jeremy Lin breaks that stereotype through a display of excellence on the court, yes - but also, humility off the court, together with Lin's candid boldness in speaking up about his faith in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps we could learn to do the same.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Pancake Tuesday

Today is Pancake Tuesday, which, believe it or not, has its roots in a Christian tradition called Lent. How cool is that!

Lent describes the forty-day period of time leading up to Easter Sunday, the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Traditionally, Christians would fast and abstain from rich food (like Oreos) for that whole season of Lent.

Now this posed a problem (though it was a good kind of problem). What if you had a big stash of double-chocolate Oreos in the kitchen cupboard? This is where they came up with this awesomely cool tradition of having one special day when you had to finish up all the sugar, butter, milk and eggs in the fridge, before the season of fasting began. Back then, they didn't know how to make Oreos, of course. So instead, they mixed up all the ingredients to make lots and lots of pancakes. Thus was born, Pancake Tuesday (Though Oreos Tuesday would have equally been way awesome)!

In some countries, Pancake Tuesday is called Fat Tuesday. You might know it better as Mardi Gras (which is simply the French translation of Fat Tuesday), a big street party with parades, carnivals and fancy dress in cities like Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. In other words, Fat Tuesday/ Mardi Gras/ Pancake Tuesday or whatever you might call it, is seen as a time to cut loose and to celebrate!

Feasting and fasting

And yet, the whole reason for all this feasting in the first place, is the fasting that followed immediately afterwards: excess on one day, abstinence the next. That is kind of strange, isn't it? Because often times, you find people advocating either one or the other - not both!

This reminds me of an incident when Jesus used both feasting and fasting in an illustration about what he came to do, but also the excuses that people often gave to ignore what he came to do. He says this is Matthew's Gospel:

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
Matthew 11:18-19

John the Baptist came not eating and not drinking. That's abstinence. Jesus came eating and drinking and (from his critics' perspective) that was excessive. Jesus' point was: both were rejected. Both were used as a excuses to ignore what God was saying to them.

Some people always have something to complain about (some of you have a relative like that, or you're married to a husband who is just like that). They are always annoyed with something. They are always complaining about someone. Either it's the teenagers who are being such a nuisance in church. Or the pastor's sermon was too long. Or the music was too loud (or the music wasn't loud enough).

Jesus was talking about people who were constantly looking for reasons to ignore God's message to them, to the extent that they would demonise God's messengers. That's what they said about John the Baptist, "He has a demon." Today, they might have called John a fundamentalist - someone who was too fanatical about his faith; too extreme about what he believed about God.

With Jesus however, the critics took a different approach. They took one look at Jesus as saw a rotten apple; a bad example. "Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard!" "He can't be a Christian. He smokes! He goes to the pub! He watches Nicholas Cage movies!" Worse of all, Jesus hung out with the wrong crowd. He was "a friend of tax collectors and sinners". His Facebook friends weren't all Christians attending his local church. Most of them posted photos that would instantly get them kicked out of church. Many of them had never stepped into a church building in their entire lives.

Hearing wisdom, tasting goodness

Yet notice how Jesus ends. It is a very strange thing, that he says in verse 19: "Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds." Jesus is saying that these actions actually prove that he is right. His actions, or deeds, are "justified".

It is a good thing for Christians to fast, not simply because fasting is good for you (that is, you are trying to lose weight or you are dealing with a bad habit like Facebook), but because the act of fasting carries with it an important message of fasting. My God is not my stomache. Chocolate, though heavenly, isn't heaven. And the excessive worship of chocolate, sex, TV and Facebook will spoil my appetite for the one thing that can satisfy my soul: God himself.

Similarly, it is good thing for Christians to eat pancakes - even, lots of pancakes, with syrup, chocolate sprinkles topped with Ben and Jerry's Phish Food ice-cream - but not simply because these are good gifts from from a generous God and are amazingly delicious, but because this feast of pancakes point to an even greater feast to come. Jesus repeatedly described heaven as a banquet (or if you're Asian, an all-you-can-eat Tim Sum buffet). It is a big celebration with food. And repeatedly in the bible, as his critics rightly noted, Jesus often ate his pancakes with tax collectors and "sinners". They were his friends.

What will you be doing this Pancake Tuesday? You could eat pancakes (duh!) and if so, why not invite your good friends along, and maybe even, a few of your no-so-good friends. Or you could fast. That's actually OK, too.

But what I hope you will not do, is absolutely nothing. For even now, God is using Pancake Day to speak to you - which I'll admit, the word "pancake" is nowhere in the bible - but what Jesus is saying is this: God is speaking the message of his Son in feasting and fasting; in all situations of your life and my life, to get us to listen up. Jesus says, "He who has an ear, let him hear" (verse 15). Our temptation is to ignore it, to find fault with it, to demonise it, to dismiss it. Don't do that. Hear the wisdom of God, taste the goodness of God and see the power of God in Jesus Christ, his Son.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 
1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Monday 20 February 2012

How to pray at the airport

For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 3:8

It is a very Chinese thing that we like to do: Whenever someone sets off on a journey - back to Hong Kong for the New Year celebrations, or off to a new place to start a new job - we pray for safety. "Lord, grant us journey mercies," is what we usually say, huddled together around the pastor at the airport. We pray for good weather. We even pray for the pilot. "God, please bless him with a safe and pleasant journey." "Lord, please bring her back safe and sound."

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is writing to a group Christians - young Christians, in fact - who are facing outward persecution, rejection and trials. And his greatest joy and longing is not for God to make life a little easier for them. In fact, he stops short of saying, "I told you so." Verse 4: "For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, just as you know." Rather, Paul's joy comes from hearing that these Christians have remained firm in their faith even as they continue to face these trials. Their ultimate hope is not present but future as they look forward to the personal and visible return of Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

For Paul, his priority for these believers is not their safety. It is their steadfastness.

Now don't get me wrong. When someone gets news of cancer, we should pray for their healing. When someone has just gone through a bad break-up, we should pray for God's comfort. When someone loses his job, we should pray for God's guidance and provision. Our confidence is in a God who is sovereign. Our petition is before the Lord of the universe.

But the question is: at what point during that big prayer meeting, with the whole church gathered in earnest prayer before Almighty God, do we speak up and say, "Merciful and gracious Father, we do ask you to heal our brother X from his condition. But should this illness result in death, we pray that his true longing not be in this life, but upon his death and resurrection, in beholding Jesus Christ, his Redeemer with his own eyes." Say that aloud at a prayer meeting, and I guarantee you, your name will be brought up with the elder board. I guarantee you that someone will get upset. But isn't that, Paul's central focus here? That these believers stay faithful to God and continue to name Jesus as their Lord, even in the midst of suffering and disappointment?

Years ago as a student, I prayed for some friends visiting Cambridge as they boarded their bus, "Lord, if we do no see one another again on this earth, I pray we might meet again in heaven." They laughed and so did I.

How many people can you honestly pray that prayer for? As you say farewell at the train station, at the airport, or even at the breakfast table - that if this were your last goodbye on earth, you know with absolute certainty you will see one another again, face to face, in glory? For as much as the apostle Paul longs to see his brothers and sisters "face to face" (verse 10) and as he petitions God "night and day" for this reunion to happen in the near future, Paul casts his gaze further afield to another day - to that great Day - when all will see the coming of the Lord Jesus in glory with his holy ones.

Why not say this prayer aloud instead, the next time you're at the airport:

Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

Thursday 16 February 2012

Faith@work: Living to the glory of God

We begin a new Sunday series at the Chinese Church this March entitled "Faith@Work: Living to the glory of God" where we will be exploring what the bible says to us about our purpose, witness, faith and joy in our daily lives at work.

Each week's sermon will be immediately followed by practical workshops led by members of the English Ministry Team on topics including "My first job", "Working in IT & Science" and "Exam preparation skills".

Find out more at and why not join us at the Chinese Church this Sunday!

Sunday, 4 March: Creation@Work

Sunday, 11 March: Joy@Work

Sunday, 25 March: Salvation@Work

How to start your own cult (or turn your church into one)

Last night at Rock Fellowship we looked at the funny yet tragic story of Micah's house of idols in Judges Chapters 17 and 18. I suggested that we could summarise the passage as a "how-to" guide on starting up your own cult. Here are the three steps we saw:

1. Don't start from scratch
There's no need to come up with fresh material. Use the bible. Start with Christianity. Call it a church, even, and baptise your members.

Yes, Micah starts his own religion with his own idols. But he also had an ephod, installed a priest and called upon the name of the LORD (Judges 17:13). In other words, he was building upon the faith of his fathers. His was a new and improved version of Israel's god.

2. Get someone famous
The turning point was the arrival of a Levite from Bethlehem who turns out to be none other than a direct descendant of the great man of God, Moses, himself (Judges 18:30). Even the Danites recognise this personality simply from hearing his voice while standing outside Micah's house (Judges 18:3).

Micah immediately hires the Levite as high priest to preside over his new religion, saying, "Now I know the LORD will prosper me" (Judges 17:13). In other words, this was a celebrity endorsement. With someone this famous on Micah's team, God must be blessing his church.

3. Fill it with disgruntled Christians
Soon, the Danites turn up. No longer is this one man's religion, it becomes a whole tribe's. The Levite gets a promotion to Archbishop of Cantebury. A megachurch is built overnight.

But notice how the Danites came to chance upon Micah's religion in the first place: The were leaving their own. For generations, they had been struggling in "Zorah and Eshtaol" (Judges 18:2). This was land given them by God as an inheritance. However, right from the beginning of the book of  Judges, we learn that Dan never quite managed to take control of that land (Judges 1:34). Rather than stay and fight, the Danites had decided it was easier to pack-up and leave.

What they found in Micah's god was approval. Approval to leave their city (Judges 18:6). Approval to attack another peaceful city (Judges 18:27). Here was a god who endorsed their sinfulness. Whatever they wanted to do - even if it was against God's law; even if it was against their own conscience - this god said, "OK." "Go in peace. The journey on which you go is under the eye of the LORD" (Judges 18:6).

The author summarises this sad situation with one recurring phrase:
"In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes."
Judges 17:6

Monday 13 February 2012

The servant king (1 Samuel 17)

This year Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee, marking sixty years as the constitutional monarch over 16 sovereign states in the Commonwealth of Nations, which includes of course, the United Kingdom. Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary on 21 April 1926, Her Majesty the Queen is the second-longest reigning monarch in Britain, only after Queen Victoria (who reigned for sixty-three years till 1901).

As head of state, the Queen does (theoretically) have executive authority over the government in the United Kingdom, also known as her royal prerogative. However, such powers are limited by Parliament, which means that under the constitution, laws can be enacted to overrule the Queen. In practice, most of the Queen’s responsibilities are ceremonial and representational. She can bestow honours twice a year and appoint the next Prime Minister to office, but that’s about it.

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel focus on the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, and today’s passage in particular, 1 Samuel 17, asks the question, “Who is the true King of Israel?” Before this, there was no king. Such was the purpose of the book of Judges, which records the period of history prior to this, when the twelve tribes of Israel were scattered across the Promised Land, each locked in a constant never-ending struggle with the local inhabitants. Each time the Israelites were oppressed by the Canaanites, or the Philistines or the Amalekites or the Moabites, they would cry out to God in desperation and God would send them a judge – Rambo-like characters like Gideon, Ehud and Samson – these were military leaders who would be empowered by God to bring Israel victory against their oppressors in battle and in conflict. However, the judge would eventually die, Israel would lose heart and fall back into idolatry, and once things got really tough, God would have to send them another judge. Another saviour.

Now Samuel, after which the books 1 and 2 Samuel are named, was the last judge sent by God in this period of history (1 Samuel 7:15-17), the unique thing being that Samuel was both a judge and a prophet of God. But when he came along, the people of Israel said, “Hang on! It’s really good that God has used you to bring us victory against our enemies and everything. But how about giving us something a bit more… well, permanent!”

So in Chapter 8, when Samuel’s now an old man, and everyone can see that his own sons are downright useless and rebellious, the people of Israel go to Samuel with a request and say, “Now appoint us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5).

They wanted a king. They didn’t want to sit around waiting for God to send yet another judge, who knows when. No, they wanted a king now, “like all the nations”. What they were asking for was continuity. Stability. That is, a king would have sons, and his sons would carry on in his place as kings (something similar happens to Gideon in Judges 8:22).

But what did they mean when they said that they wanted a king “like all the nations”? We get an answer in the next chapter. In Chapter 9, Samuel tries to warn them that having a king would, in effect, mean enslavement to that king. The king would place demands upon them, and they would have no right to disobey. Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, this King of Israel would have complete sovereignty over his people with no parliament; no constitution to curb his powers.

Listen to their answer in verse 19 onwards.

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.
1 Samuel 9:19-20

That last line is key to understanding the opening verses of 1 Samuel 17: the king’s job is to go out and fight our battles. Because here we have a battle. Here, we see King Saul, the first king of Israel, leading his people into battle against their enemies. But in reality, what we see is King Saul, hiding from the battle. He doesn’t “go out and fight” their battles.

Someone else does that on Israel’s behalf. And he is Israel’s true King.

Three things I want us to see in today’s passage:
1. Know where the true battle lies (verses 1-11)
2. Know who your real king is (verses 12-30)
3. Know your God who holds the victory (verses 31-58)

1. Know where the true battle lies

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them.
1 Samuel 17:1-3

The first bit is all about the enemy: the Philistines. These guys come up again and again in 1 Samuel. Yah, yah, I know it’s easy to get them mixed up with the other fellas Israel’s always in a skirmish with: what with all the Hivities, Perizzites and the Canaanites. But these guys, the Philistines, they are a real mean bunch. These guys are determined!

Back in Chapter 4, the Philistines were the guys who fought and defeated Israel in battle. But if you remember, it was that memorable incident where they got hold of the ark of God in Chapter 5. What happened next was quite funny, because God caused all kinds of havoc to fall on their city. Their idol statue of their god Dagon got smashed up. The people in the city of Ashdod got struck with all kinds of weird tumours and sickness. In the end, every one of the Philistine priests and kings got together and agreed: the ark of God had to go! So they sent it back to Israel in Chapter 6.

Next, when Samuel becomes judge, his very first fight was against the Philistines and he won a pretty big victory there in Chapter 7. In the process, Samuel was able to recapture several cities, “from Ekron to Gath” (1 Samuel 7:14). Now this is significant, because we later learn that Goliath was born in Gath, which is to say that Goliath probably had a score to settle with Israel.

When Saul became king, his most significant battle recorded at the beginning of his career was (again!) against the Philistines in Chapters 13 and 14. (Though actually, it was his son, Jonathan who was the real hero in leading the men into victory. Saul turned out to be a real jerk, trying to steal the glory from his own son.)

Now all this is to say that these guys don’t know how to give up! The Philistines had been defeated by Israel time and time again, under Samuel as judge, under Saul’s reign as king. But they kept coming back. Each time, they got tougher. Each time, they got more personal.

And this time, they were determined to show Israel who da man!

The chapter opens with the Philistine army encroaching on Israelite territory, “Socoh, which belongs to Judah.” They camped out in Israel’s backyard! That’s bad-ass!

In just the first two verses, we see a stark contrast between the opposing forces. The Philistines “gathered… for battle”. Saul and the Israelites, however, “were gathered”. One verb is in the active, the other, in the passive – meaning this: the Philistines knew what they were doing. Israel didn’t. The Philistines were ready for a fight. Saul and Israel had no choice but to defend themselves.

Saul wasn’t leading Israel into a battle. Both Saul and Israel were being led into confrontation by the enemy. We find out later that Israel basically just stayed there, for forty days, frozen – waiting for the enemy to make the first move.

Saul and all of Israel were afraid. What made it worse was this: they were afraid of one man. His name was Goliath.

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armour on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him.
1 Samuel 17:4-7

This guy was big! Three metres high and covered head to toe in bronze armour. He looked more like a Decepticon than a human being. His coat of mail alone was 5000 shekels. That’s 55 kilograms in weight – 11 huge bags of Japanese rice from Cho Mei – try wearing that on your chest all day! Goliath carried two pieces of weaponry – an iron spear that weighed 7 kilograms, and a large shield. The reason we know the shield was large was because he needed another person – a shield-bearer – just to carry it around!

Now term the ESV uses to describe Goliath of Gath is the word “champion” there in verse 4. But the word is literally “the man in between”. Now that’s significant. If you look back to verse 3, you see that Israel and the Philistines are camped out across one another, on two mountain ranges, with a valley “between them”. It was a gap separating the two forces. Goliath was the man who now stood in this gap, the champion who now stood “in between” the two camps.

Yet as menacing as it was to behold this bulked-up Yao Ming mutant on steroids, we soon find it out that it wasn’t so much what they saw, as it was what the Israelites heard from Goliath, that truly terrified them.

He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.
1 Samuel 17:8-10

Goliath’s challenge was this: Show me a man that I might fight him! Why bother with the large numbers? Just one man will do. We’ll settle it right here, right now. Just one-on-one. Winner takes all!
Well, actually Goliath said a bit more than that, if you look closely, especially at verse 8.

“Am I not (the, and not simply ‘a’ as found in most translations) Philistine, and are you not servants (or slaves) of Saul?” What is he saying? Goliath is claiming to be the true representative of his nation, the Philistines. His strength, his height, his courage says it all. He is the Philistine of Philistines! In contrast, the Israelites are nothing but slaves to the king. Already, Goliath is implying, there is no equal to be found amongst Israel’s ranks.

Furthermore, look at the wager he proposes in verse 9. “If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants (or slaves). But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants (or slaves) and serve us.” What is he saying? Either you win (but remain slaves to your king). Or you lose and become slaves to the Philistines. Either way, you are nothing but slaves!

Now think about it for a moment: Who was Goliath challenging to face him? Was he simply saying to them, “Let one of you come and face me, if he dares”? It wasn’t just anyone, was it? Who was supposed to fight Israel’s battles on their behalf? It was the job of the king. That’s what Israel asked for when they said to Samuel, “Give us a king like the nations.” Goliath wasn’t issuing an open invitation to any and every Israelite soldier. If anything he was mocking them as slaves, unworthy even of his attention. No, Goliath had just one man in mind. “Send in the king. Let me fight your king!”

Do you now see the significance of the response recorded in verse 11? When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. Israel was afraid. Saul also was afraid. He didn’t want to face that giant of a Goliath. How could he? Just look at him!

Now, before we do move on, I want you to notice something about the battle so far. Answer me this: Where is the true battle? Here we have a grand total of fifty-eight verses in what is possibly the most famous battle in all the bible – David and Goliath – and the action sequence only begins much later in verse 48; and lasts for only six verses. That’s it. Less than one-tenth of the passage is given to any fighting at all.
And yet I put it to you that the battle began from the very first verse. The Philistines had effectively invaded Israel right from the beginning. Yet for forty whole days, Israel did nothing but sit and wait for something to happen. Why? Because one man stood in between. Because Goliath, for forty days, stood between the two camps, and issued a challenge to the king. He didn’t have to use his spear. He didn’t have to raise his shield. All he did was open his mouth and fear descended upon the entire Israelite army.

Where is the true battle?

Israel stood frozen because they thought the battle had not yet begun. Not until swords were drawn. Not until trumpet was sounded. What Israel did not realise was that they were already being defeated.
Where is the true battle? It was in their hearts. Israel had lost all hope of winning the battle because they had lost all faith in their king. Saul had let them down. They were slaves to a useless, cowardly king. And soon they would be slaves to a fearsome enemy nation.

Let me ask you: Where are your battles fought? Most of you are probably going, “Me? Battles? This is the twenty-first century!”

There was a time when Christians would sing songs like “Onward Christian soldiers”, “Stand up! Stand up for Jesus!” or “Glory, glory! Hallelujah!” We don’t hear such songs anymore. They seem to have become out of style. The only one that comes close is the fairly recent one by the Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “O Church Arise” but aside from that, there doesn’t seem to be anything else that’s sung in our churches today. Yet, this is the reality in scripture, in both new and old testaments: The Christian life is a battle – a constant struggle – against sin, against death and against the devil.

Could it be, that the reason why you don’t see this, is because either your don’t know your bibles? Or worse, like Saul and the Israelite army in the Valley of Elah, you guys have already lost. Maybe that’s why you keep putting off getting baptised, or actually committing to a church, or reading your bible. Because you think: “The battle’s back in Singapore after I graduate. The battle only starts on the first day of work. The battle only starts after I get my degree.” Is that what you tell yourselves?

You don’t realise that the battle is right here. Right now. You don’t see that what you’ve done – either by your blindness or laziness – is this: You have made yourselves easy-pickings for the enemy.

2. Know who your real king is

Now thankfully, the passage doesn’t end there. Otherwise this would make for a truly depressing sermon application! Because next, we meet the hero of the story. We meet a young man named David.

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. And the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father's sheep at Bethlehem. For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.
1 Samuel 17:12-16

Two important things are introduced here about David. Firstly, he was young. He had eight brothers, the three oldest brothers were in the army, they were there in the Valley of Elah with Saul, but David stayed at home because he was the youngest of all the brothers. So, the first piece of information we get about David is that he was young, probably too young for the army, and definitely the youngest amongst all his brothers.
But the second thing we learn is that he was responsible for his father’s sheep. Why that’s important, we’ll see very soon.

And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.”
1 Samuel 17:17-18

One day, Dad sends David on an errand to find out how his three eldest sons were doing. It had been forty days since they went out to war with Saul. So Jesse tells his youngest son to pack some supplies (and to be sure to bring some goodies to curry favour with the Commanding Officer) in order to bring back some news. Verse 19 is probably still part of Jesse’s speech to young David, “Now Saul and they and all the men of Israel were in the Valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines,” meaning, Jesse thinks that they were caught in a prolonged stand-off with the Philistine forces. He didn’t know that the whole bunch had been spending over the past month twiddling their thumbs and checking their Facebook statuses. However, David would soon see the real situation with his own eyes.

And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him. And he came to the encampment as the host was going out to the battle line, shouting the war cry. And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage and ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.
1 Samuel 17:19-23

Just take note of verse 23 for now. The armies looked as if they were about to engage in battle. David was right there with his brothers (amidst the ranks, verse 22 tells us). But then, just as the action was about to begin, Goliath steps up to the plate – the same way he had done for the past forty days, issuing the exact same challenge he’s given the past forty days. And verse 23 says, “David heard him.” Notice Israel’s response.

All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father's house free in Israel.”
1 Samuel 17:24-25

The soldiers retreated “when they saw the man” (verse 24). Goliath was all it took to turn back the entire army. Just one man. And yet, they said to one another, “Have you seen this man?” This guy is huge! He is awesome! And they start gossiping about how the king would reward the foolish, I mean, brave soldier who manages to kill Goliath: freedom from taxes and marriage to the princess!
At this point, David’s had enough, so he butts in the conversation.

And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” And the people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”
1 Samuel 17:24-27

Notice that David asks two questions. The Israelite men answer the first but ignore the second. “What shall be done for the man who kills Goliath?” Verse 27: “The people answered him the same way.” They do not answer the second question, “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

You see the first question asks: What can we do? What’s in it for us?

The second question asks: What will God do?

For the first time in the whole story, God is mentioned. For the first time in forty days, God is brought into the picture. Up till this point, Goliath is seen as a threat to Israel. Goliath is defying Israel (verse 25). But David sees in a split-second what everyone around him seems to be have absolutely clueless about for the last forty days: Goliath is challenging not Israel, but the true and living God (verse 26)!

And that gets David into heaps of trouble with his oldest brother, Eliab.

Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way, and the people answered him again as before.
1 Samuel 17:28-30

It is pretty ironic how Eliab accuses his youngest brother of presumption, claiming, “I know… the evil of your heart.” Because if you look back a chapter, to 1 Samuel 16:8, there God tells Samuel that he can see into David’s heart. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (Compare also what God says of David in 1 Samuel 13:13, “a man after his own heart”). Eliab is claiming to be able to do what only God can: to see into our innermost motivations. More likely, this oldest brother is just ticked off that the youngest child in his family is revealing the soldiers for who they really are, cowards.

In response to this, it almost appears like David is acting like a kid. “What have I done? Was it not but a word.” But to think that, would be to miss the deep significance of what David is actually doing here. Because, what was David doing? In Eliab’s eyes, David was speaking out of turn. In Eliab’s eyes, David was boasting of something he had no knowledge of as a kid.

But in David’s own words, what was he doing? He was speaking “a word”. And in verse 30, he continues to speak that same “word” to the others around him. What was David doing? He was speaking into their hearts. He was speaking of God.

He was, in a sense, evangelising!

In fact, what we see next is David evangelising – speaking the good news – to King Saul!

When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. And David said to Saul, “Let no man's heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”
1 Samuel 17:31-37

There are three parts to this message of good news that David preached to Saul that day.

1. Do not let your heart fail
David is dealing directly with the problem in the Israelite ranks: fear. Their hearts have failed them. Why? Because of Goliath’s taunts. “Let no man’s heart fail because of him.” Not a single sword has been drawn and yet every man in Israel’s army has already been defeated. David speaks into the true battlefield, into their hearts, encouraging the soldiers to see the battle from God’s perspective. And now he tells the king to do the same. Goliath is just a man. You serve the living God!

2. Your servant will go and fight
David says he will take up the challenge. He will face the mighty Goliath. But notice how David addresses himself before the king: Your servant. Three times, David stands before Saul, unashamedly identifying himself as his servant or slave.

Remember Goliath’s taunts, “You are all slaves of Saul!” David sees no dishonour or shame in that; in the same way that David would not allow his youth or lowly profession to be looked down upon. David is Saul’s servant. And this servant is more than able to meet the challenge.

As an aside, notice that David sees tremendous value in his experience serving as a shepherd over his father’s sheep. It is worth remembering that the great Moses, the man of God, was also at one time, a shepherd. Eventually, the word “shepherd” came to be a way of addressing the leaders, the priests and even the kings of Israel (See Ezekiel 34). In the New Testament, the leaders and elders of the church are called to be under-shepherds of Jesus Christ, who is the chief shepherd overseeing his flock, the church (1 Peter 5:1-4). Of course, the term we are more familiar with is “pastor”, which is simply the Latin word for “shepherd”.
And yet, in a tragic way, “pastoral” ministry has now been more narrowly defined in terms of providing marriage counselling and visiting the elderly and sick. We talk of someone having a “pastor’s heart” as a way of describing someone who has a gentle demeanour, drinks lots of tea and goes, “uh-uh, uh-uh, I see what you mean. You poor thing. Let’s pray.

For David, being a shepherd had nothing to do with cuddling his sheep and whispering soft nothings into their ears. Pastoring sheep meant defending the sheep. Pastoring sheep meant leading his sheep, not individually, not one by one, but as a flock. When a lion or bear snatched a lamb from the flock, David “went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth” (verse 35). For David, to be a pastor meant having guts and courage.

And in the Old Testament, the pastor is the leader, the priest, the king. It doesn’t mean that counselling isn’t important for church life. But counselling is not pastoring. That is not the biblical definition of the pastor/shepherd. The pastor’s job is to lead and the pastor role is to protect the flock.
And here, this pastor says, “I will fight the enemy.”

3. God will deliver me
The ultimate victory lay not in Goliath’s taunts. But neither did it reside in David’s confidence. The victory belonged to God and to God alone. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Now, David is talking about more than God’s power to defeat the enemy. He is telling Saul the good news of God’s power to rescue David from harm. “The Lord … will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” What David has done here is preach the gospel. “Do not fear. I will be your substitute and fight on your behalf. And God will be faithful to save.” That’s the gospel according to David.

But Saul doesn’t get it. He still cannot bring himself to trust in God’s salvation alone; to trust in this gospel alone.

Then Saul clothed David with his armour. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armour. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd's pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.
1 Samuel 17:38-40

Saul’s weapons were Goliath’s weapons: bronze armour, coat of mail and sword. They were not David’s. Now in case we miss the blatantly obvious, this was Saul’s armour – this was the armour of the king! Saul was dressing this young shepherd up with his shield, his helmet and equipping him with his own sword – the symbolism being, that Saul was handing the keys of the kingdom to another person!

But David rejected them. “I cannot go with these.” David was not a warrior like Goliath, clad in bronze and armed with sword. And David was not king like Saul, either.

David was a different sort of warrior, one whose true strength lay in his trust in God. And David was a different sort of king, the servant king who fought, risking his life, to save the flock.

3. Know your God who holds the victory

And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”
1 Samuel 17:41-44

David enters the battlefield ready to challenge the mighty Goliath, the man in the middle. Both camps are in full view of the fight. But Goliath looks ahead, and initially has to advance forward to get a clearer view of his opponent, probably because of his minute size. When he does see David for who he is – just a kid – the Philistine champion is less than impressed! He is insulted that the Israelite armies would send this boy to fight a man’s war. Not unlikely, he is angered that Saul hasn’t come out to meet him.

Still, Goliath would make a lesson out of this boy. He calls upon his gods, Dagon (1 Samuel 5:2) and Ashtaroth (1 Samuel 31:10) and curses David to his face. “Come to me,” Goliath says, “and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.” There would be no mercy, even for this child.
But notice what Goliath is doing. He is tearing down his opponent with his words. The curses, the put-downs, the threats are all designed to strike the first blow into his opponent’s heart. Furthermore, he is saying all this not simply for David’s benefit – Goliath is so confident he can take this kid down in no time – no, it’s for the Israelite armies. He wants to terrify them with a display his might. He seeks to destroy any spirit they have left in this foolish kid. He wants Israel to know the Dagon and Ashtaroth, the gods of the Philistines, will utterly destroy all who oppose them.

But David, in turn, engages Goliath with the gospel, which says, the LORD is the only true and living God. And this God is the Deliverer of Israel!

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hand.”
1 Samuel 17:45-47

Each and every verse speaks not of David’s ability but establishes God’s identity. That is: David is telling us who God is.

David identifies God as the “LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (The word “hosts” simply means “armies”, hence what we have here is a repetition of the fact that this God is a God of war). Later on, David says, “The battle is the Lord’s.” God is in conflict and war against his enemies. He leads his people into war against his enemies.

But secondly, this is the God who saves “not with sword or spear” (verse 37). God will defeat his enemies but he will not do so using the weapons of his enemies. Hence, David’s opening statement to Goliath, “You come to me with sword and spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts.”

The point is that David would not use the tools of war to defeat this man of war. And that’s important because of the following verses describing how David does strike down the Philistine champion, with nothing more than a stone and a sling. Many a sermon has been preached on the five stones David chose from the brook to take down Goliath, investing deep significance in each of these stones (symbolising the five wounds of Christ!) or even the type of stone used (smooth stones from the brook fly straighter!) but the point has already been made by David himself: he came against Goliath “not with sword or spear”. So much so, that the narrator repeats this fact in verse 50, “There was no sword in the hand of David.”

When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David.
1 Samuel 17:48-50

The defeat of the great Goliath signalled the defeat of the Philistines. Verse 51: “They fled.” The Israelite army pursued them, pushing the enemy beyond the borders of their land, reclaiming the lost cities and only returned to plunder the abandoned Philistine camps.

However, the camera is till focussed on David. This was a significant moment for the young shepherd. And though he had already defeated Goliath in verse 50, with no sword in his hand, curiously enough, he does pick up a sword in the very next verse.

Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. And the people of Israel came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armour in his tent.
1 Samuel 17:51-54

Verses 51 and 54 are obviously connected in that David cuts off Goliath’s head and then deposits his armour “in his tent”. David had earlier rejected Saul’s armour. He didn’t want it. But now he takes Goliath’s because that armour does belong to him; because that victory does belong to him. The victory won by the entire Israelite army that day, in defeating Goliath and in defeating the Philistines, came not by the hand of Saul. It came through David.

But the author obviously wants us to take notice of what David does instead with Goliath’s head, his prize, as it were. And verse 54 says that David “brought it to Jerusalem.” Now this seems to come out of nowhere. At this point in time, Jerusalem was not yet under the control of Israel. But much later on in 2 Samuel 5, we learn that David establishes his ascent to the throne by overthrowing this city, by making it his home, such that Jerusalem would eventually be called, the City of David. And what we have here is a preview of what is to come. When David eventually did become King of Israel, he brought into it Goliath’s head as a way of saying that this was where it all began. Here as a shepherd boy, in the battlefield, facing an insurmountable opponent. Here in the Valley of Elah, God established David as the true King of Israel.

The servant King
A thousands years later, at the entrance to that same city of Jerusalem – the city of David – the crowds could be heard chanting a familiar refrain we just encountered in today’s passage.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Matthew 21:9

The cries of praise were being offered in honour someone they were even calling, “The Son of David!” The event is sometimes referred to by Christians as Palm Sunday. And the person the crowds were so excited about was a man named Jesus, a carpenter from the northern town of Nazareth.

It was the week before Passover when every pious Jew would be gathered to offer sacrifices to God as commanded by Moses in the Law. And here was Jesus making his entrance into the great city of the King. Some were even speculating that this could be the Christ, the one whom God promised would one day ascend to the throne of David. They spread palm branches on the road. The men threw their cloaks on the ground. The whole city was stirred up. This really could be it. Jesus really could be the one!

What were they expecting Jesus to do? Well, what did David do when he boldly proclaimed before Goliath, “I come to you in the name of the Lord!” He defeated the enemy. He became the king. Israel won the victory!

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey. Matthew tells us that this was to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, “Behold your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.” Jesus is the King, but he is a humble King. A gentle King. I wonder if you might even say, a servant King.

What if we were to ask the crowds gathered that day, the three questions we encountered in today’s passage.

1. Where is the battle?
2. Who is your king?
3. Who is your God?

In answer to the first question, they might have said, “The battle is right here, in Jerusalem. Against the Roman occupiers. Against Herod. Against the tax collectors. Yeaah, Jesus is coming to kick their butts!”

In answer to the second question, they might have said, “Jesus, I guess. After all, everyone seems to be calling him the Son of David.” And yet, it would be merely days later, when the same crowds are addressed by Pilate, the Roman governor, with the question, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15)

But what of the third question: Who is your God? Well, ironically, it is the crowds who ask this question of Jesus as they see him hanging on the cross. “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

Where is the true battle? It happened on the cross. The cross is the symbol of God’s judgement upon our sin – your sin, my sin. The shame, the pain, the separation, the desperation – all that was taken on by Jesus Christ on our behalf, when he stood in our place on that cross; he stepped into that battlefield, to free us from our sins, from the punishment for our sins and from slavery to the one who accuses us of our sins, the devil.

Who is your true king? It is the one powerful enough to help us in our weakness; and yet humble enough to enter into our weakness. Though rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that in his poverty we might be rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Though sinless, he became sin for our sake, so that in Jesus Christ we might be the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Who is your God? He is the one who raised Christ on the third day, delivering him from death and decay, and vindicating the work of his Son on the cross to justify sinful men and women as fully forgiven and fully accepted sons and daughters of God through his blood. And one day, God will judge all evil and rebellion against him through this same Jesus, to whom God has given all authority in heaven and on earth.

That at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, that he is Lord. To the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:11

Until then, we who trust in Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, our true King and our true God, witness to this one truth: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved!” (Acts 4:12)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord: the Lord Jesus Christ.

You laid aside Your majesty,
gave up everything for me.
Suffered at the hands of those You had created.
You took away my guilt and shame,
When You died and rose again.
Now today You reign,
And heaven and earth exalt You.

I really want to worship You my Lord,
You have won my heart and I am Yours.
Forever and ever, I will love You.
You are the only one who died for me,
Gave Your life to set me free.
So I lift my voice to You in adoration.