Wisdom in the Most Shared Bible Verse

Proverbs 3:5-6 is quite the famous passage. So in 2015 YouVersion checked their statistics to see what the favorite verses of each countries were – meaning how many times the Christians in that country opened up a particular verse. You wanna guess – which of the following countries had Proverbs 3:5-6 as its top hit? China, Nigeria, Mexico or Australia?

It's Australia!

(Source: YouVersion, 2015)

In fact, globally speaking, Proverbs 3:5-6 was the most shared verse in 2015, and presumably still in the top 5 in 2016 and so on. It’s the bible verse you’d write to a friend who’s thinking about life choices, career and relationship. It’s the bible verse you’d write to the youth in your church going with a heart of uncertainty into the army, right? So what about the verse is so captivating and so universally applicable?

Well it’s a verse that talks about finding God’s leading and guidance in our life isn’t it? Finding God’s direction and knowing the way forward – these are all the big questions in life and people want answers right?

But think for a moment about how people, or especially Christians, think about such issues? How do Christians understand what it means to be guided by God in chosing the paths of life?

I think there are generally two groups of people. The first group’s like the Hobbits and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings as they cross the bridge of Khazad Dum. Do you remember? They’re on a tiny little stone bridge it’s only a path straight ahead and there’s a huge monster, the Balrog, chasing them from behind. It’s all fear! For this first group of people, there’s only one right path in life that God has set aisde for us, God has a will for us and once we make a mistake and fall off the edge then we’ve messed up completely. I wonder if some of us here think like this!

The second group of people, let’s just call them the Second Prodigal son or what is familiar to us as the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He was always doing the right things so to speak, he was geographically in the right place. He made sure he never messed up his whole life like his younger brother did, in fact when he gets angry with his father at the end, you can tell it’s because he’s spent his whole life trying to be perfect and his father rewards the joker who let everyone down. The Second Prodigal has not broken any rules or been a disgrace. But he’s detached and disengaged, he’s never had a real, loving relationship with his father! I wonder if some of us are also like him, spending our whole lives avoiding certain obvious sinful lifestyles and trying to look like we’ve got life figured out.

Do you think these two groups of people understand what it means to be led by God and to walk in His path? Let’s see what Solomon says in our little verse today.  He begins with something so challenging: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart.” First, Solomon says that being guided by God is all about assurance – having full confidence in God and not the fear of falling off the side like the Hobbits on the bridge. Secondly, it’s all about intimacy and devotion isn’t it? It’s giving our hearts to the Lord, not being detached like Second Prodigal or keeping our distance by keeping some rules.

In fact, this was what we said about the fear of the Lord if you remember? The fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is all in the context of a father son relationship, it’s a relationship in which we know Jesus the wise son of our Heavenly Father.

And actually to know Jesus well and to be guided by God is such a liberating experience, unlike what we typically think about God being a wet blanket or the one who restricts our fun and carefree lives. Because Solomon says in the next part, “In all thy ways acknowledge him.” Do you notice Solomon doesn’t say “in the one and only correct way that God has dictated”? Solomon tells us that we have all the freedom to do what we want, journey where we desire – indeed, Jesus gives us immense freedom and prerogative as we walk with Him.

And the Lord gives us an awesome invitation as we make all these decisions in our lives to acknowledge Him or to basically know Him. Each awesome path of joy, each gloomy trail of sadness, each decision made to sacrifice and serve Him, each effort to live out the gospel at work, the difficult choice of honoring Jesus whether in singlehood or in marriage… Each experience is a chance to know Jesus more. It’s not about making the correct decision that God has dictated.

We make choices not to avoid failure or to look like we’re quite good Christians. We make choices to know Jesus more.

This makes so much sense because the more we trust Him, then the more we can accept what Solomon says in the last segment. “He will direct or make straight your paths.” It’s a promise from God Himself – there will be failures and successes, we will get what we want (doors may open) but we will also not get what we want (doors may close). But no matter what, as we fix our eyes on Jesus and know Him better, every single path is journey upward to eternity, all of our past failures He will redeem, all of our past success He will perfect.”

The Runaway Prophet & The Storm Calmer

Just a couple weeks back, I was talking to my fiancé, Charis about the book of Jonah. And I was wondering out loud – you know, “if we have the privilege of having children one day, should we name our son Jonah?” But she protested very quickly, “no, no, no we definitely cannot name him that – he confirm will get bullied in Sunday school one. Can you imagine every time they get to the story of Jonah and the fish? The whole class will look at him, point their fingers at him, they will laugh at him and say “you see, you never obey God’s instructions, you never listen to him, he’s going to send a fish to eat you!”

You know, this sounds so trivial and childish but it happens so often when we read a Bible story like Jonah. At the end of the story, we’re tempted to come away thinking “hey the moral of the story here is that if you’re disobedient and naughty, God’s going to punish you to teach you a lesson.” Well okay, that’s not wrong but it’s a half-truth. The Lord does have important lessons for Jonah I believe, and He does discipline the ones He loves – but is that all to the book of Jonah? Well, that’s our goal this month – to find out together what the Holy Spirit is communicating to us through the book of Jonah – about who the Living God is and His heartbeat for all nations.

A book like Jonah is what we would call prophetic narrative. It’s a story! As with every story, we will definitely identify with some of the characters and themes. So friends, I want to encourage you – expect to see yourself in this story and expect to see others in this story too.

Yet, while we do that, we must not miss God’s biggest reason for preserving this incredible story. And what’s that? I believe Jesus gives us a clue in the Gospel of Matthew. In chapter 12, Jesus tells us that if people wanted to understand His mission, His death and resurrection, they would first need to understand the story or the sign of Jonah. What’s this sign of Jonah? Well, as we journey through Jonah chapter by chapter each week, let’s ask ourselves, “hang on, what is it about this chapter’s details or its themes that signpost and give a picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection?”

Introducing Jonah

Having said that, let’s talk about our prophet Jonah by beginning with his name as verse 1 tells us – the word of the Lord came to Jonah the Son of Ammitai. In fact, since names have such great significance for a person – I thought we should take the opportunity to do this. Would you turn to someone beside you for the next 30 seconds, just very quickly introduce your name if you don’t know one another but more importantly tell them the meaning of your name or why your parents gave you your name.

Hopefully, you managed to learn something interesting about each others’ names… Allow me to share the meaning of my name.

My Chinese name is ‘Zhen Guang’. The literal English translation of the two Chinese characters mean ‘city’ and ‘light’. I just found out this week that my parents got my name from a Chinese temple exeprt. This was obviously before they became Christian. So, as is normal practice, they provided my eight characters based on my baby birth data and the temple expert analysed it to give me an auspicious name. And for whatever reason, my mother wanted my name to have an element of brightness or fame. So, very interestingly, this whole Chinese temple process led to this name ‘Zhen Guang’ or ‘city of light’. You could even stretch it and say it means ‘city on a hill, a light to the nations’. Come to think about it, for an auspicious name given by a non-Christian religious person this name is Christian until cannot Christian anymore. I guess God had other plans with my name and my life!

Friends, my point here is that names have significant meanings, and in any culture, parents typically intend for names to reflect deep truths or even some prophetic hope – you know, for the child to achieve some kind of greatness in life, or even fulfill some of the parents’ unfulfilled dreams…

And so, of course Jonah the Son of Ammitai in verse 1 of our passage is full of meaning – The name Jonah literally means dove, whereas “son of Ammitai” can be translated as son of truth. Do you remember what the dove signifies in other parts of Scripture? In Noah’s ark? The dove returned with an olive branch – God’s personal sign of peace to let Noah know that judgment had passed. And of course, the dove in the Gospels is God’s Spirit anointing the Son of God, commissioning Him to preach the Gospel to all.

All these taken together give us a great picture at the beginning of our story! Jonah the son of Ammitai is the anointed or chosen son of truth, the prophet from God sent to offer God’s olive branch of peace, with a message of repentance and warning of judgment!

But before we go on to consider his message, we should look at the circumstances surrounding Jonah’s mission – who was he sent to and why was it this particular city – the people of Nineveh?

Historical Context: Background of Nineveh

There’s so much to say about ancient Nineveh. Look at verse 2 of our passage, the Lord calls it “that great city” – probably because it was geographically huge, chapter 3 tells us it took 3 days to travel end to end! But a “great city” also probably because it was the glorious capital of the superpower nation, ancient Assyria.

Assyria has historically been described as a totalitarian regime – just think an ancient version of Hitler’s rule and the Khmer Rouge. In Jonah’s time, Nineveh would have been famous for their atrocities and war crimes. In fact, later in the Bible, the prophet Nahum calls Nineveh the bloody city full of lies and plunder, it’s a war machine that leaves piles of dead bodies everywhere it invades (Nahum 3).

Therefore, verse 2 of our passage today should not surprise us. The Lord sends Jonah on the mission because the evil of the Assyrians has risen up to God! It’s such a visual and specific description that should remind us of what the Lord said earlier when He condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

Evil that rises up to God – that’s the description for the Assyrians in Nineveh. And so it doesn’t take much to understand why they were Israel’s sworn enemies. And if they were so atrocious and evil, it must have been somewhat terrifying to walk into a land of 120,000 bloodthirsty, war-crazed warriors. Imagine the whole of Toa Payoh, all 124,000 residents, but replace all of them with murderous ISIS and Taliban fighters – not so exciting to step into Toa Payoh Central and take over the PA system and tell these murderers warn them of judgment, right?

Well, actually we’ll find out the main reason why Jonah doesn’t want to preach God’s salvation to Nineveh in chapter 4 but in any case, we see in verse 3 that Jonah simply denies God’s command and flees to Tarshish, which is the complete opposite direction of Nineveh! Yet, unlike Jonah,
God’s instinctive response to Nineveh’s evil is not judgment or abandonment but an offer of mercy – come and make peace with me.

So, right at the start of our book, we see the mission to preach a message of salvation and mercy to the very enemies of God. Importantly, we also see God sweeping up His reluctant servant into this world-changing mission – that’s what the Christian God is all about.

Historical Context: Background of Israel

But here’s a question: aren’t the prophets usually sent by God to preach repentance to God’s people? Why then is Jonah sent elsewhere – is Israel doing okay spiritually?

Actually, not at all, Jonah was a prophet in the last generations before Israel was exiled and Israel was in a terrible state. They worshipped an unholy trinity, instead of Father, Son and Spirit, they bowed their knees to Ashtoreth, Chemosh and Milcom – truly terrible gods that demanded human offerings and even child sacrifice by burning. 1 Kings 12 further tells us the king during that time even brought back the golden calf of the Exodus!

So, if Israel was in such a big mess, why then was Jonah sent to Nineveh? Could it be that the Lord wanted Israel to see that they were just as sinful as their hated enemies? Did He want Israel to know that His salvation would be for other nations if Israel rejected His mercy?

Well, let’s allow the Word of God to do the story telling and address these thoughts. Let’s continue where we left off in chapter 1.

v. 3-6: The Storm

As we’ve seen, the Lord has sent Jonah to Nineveh. When we read an Old Testament account of a prophet – we should expect God’s message to be delivered. The prophet is God’s man for the job. But Jonah’s decided to turn in the opposite direction. In fact, Jonah’s not only fleeing to another location but he’s also fleeing from something, someone – do you see the repeated phrase? He’s fleeing from the very presence of the Lord! But why would a prophet do such a silly thing? And later on in today’s chapter, we see that Jonah understands that God is maker of all the earth – you can’t just flee from His presence just like that. What could Jonah be trying to do?

You know when I was serving my national service, every time we physically stepped out of the military camp, every time we changed out of our army uniform into civilian clothes, there was a literal change in identity. Sure, we were still technically enlisted to serve the nation – hadn’t ORD-ed yet, but when we stepped out and when we changed uniforms, we always felt a weight lift off our shoulders – almost as if we were free of all our responsibilities and duties. That’s why so many NS boys fake their MCs to skip camp and stay at home! The most common reason I’ve encountered for NS soldiers going into detention barracks is AWOL – them going absent from camp without official leave! Why? Getting out of military rule was getting out of military duty.

Now, think about it in our story here – isn’t that what Jonah is trying to do? Get out of God’s presence, leave His rule and jurisdiction, and therefore quit abandon his duty as prophet. And isn’t that how so many of us relate to God too – we selectively remove ourselves from God’s rule to get rid of our Christian duty. There’s always this sneaky, dark idea in our hearts, it’s been there since Satan put it into the hearts of our first parents Adam and Eve. It’s the assumption that the Lord somehow wants to deny us happiness when He calls us to something. That He hasn’t got our best interests at heart.

But do we really know better? Jonah’s actions here suggest that we don’t. God’s Word here is telling us that like Jonah, we aren’t simply rejecting the mission of God. No, much more than leaving our Christian duty, we are refusing the very companionship and fellowship of God. This is what it means not to trust the Lord – not to take Him at His word! Refusing our duty is really rejecting our very identity as God’s people!

But hey, Jonah’s got a game plan – and he’s going to just pretend he’s out of God’s presence. And notice in verse 3, his plan seems to be going well. Just as he makes up his mind to go to Tarshish, ah, ust nice – a ship heading for Tarshish! You know it’s strange how when you want to do God’s will, most of the time, you probably don’t know how things will turn out; but if you want to walk away from God, it’s almost as if the devil will settle everything nicely for you, all the logistics and transport, whatever’s necessary to run away. You see, friends, if we refuse to be guided by the word of the Lord, then our circumstances will determine how we live our lives.

From then on, this is where Jonah’s story goes downhill, quite literally. Follow me from verse 3 down to verse 5. Jonah goes down to Joppa, he paid for the ship fare and went down into the ship. In verse 5, when the storm hits, Jonah has already gone down into the inner part of the ship. It’s literal journey down south that reflects his spiritual fall. By the end of the chapter, Jonah goes down into the ocean and down into the belly of the fish!

As Jonah continues his free fall, we see new characters introduced in verses 4 and 5. We’ve got here the ship crew who are terrified from the huge storm that God has sent. And we know it’s a huge storm because it threatens to break up the ship. And obviously it’s the perfect storm because do you see the sailors’ instinctive response – they begin crying out to their different gods! At this point, it’s quite funny how Jonah ends up exactly where he didn’t want to be in – stuck with some dirty pagan sailors who worship their foreign gods…

But will these gods answer them? Well, in somewhat comic fashion, as they cry out to their god, the sailors are also tossing their cargo down into the ocean hoping that will help them keep afloat. You know, just in case, because their gods don’t seem to be answering. But toss all they can into the storm of God’s judgment, try as they might to lose every condemning weight of sin, but every pagan god and every human effort cannot quiet the storm of God’s anger…

Notice then how Jonah, on the other hand has gone down to sleep in the inner part of the ship? This amusing little detail reminds me that whenever we choose flee from the presence of the Lord, it doesn’t always mean that we feel the struggle or we feel torn about it. No, friends, in fact we often find ourselves napping happily and peacefully in the arms of sin; we often find ourselves calmly asleep to the storm of God’s judgment.  Each rebellious decision to consciously drift away from God seems to be filled with a strange but false sense of peace.

And of course, Jonah isn’t just asleep to the storm coming to devour him – he’s also asleep to the judgment waiting to fall on the sailors! So often, the Church is like this – we fall into this rebellious slumber, and we assure ourselves that the storm of judgment passing over the unsaved has nothing to do with our inaction.

My friends, if you’re currently asleep to the reality of the Lord in your life and consciously rejecting Him – please prick your ears and pay close attention, we’ve now come to verse 6 with Jonah, now is the time to really wake up from slumber.

There’s a relentless, loud banging on the door to the cabin – it’s the captain. Apparently the sailors have tried all the praying that they can muster and I suppose they remember there’s a bugger down with the luggage napping away. Now, pay careful attention to what the captain says “What do you mean, you sleeper?” – see how he’s deeply concerned that there’s one man on the ship who’s not praying?

Instead of God’s prophet acknowledging the divine judgment going on, it’s the pagan captain who responds! And here’s the non-Christian guy who’s gotta tell the Christian guy to pray! Listen especially to how the captain phrases his words in verse 6, “perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” He’s not entirely sure that Jonah’s God would answer – but can you sense this tentative hope in him, that just maybe Jonah’s God will spare a thought for them and spare their lives?

v. 7-10: The Culprit

Look then at verse 7 – it’s such a fascinating verse. Notice how the sailors describe the storm? They say it’s “evil that has come upon us” – don’t you think that’s an incredible thing to say? Sailors who’ve seen all types of storms but they know the winds and the seas never ever acts up like that unless some kind of god moved in his hand in anger.

The story is getting more and more fast-paced at the moment so let’s slow things down a little and zoom the camera in on Jonah. How do you think he might have felt at this moment? The uneasy feeling that a poor decision has come back to haunt him?

You see, the worst part of Jonah’s journey is that he’s fully aware of his actions, that he’s fully aware of their consequences every step of the way! He knows how everything will pan out. When he awakes to the raging storm, he knows it’s the Living God’s shouting to him, “Jonah, you can’t flee from my presence!”

And then the sailors cast lots – and casting lots is also God’s special way of showing that nothing happens by chance – Proverbs 16:33 says the lot is cast but its every decision or outcome is from the Lord! Of course then, when Jonah sees the sailors casting lots, surely he knows the lot will fall on him.

And now in verse 8, everyone does indeed know it’s Jonah’s fault and they question him frantically. Although, they never explicitly ask him about the God that he worships, Jonah tells them in verse 9 that his God is the LORD. Take note how the “LORD” is in capital letters, which is the covenant name of the Living God of Israel – Yahweh.

For good measure, Jonah adds that this Yahweh is the God of heaven who made the sea and dry land. And you have to wonder if he’s messing around with these sailors at this point – “you know, the oceans and the waves that are trying to destroy us now, yes these wind and waves, Yahweh’s got authority over them. Oh and I worship this Yahweh!”

Here, the resulting fear of the sailors is not something surprising. Why? Well, most foreign nations during Jonah’s time would have known of Yahweh. He was famous as the Almighty God who delivered Israel out of Egypt, as the giant slaying God who brought Israel into the Promised Land of Canaan.

For example, the earlier story of a pagan prostitute, Rahab and some spies of Israel who entered the land of Canaan to recee the land. When Rahab saw these Israelite spies, she said as a matter of fact. Verse 9 – “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. Verse 10 they’ve heard all about Yahweh’s mighty acts. And verse 11 – the moment they heard of Israel and Yahweh coming, they had no more courage.

And here in our passage, it’s that Yahweh who made all the heavens and the earth! It’s no wonder the sailors cry out in verse 10 “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.

v.11-16: The Sacrifice

Continuing in verse 11 – it’s a bit amusing how the sailors react to this situation. Notice the way they think about solving the problem? ““What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” They know something must be done to Jonah. Even the sailors know there must be a sacrifice for Yahweh’s divine anger to be appeased! They give all the right responses whereas God’s prophet does not!

And the most hilarious part is this – Yahweh Himself seems to affirm what the sailors understand the moment they question Jonah. Look again at verse 11. The sailors say “”What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” and immediately, almost as if Yahweh replies on Jonah’s behalf, just imagine this, there’s even louder thunder, even brighter lightning, the waves rock the boat even harder!

It’s right at this moment in verse 12 where we might think that Jonah is finally contributing something positive... He speaks as a matter of fact that his life must literally be sacrificed, a trade-off, for their survival. “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” But will the sailors do that – are they allowed to take the life of the Hebrew man who serves the almighty scary Yahweh who made the land and sea?

Well, they decide not to toss Jonah in even though Yahweh’s prophet had prescribed their way of survival! Verse 13 tells us they rowed hard to get back to dry land. But try as they might, their mere human effort could never deliver them from the waters of judgment and navigate to safety; in fact the storm of Yahweh’s judgment grew more and more violent!

It’s almost as if the Yahweh become angrier at the sailors refusal to accept Jonah’s sacrifice. It’s almost as if Yahweh found it insulting that the sailors trusted their own strength to secure their deliverance. Is this the final straw? Will they now give in and rely on Jonah’s sacrifice or row on to their deaths?

Well, thankfully verse 14 tells us that yes the sailors finally relent and give up! But not before they call out to Yahweh! And it’s specifically the Living God of Israel they’re now praying to because they call out upon the same unique name, Yahweh. The sailors have tried asking all their silent and lifeless gods for salvation – they’ve heard nothing from them, the storm has only gotten worse in the last few minutes. The religions of the world have failed them, and they’ve decided they must give Yahweh a chance to prove Himself now. In fact, they have no choice – if it’s angry Yahweh who unleashes judgment in the angry storm, then the sailors must go straight to the Yahweh Himself!

At this juncture, let’s slow things down again get our camera focus back onto Jonah for a moment. It’s a nightmare for him isn’t it? As everything around him plays out in slow motion, the fierce drops of rain upon his face, his eyes barely able to open and see. The unending discomfort of soaking wet clothes sticking to his body. And the freezing winds of the storm.. And here is Jonah, perhaps convincing himself defiantly at the end of his life that “This was the right decision – I’d rather stand here in this breaking boat to face death than preach salvation to dirty, pagan Ninevites.”

But the worst thing for him must have been sailors! The joke’s been turned on Jonah. He’s here in the presence of Yahweh, in the eyes of the storm to see up close the personal transformation and conversion of these pagan sinners. He must have gone running around telling them “stop praying! Stop praying! Yahweh doesn’t save sinners like you!” Yet, it’s a shocking but amazing sight – the unbelieving sailors, driven into desperation and despair, calling out to Jonah’s God – the God he has ignored. But will Yahweh ignore them?

Listen carefully to the contents of their prayer in verse 14? “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” Question: do you think the sailors realized the significance of their prayer? Do you think they knew what it means to say “let us not perish for this man’s life?” Do you think they knew that this manner of sacrifice was how Yahweh had ordered salvation for all humanity?

Well, they must have realized that at the very moment Jonah was tossed in and immediately, the sea became calm and the storm disappeared. They have physically experienced the sacrifice of one man for the lives of many! And in v. 16, they even went on to offer a sacrifice to Yahwehafter that, presumably a similar kind of animal sacrifice the Israelites would make for forgiveness of sins. And that’s not all, read verse 16 carefully again gain. The sailors even made vows to Yahweh – and in Scripture, making vows usually refers to someone dedicating his or her life to Yahweh. Friends, this was a conversion ceremony!

As for Jonah, into the belly of the fish he goes – will he survive? Will Yahweh’s peace offer ever reach the evil Ninevites? Will Jonah learn to really feat the God of heaven? We’ll find out in the coming weeks, as Deacon Sunil tells us more about Jonah in the belly of the fish next week.

But for now, what an amazing story and we’re only one chapter into Jonah! The story so far: in an act of judgment and mercy, the peace anointed son of truth dives into the storm of Yahweh’s wrath to spare the lives of pagan sailors so that these dirty sinners who never knew Yahweh would go on to acknowledge Him as God, that they would go on to dedicate their lives to Him!


At this juncture, as we reflect… I wonder how do we react to the Lord God today?. Notice the amazement the sailors had of God – the shock and the reverence at His miraculous power to judge and to deliver? Yet, some of us here no longer remember what it means to fear the Living God in the face of His judgment. Some of us who have forgotten the terror of knowing that Yahweh is angry at our rebellion of rejecting Him, and this violent storm of His wrath is a tempest we could never row out of by our own strength.

But maybe for some others here, like the sailors, we fear because we don't know what this powerful God is really like – does He really have our best interests at heart. In fact, when the New Testament writer Mark documents a similar storm and a similar situation of deliverance, we see the same fear and confusion among Jesus’ disciples It’s the same scene. A huge storm is brewing. Everyone but the sleeping guy is terrified of facing certain death. Just like it is in Jonah, the storm is calmed by a miraculous act of God. And just like the sailors in Jonah, the disciples become even more terrified of Jesus than they were of the storm!

But, unlike the sailors, the disciples in Mark’s gospel got to look at the Living God of Israel face to face. Surely this Jesus who silenced the storm is the God of heaven who made the land and the sea? And ultimately, this Jesus would show that there’s no need to fear storm of Yahweh’s judgment, there’s no need to wonder if God cares whether we perish or not. Because God Himself has come in person to offer peace to God’s enemies – pagan sinners like us who rebel against the Lord. Friends, this Jesus – He’s the storm calmer, with His arms outstretched on the cross, to once and for all cease the raging sea of Yahweh’s judgment. The fearsome storm of wrath that all the other pagan gods have no answer for – this Jesus has silenced it.

As the famous hymn goes:
“When Darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,

My Anchor holds within the veil.”

Friends, I invite you to look at this messenger, this Jesus – He’s the one anointed with the Spirit of peace, the son of truth. Come accept His olive branch of peace. And as we do that, know also unbelieving world must look at the sacrifice of God’s son of truth through the sacrificial acts of God's people before they would also dedicate their lives to Him. This is Yahweh’s heartbeat for us the Church, and his heartbeat for all the nations.

And so, listen closely one more time to the word of the Lord in Jonah chapter 1. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

*Sermon delivered at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church's evening service, 4th September 2016 - the first of four sermons in Jonah's series

Background to Jonah: the Peace-Anointed Son of Truth

This past summer, I was interning and had the chance to assist with a high court trial. I’m not going to go too much into the details but we had a really difficult time with our client. All his accounts of the alleged offence were inconsistent, his defence was far too incredible. The newspapers and social media were having a field day ripping him apart publicly… Even in court, there were instructions for us to demolish the victim and prosecution witnesses, which I thought were without good reason.

At the end of the day, I think I can safe I could entrust the judgment to God and the just outcome was achieved. But I remember all my experiences with this client vividly. There were 3 occasions that I sat 1m from him across the table, interviewing him and running through EIC with him. I remember very clearly how I sat there thinking, “wow, there is a real possibility he did commit this crime.” “But why in the world is he telling this crap story that sounds so fabricated?”

My heart was also confused with anger but also sorrow – “I’m sure Jesus must be so angry with this delusional client, how could he accuse the victim of such incredulous acts?” At the same time I was filled with great sorrow, thinking, “what an unremorseful and unrepentant guy! God’s eternal judgment is going to be so much more terrible than these years in prison.”

In some sense, we are considering these very same thoughts of the Living God as we journey through the books of Jonah and Nahum. Questions like: “will Nineveh acknowledge the seriousness of their earthly judgment and accept God’s mercy? Will they wake up and see that the final judgment of God is much more terrifying?”

Nineveh: there’s so much to say about ancient Nineveh. It was the glorious capital of powerful ancient Assyria; Genesis 10 even tells us it was founded by Nimrod the mighty warrior. But of course, Nimrod’s name really means ‘rebellion’, and history paints a clear picture of this rebellion! Bible scholars have commonly compared the Assyrian totalitarian atrocities to regimes like Hitler and the Khmer Rouge. Assyria was truly rebellious and sinful before Living God – which was why their capital city was sent a message of repentance!

In the book of Jonah, we will see how Nineveh repents at the first warning of the Living God. In the book of Nahum however, we will see the city receive a second warning because within only a hundred years of Jonah, they have quickly turned from God’s grace! Ultimately, because of that, Nineveh itself was overrun by the most uber-superpower nation ever, the Babylonians.

But you may ask, what does all this have to do with the modern Church, with us here in the 21st century? Well, we have much to learn! Scripture always takes us on an incredible tour of history. And on these journeys, the Holy Spirit also speaks to us through these world-changing events. We face equally important questions that God’s people back then probably asked – “why are we here today?” “How are we to live our lives in this time and age?” “How can we remain in God’s will as Christians?”

We begin in Chapter 1 of Jonah, but let’s focus on verses 1-2:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

As we begin looking at Jonah’s life, we must set some context. Jonah lived in a particular place and time – he was prophet to Israel in the last generations before the nation was exiled. But let’s break it down slowly – I want to encourage us to see that Biblical history is actually understandable and important in appreciating how all of Scripture culminates in the story of Jesus Christ. So, let’s work it through together.
What was the exile? It was Israel being vomited out of the Promised Land, the ten tribes of Israel were exiled to Assyria and the two tribes of Judah to Babylon.

Why the exile? It was God’s ultimatum for Israel – they had been recalcitrantly rebellious against Him for generations. It was also a time of promised judgment – it had been a long time coming, a personally painful event, a bit like Israel “going back to Egypt”.

And the goal of this exile? I suppose you could say it was like a hardcore remedial class for all the lessons Israel refused to internalize – lessons of deliverance, dependence and obedience after being hard-hearted for centuries

Lastly, the exile seemed like God’s last resort to help Israel understand – in Ezekiel 18:23 He almost sounds to unwilling to punish Israel for breaking the covenant “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Declares the sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?

So that’s our first observation today, that Israel is to be judged through the exile for rejecting their True King, the Living God and His rule. But there’s a second strand of judgment that plays out as Israel receives her punishment. This is the judgment of the Lord against all the nations of the world. You see, Jesus is their King also – all the judgment, be it exile or colonial rule or totalitarian regimes – all the judgment that the pagan nations faced throughout human history was also mini preview pointing them to the unspeakable judgment of eternity at the Last Day.
Of course, we see these two strands of judgment both on Israel and the Gentile nations eventually fulfilled in Jesus Christ. How so? Well, His world-changing work on the Cross woos back the whoring hearts of His people, and at the same time, shines the light of Jehovah into the pagan nations who love in darkness.

So then, judgment on both God’s people and all the world displayed at the Cross – this is the perfect note for us to begin embark on Jonah’s journey because the very mission of God through Christ is the very same mission given to Jonah – to turn Israel’s hearts around and also win the cruel hearts of the evil Ninevites.

At this juncture we’re going to be referring to some bible passages a bit. It always helps to first ask who Israel’s king was whenever a prophet is warning the nation. During Jonah’s time, the king ruling Israel was Jeroboam the second, let’s call him JB2 since there was another Jeroboam, JB1 before him. For some background, JB1 was the king right after David and Solomon but JB2 only reigned about 150 years after JB1. Knowing which king was ruling helps us identify what kind of state Israel was in.

So anyway this JB2 guy was a king who helped Israel prosper. For this, let’s look at 2 Kings 14:24-27:

24 Jeroboam did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 25 He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.

So, yes, this passage tells us Jonah was prophet to Israel during JB2’s reign. It also tells us in v. 25 that JB2 reclaimed territory for Israel. But did you see how JB2, despite his awesome exploits, was really just an evil king? V. 24 tells us JB2 did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not depart from all the sins of JB1. But what were these sins of JB? We need to know them to see how JB2’s rule was evil. Let’s take a look at 1 Kings 11:31-33 for an account of JB1’s ascension to Israel’s throne:

31 And Ahijah said to Jeroboam, “Take for yourself ten pieces, for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and will give you ten tribes … 33 because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did.

Now, this passage tells us that right before JB1’s kingship, during Solomon’s rule, things were bad. These were terrible events that eventually led to God’s judgment in kicking Israel out of the Promised Land. The nation had fallen into horrifying sin and created their own unholy trinity in place of the Living God – instead of Father, Son and Spirit it was Ashtoreth, Chemosh and Milcom. And, what was JB1 tasked to do as the newly appointed king then? Well, he was supposed to restore God’s honor as all the kings are. But look at 1 Kings 12:26-28, and we will see what JB1 really did:

26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 27 If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

It was sin upon sin! JB1 didn’t restore any honor to God’s name. Instead, JB1 brought Israel back full circle to the golden calf of the Exodus – can you imagine how heartbreaking this must have been for the Lord! So, when JBII was said to have continued in these sins, we see that JBII was just as evil and idolatrous, and Israel continued to break God’s heart during his reign.

Now, despite all of this, the Lord did not give Israel up yet to the Assyrian destruction, which would only come later. Rather, He showed compassion to them! Again! Look at 2 Kings 14:25. Even though JB2 continued in this sick idolatry, what did the Lord do for Israel through him? JB2 was given great favor – he restored territory in v. 25. Do you see the reason for it in v 26? The Lord had compassion on Israel when He saw it was oppressed, probably by other nations too! v. 27 the Lord saved Israel through the hand of JBII because He remembered his promise to their forefathers.

And so the Lord was incredibly merciful to Israel! Jonah was meant to minister to Israel in this one last generation during a time of affliction and spiritual evil! In fact, the Lord desired so much for Israel to repent that He also sent Amos and Hosea as co-prophets to Israel during Jonah’s time!

With that, we have the background story of Jonah in Israel’s history. So then, where does Nineveh fit into the picture? Remember vv 1-2 in Jonah 1? Remember how the Word of the Lord came to Jonah, in the same way it did for the other OT prophets? Although Jonah was a minister to Israel as we read a while ago, do you notice his first task as prophet? He’s sent on a mission trip to Nineveh and not to Israel! Why is that the case? Could it be that Jonah wasn’t ready yet to minister to God’s people? Could it be that he had important lessons to learn in his journey to Nineveh first?

You know, this reminds me a bit of Thor’s story. Do you recall how in the first movie, Thor wasn’t ready to humble his heart and serve the people of Asgard? He wasn’t worthy to be king yet – in fact, he wasn’t even worthy to carry his hammer! So, his father, King Odin cast him out to earth where he had to get his act together and save humankind from destruction. It’s only then that he’s considered worthy and then after that in the second movie, he’s able to save the whole world from the mighty Dark Elves!

In some sense, Jonah himself had to go through a foreign mission, to learn to humble his heart and serve his people. The Jonah that we see early on is definitely not the comforter God wanted to revive Israel! You see, as much as the Assyrians needed to change their evil hearts, Jonah’s heart had to change too. So, in the coming weeks, let’s pay attention together to Jonah’s transformation as much as Nineveh’s.
As we end off, I’d like us to consider what Jonah’s name means. Names have such great significance in our lives, right? For instance, Harry Potter named his son Albus Severus Potter to honor Dumbledore and Snape. His son was to be the living embodiment of the courage of the two men who saved Harry’s life. Many cultures today understand names to have some prophetic shape on our lives.

So what does “Jonah the son of Ammitai” means? The name literally means dove, whereas “son of Ammitai” can be translated as son of truth. Remember what the dove signifies in other parts of Scripture? Remember how the dove was God’s olive branch of peace – God’s personal way of letting Noah know that His judgment was over? Remember how the dove was considered a clean suitable animal for sacrifice in Leviticus? Remember how the dove that is the Holy Spirit fell upon Christ as His anointing baptism in the gospels?

All these taken together give us a beautiful picture! Jonah the son of Ammitai is the son of truth given a wonderful message of peace from judgment! Jonah is the living embodiment of God’s peace to Nineveh!

Yet, the shocking thing we find in the first two verses of Jonah though is this – it seems like God is hardly merciful or peaceful towards Nineveh! He’s almost on the verge of destroying it. The reason for this is given to us – the evil of the Assyrians has risen up to God! In fact, the phrasing should remind us of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember how the Lord said in Genesis 18, “the outcry against these cities is so great, and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.”

Yet, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh with fire immediately! He sends the bearer of truth and peace in his name to offer a hope for salvation! Jonah’s journey begins: it starts with him having to learn that God is so much more invested in offering peace and salvation, judgment is really his last alternative – the Christian God’s heart is truly for sinners, and He desires all come to repentance and none should perish! He’s got a heart that puts ours to shame!

Today, as we reflect on Israel’s history and Jonah’s life, let’s humble our hearts and ask ourselves, “is not Jonah a picture of Christ the Son of Truth come to offer us his olive branch of peace?” More incredibly, “were we not like the pagan Assyrians in Nineveh? Living in utter darkness? Has the Living God not been incredibly patient and merciful to us through Jesus?”

*A sharing at NUS Law batch prayer group - the first of 9 studies in the book of Jonah and Nahum

Bandwagoning & Christ-Centering

I was watching a Formula 1 race last week with my 5-year-old nephew, and as Lewis Hamilton lined up at the head of the pack to star the race, he kept shouting “Hamilton! Hamilton!” During the race, however, he started shouting the names of other drivers, “Rosberg!” I was confused so I asked him, “Eh Lucas, how come you change team? What happened to Hamilton?” He replied excitedly, “Rosberg is number 1 now!”

This random Sunday evening experience triggered some thoughts – what is it about human nature and our self-worth that seeks association with the best or with winners? For the football fan, it’s the feel-good Cinderella story of English champions, Leicester City. For the Corinthian Christians, it’s Paul, Apollos, or Peter – depending on whoever floats your boat.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul has been explaining how God’s revealed mystery of Christ crucified looks so foolish in the eyes of worldly wisdom. Here in chapter 3, Paul highlights a failure to understand God’s wisdom in Christ crucified – the church instead thinks as people of the flesh according to worldly wisdom and forms different factions claiming allegiance to different powerful church leaders. Verse 4, one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos.”

What’s the remedy for this? Well, Paul gives a unique solution from verse 21 onwards. He says, “so let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.”

But what does Paul mean? And how would this address their poisonous, divisive mentality? The key to understanding this is remembering what Paul had said earlier. In chapter 2, he explained two kinds of wisdom – first, the wisdom of the natural person. Secondly, the spiritual wisdom of God in His revealed mystery that is Christ crucified.

Flowing from this, we should identify a big problem for anyone who merely seeks the wisdom of the natural person instead of the Spirit-revealed wisdom of God. In chapter 3 verse 3, we see the Corinthian Christians are still jealous of one another, they are in strife with one another – these are all characteristics of the human and fleshly, out-to-prove-yourself way rather than the crucified way of self-sacrifice. I think Paul is helping us to see that any worldly or natural wisdom is unfulfilling and insufficient, because it is apart from God’s revealed wisdom in Christ crucified.

Any wisdom apart from Christ crucified is the source of insecurity – insecurity in identity, in abilities, even in serving God – that’s probably why the Corinthian Christians were tempted to associate themselves with a powerful leader or supremely gifted Christian. Any wisdom apart from Christ crucified generates a desire for affirmation and self-worth – that’s why they needed something powerful to take pride in – be it Paul’s theology, or Apollos’ eloquence, or even the legendary honor of Peter’s first-hand experiences with the Risen Christ!
In response to this emptiness created by worldly wisdom, Paul warns them in v. 21 against boasting in any person. But where then do they find their self-worth and pride?

Well, when Paul proclaims, “all things are yours!” I believe Paul is saying something along the lines of, “Stop trying to prove yourselves by associating with us. You don’t follow or belong to us. We weren’t crucified for you. But don’t worry. I, Paul, am yours; I’m your father in the faith (as he says in chapter 4), my life is devoted to serving you!

And Apollos? You are not enslaved to him or his intellectual prowess. All his gifts, even his Alexandrian eloquence will be used by God to build this church up.

And Peter? Remember how he walked with Jesus, failed our Lord and yet, still is the rock of the Church today? All his lessons and victories are yours too.

How about the world, and life, and death? You’re not subject to these things! Jesus has won you life, death has no sting or victory (as he tells them in chapter 15); in Christ you have hope beyond this world!

What more the present and the future? They’ve already been secured – all things are subjected to Christ who is Himself all in all. And since you are in Christ, you also belong to God!”
And so, as it were, Paul ends on this emphatic note to us, “my dear Corinthian and Zion children, who else is there to boast in? You don’t have to strive to find your self-worth in any earthly champion – Christ our champion has won it all. In Him we have it all!”

*Mini 5-min long sermon prepared as part of preaching training in my church.

PS: lovely read from Glen Scrivener on Champions and Jesus Christ!

God in Christ: Unseen, Unheard, Unimagined

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul talks about true wisdom and understanding – we read in verse 6 of a wisdom that is not of this age, and in verse 7, a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. When we read this, some questions pop to mind – what is this secret and hidden wisdom? It’s been planned for a long time already? And this wisdom is for us, for our glory – whatever that means?

The Old Testament verse Paul quotes next looks like it could hint to us what this secret, hidden wisdom is. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagine…” but hang on, isn’t it exactly because no one has seen, heard or imagine anything about this secret wisdom that it’s a secret? So, we need to examine the original quote a bit more closely, in Isaiah 64:4, which reads, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”
With some context from Isaiah, it seems the secret, hidden wisdom pertains to who the Living God is. Isaiah’s certainly not saying that no one has technically seen God’s image or heard His voice because many like Moses or Joshua clearly did. Instead, Isaiah’s highlighting that the Living God is a god totally different from all the other idol gods of the world. And the distinguishing characteristic about the Living God is this, in verse 5: He acts for those who wait for him!
You should notice by now that Paul rephrases the Isaiah 64:4 quote. Instead of “He acts for those who wait for Him,” the 1 Corinthians version reads “the things God has prepared for those who love Him.” But when we read these two versions together – they make sense. Essentially, those who love God are the very people who have been waiting for Him. And, what are these people waiting for? Well, they’re waiting for God to act or, put differently, waiting for Him to reveal and show them the things He has prepared for them!
And what are these things? At the start of chapter 2, Paul says it’s nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In chapter 1, Paul’s also been proclaiming Jesus as Messiah of the Jews, their King, dead and bloodied on the Cross. He’s also been talking about the utter foolishness of the idea that a god would even die for a sinful world He created. No one has ever seen or heard of a foolish God like that! Certainly, no one’s ever imagined a heavenly king to be so weak!

The natural human mind cannot fathom this revealed wisdom of God. V. 10 tells us the Spirit of God must reveal it, and in fact, it has been revealed. I’d like you to imagine a curious teenager asking his father, “Hey dad, what’s it like to fall in love? What does it feel like?” And then, his dad says, “err, you’ll know it when you’ve seen it and when you’ve personally experienced it!” In some sense, the answer is true but frustrating. You have to wait until you actually go through that experience?
But here, Paul isn’t telling the Corinthian Christians that the hidden wisdom of God can be experienced or discovered by their own human mind. It’s not a secret treasure that can be unearthed if you try hard enough. It’s not attaining level 100 in spirituality. More importantly, there’s no such thing as “knowing it when we see it” when it comes to God, because we cannot even see to begin with! God’s wisdom must be revealed or made known and made clear to us! Why? Paul says in v. 11 it’s because no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Verse 14 tells us it’s because we as natural persons cannot accept the things of the Spirit of God, they seem foolish to us. Isaiah 64 also articulates this very clearly, for example, in verse 6 – we are all unclean people; verse 7 – there is no one who calls upon God. We are natural persons entrenched in sin; we simply cannot seek out the Living God no matter how hard we try. There’s no hope, unless the secret holder reveals the secret wisdom.
But thank God, because that’s what He does. In Jesus Christ crucified, God works and prepares wondrous things for us as we wait upon Him, that’s our glory He’s decreed before the ages. It’s no wonder the writers of Scripture say, there’s never been and there’ll never be an incredibly gracious God like Him!

*Mini 5-min long sermon prepared as part of preaching training in my church.

Struggling, Waiting for King Jesus

*A sermon preached at Zion Bishan BP Church's evening service (15 May 2016)

1st Thessalonians - a letter by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Thessalonica. At the time the letter was written, the Thessalonian Church was a fairly young church. In fact, the birth of this church was an interesting event recorded in the book of Acts.

In the novel, A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens, there’s a quote that reads, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We will see today that this describes quite well the early days of the young Thessalonian church. We’ll also begin by exploring together the background story in Acts chapter 17. We want to do this so we can understand better why Paul writes certain things in chapter 3.

Background of Thessalonian Church

In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas, and a small missions team had come to Thessalonica. Once they were there, Paul spent 3 Sabbath days persuading the Jews there that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen One who had to suffer and rise from the dead. Thankfully, many people came to believe this good news – as verse 4 reads, “some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” And just like that, the Thessalonian church was birthed. It was a wonderful beginning! You could say, it was the best of times, a season of Light, a spring of hope for these converts who had found new life and great joy in Jesus Christ.
At the same time, things were not so easy. In fact, right from the get go, they faced serious opposition. Remember that only some of the Jews were convinced about Jesus Christ; the rest of the Jews had become jealous. Verse 5: “So they rounded up some bad characters (basically hiring the local mafia) from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house (presumably one of the Jewish converts) in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”

So then, we see that while the Thessalonian church was birthed with great joy and turning to Christ, it was also birthed into persecution; opposition they had never known before in their lives. Yes, it was the best of times, but you could also say it was also the worst of times for this young church, a season of Darkness, a winter of despair.

Can you imagine what this would look like today? Imagine our church or any church for that matter. After registering with the Commsioner of Charities, we have our very first service to celebrate a new beginning. Right when the ribbon is cut and the intro to the first song is sung… The local residents barge in with the notorious local gang, fully tattoo-ed on the arms and legs, branishing weapons… Before the first song is sung, we’re told we have to shut down. We’re not allowed to submit to another king other than our local MP. The new Christians in Thessalonica must have been terribly shocked – maybe they had an idea that following King Jesus would be costly, but to face opposition so quickly – they probably wished they had more time to settle down first! So then, what do God’s people do in such a situation? How is this local church going to survive?
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’d like to turn your attention to two statements the Thessalonian residents when they complained against Paul and his mission team in Acts 17. Interestingly, while these two statments were the very reasons the locals opposed the church, they also hint to us how the young Thessalonian Christians might press on and remain faithful after all.

First, the Thessalonians said that Paul and Silas are men who have turned the world upside down and now have come presumably to also turn Thessalonica upside down. But what has Paul’s mission team actually done? All they have done so far is tell the local residents that Jesus Christ the Son of God has suffered and risen from the dead! But there must be some extraordinary power in just those words. There was something about this good news about Jesus that turned the world upside down; it now threatened to turn Thessalonica upside down. Could the same power in this Gospel be the source of strength for the Thessalonian church to press on in faith?

The second thing the Thessalonians say is this – the Christians are acting against the decrees of King Caesar by proclaiming another king, Jesus Christ. But is this the answer for the Thessalonian Christians? How will this king from another kingdom come and help them in the midst of their trouble? Even if this King Jesus is really coming to help, can they hold the fort while He’s still on His way?

Suffering & Standing Fast

Actually, these were pretty much the questions the Apostle Paul was asking. Two weeks ago, we were looking at the example of the Thessalonian church. They were a great testimony, they were a model example to Christians all over the region. They had turned from idols to serve the true and living God. But, hang on, isn’t that basically what everyone does when they turn away from sin and follow Jesus Christ? What’s the big deal about this church – didn’t they just have a normal spiritual awakening?

Well, yes and no. You will remember that last week, Deacon Khee Leng told us that the Thessalonian church faced great suffering but remained bold, and walked worthy of God despite opposition. In fact, Paul tells the church in Chapter 2 that they have literally embarked on the same journey as their King, Jesus. They had taken up their cross to follow Him! How so? Well, they suffered in the same way that Jesus suffered – they were persecuted by the Jews, supposedly God’s own people, those who were meant to receive Jesus Christ with joy. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that some of the new Thessalonian Christians did suffer the same fate as Jesus. In fact, if you read on in Chapters 4 and 5… Paul encourages the church that those who have died are merely sleeping, it seems possible that some of these new Thessalonian Christians had died, persecuted by the locals.

And so, remember the questions we asked earlier? Are the Thessalonian Christians going to make it? Is this church going to hold on? Well, the answer is a resounding “yes!” And that was probably why they were famous among the churches in the region. That was probably why everyone knew, “oh, that Thessalonian church ah, they kena stormed by gangsters at their dedication service , you know? Their church pastors haven’t even conducted their leadership meeting once, they already got detained by government you know? Eh, but you know the most amazing thing – they still continue to meet, in each others’ houses, and their weekly attendance still keeps growing leh!”

So, yes, the Thessalonian church had an exceptional testimony, they continued to thrive and grow. It was as if the opposition and the difficulties only catalysed the growth. Like a man who blows at a huge fire of burning coals, thinking he can put it out the same way he snuffs out a candle, but only manages to fan more embers into flame. The fire of the Thessalonian church’s faith grew bigger and bigger – it was no ordinary candle flame. The passion of the this church was not a flickering, temporal one.

In fact, I don’t know if you noticed this – but you know how Paul usually scolds or disciplines the churches he writes to? Like in Galatians: he scolds the church for giving up on sound Gospel doctrine so quickly. Or, in Corinthians: he scolds the church for being divided over many things. But with the Thessalonians, there’s nothing like this. In fact, when Paul says he longs to go back to Thessalonica, it’s because he realy wants to see the church – not to scold them.

This is why Paul said of the church in chapter 1, look with me at verse 6, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction (meaning they believed the Gospel even though there was so much opposition). With the joy of the Holy Spirit” also. And that’s why they were a shining example to all Christians.

Having said all these, do you realize that Paul remains quite worried? Even though the church has done well so far, Paul remains like the nursing mother he describes himself to be in chapter 2. Always concerned, always thinking about the “what ifs”, a little bit naggy but in a positive way.

Yes, the church had survived, they even thrived. But surely things were going to get worse. At the end of chapter 2, Paul expresses how desperate he was to see the church again. Even though they were torn away from the Thessalonians in person, Paul’s heart was still with them all this while! In chapter 3, he says how he was fearful that the evil one, Satan had managed to discourage them successfully so that they fall away. Even though the Thessalonian church started well, it was commitment in the long run that really mattered – not the short sprint. You see, it’s always easy to begin a new relationship and friendship – it’s always fresh and exciting and there’re so many new possibilities. Even with Jesus, it can and will feel like that. But isn’t it important for us to think about the long run too?

In fact, Jesus said something about this too when he was talking about the cost of following Him! Look with me at Luke 14: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30).

Can we continue following King Jesus? Will we decide to fall behind one day when the struggle in following Him becomes increasingly hard? I’m sure some of us here already feel like this, even today. But don’t give up yet – let’s look together at how the Thessalonian church surged on confidently and courageously.

Receiving the Word of God as a word from God and not men
In chapters 1 and 2, Paul first tells the Thessalonian church how they were able to remain faithful despite opposition. In the first chapter, Paul reminded them that the Gospel had come to Thessalonica not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. The Gospel of Christ was not merely another juicy news headline. It wasn’t just another exciting and never-before-seen new age spirituality.
Before this Gospel had turned the world upside down, it had first into the hearts of each individual Thessalonian Christian, and then turned their lives upside down – upside down away from sinful idolatry to worship of the true and living God. This Gospel has come to all to tell us that Jesus has suffered on behalf of us, for our sinful rebellion against God – yet, He has defeated the crushing punishment of sin, death itself – by rising to life again and drawing us into this new life with Him. This King Jesus had come to tear down the idols in the hearts and lives of the Thessalonians – which was precisely why many of them were jealous and upset that their way of life had to change. Indeed, the Gospel proclaims there is another king – not Caesar, not even you but King Jesus. Yet, despite the opposition, we saw that some of the Thessalonians did actually receive this good news with gladness.

The reason they received the good news with gladness is found in chapter 2. Paul was thankful that the Thessalonians received the word of God not as the word of men. This was not just any human instruction or religious recommendation. This was no self-help advice or optional life insurance. Paul said, this was the very word of God! The God of the universe, the Father of all peoples, it was God himself who had spoken to the Thessalonians. And so, this very word of God shaped all reality and their way of life. No human word could override the divine decree – no human act or idolatrous interference could take away the salvation this Living God had brought for the Thessalonian church. This very Word was working in the believers, changing them, strengthening them, preparing to meet the challenges of this world with the wisdom of Jesus.
At this juncture, it’s worth asking ourselves: how have we received the word of God? The way we receive God’s word will shape the way we respond to opposition we face in following Jesus. Receiving the word of God involves us acknowledging that there is no other king in our lives that dictates our purposes, our desires, our actions – not anyone, nor anything but King Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, it is indeed hard to acknowledge this – we never want to give up the control we have over our lives. But I’m asking you to relinquish control over your lives; you may personally consider that when we talk later about who this other King, Jesus is, and what He’s done for us. Instead, I want to urge you to first consider how you receive God’s word, do you know it is from our very Heavenly Father Himself?


(1) Sending Timothy

Let’s now look at how Paul encouraged the young Thessalonian church in their persecution. He had given them the very word of God, yes but he wasn’t just playing a cheerleading role from the grandstand – no, he wasn’t just shouting from afar, “come on guys! Don’t give up!” No, he did more than that. Paul made sure the Thessalonians experienced real support and tangible encouragement. He did this by sending this guy called Timothy to them. Verse 2, “and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the Gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by this afflictions.” You could say Timothy was a reinforcement or backup to the frontline of the Thessalonian battle!
But why wasn’t it enough for Paul to cheerlead from another country? Well, Paul is simply following the example of the God he worships, isn’t he? He’s ultimately displaying who the Christian God is and what He has done. And we see who the Christian God is precisely through the Father’s sending of His Son, Jesus, to be one with humanity. This God did not choose only to communicate a word or a message far away from his heavenly kingdom. Instead, this God’s very message and very word was God Himself. The Word become flesh to walk among us, taking on our weakness. Through Jesus, God demonstrated He’s not just a cheerleader from afar, or a feel-good motivational spirit distant from us. Therefore, we see how the people of God, followers of Jesus, are also expected to imitate that kind of closeness, that kind of oneness, that kind of relationship.

I like how the wonderful 17th century church reformer, Martin Luther describes the idea of sharing in one another’s suffering for Christ. He suggested that when it comes to sharing in a fellow Christian’s suffering, there are three different levels. First, the most basic level, we sacrifice our resources for that brother or sister. Donation, charity, basically hands-off generosity. On the second level, we go a little further by comforting the fellow Christian, praying for him. There’s considerably more emotional and spiritual involvement.

The third and highest level according to him, however, is this. It’s bearing the same weakness as your Christian brother or sister. It’s literally walking alongside a fellow Christian in their suffering! As one writer describes, it is in this third level of suffering that Luther “felt the pulse of the innermost heart of Christ’s love and therefore also of Christian love.” And, so, this was why Paul sent Timothy, to walk alongside the Thessalonians, to suffer as they did, to be one with them.

When I read this part of our passage, I cannot help but recall my mission trip to visit our Myanmar partners last December. Yes, they were persecution as intense as the Thessalonian church did, it wasn’t as if the government was trying to shut them down or anything like that. But they were facing different types of opposition in their Gospel work – for example, the tension between the government and rebels in their region can literally endanger their lives when they get caught in the crossfire of clashes. They are also in a region of villages, a majority of which are of other religions – sometimes they face a little bit more red tape and obstruction in living openly as Christians. Because of these reasons, when a team of us visited them last year, they were hugely encouraged and so happy to see us! They were so excited they even built two toilets for us!

When we see how Paul encourages this church, it’s a good time for us to reflect on the way we relate to one another in Christian community. How do we encourage one another – be it as Christian friends or fellow AG/cell group members? Are we the type of people who prefer arms-length relationships – perhaps sending the occasional Bible verse to a suffering brother? Are we the type of Christians who dislike being near to those who suffer, much more journey alongside them? These are really worth thinking about.

Next, I was wondering why Paul sent this particular apprentice to Thessalonica. Well Timothy was Paul’s disciple and spiritual son, a pastor-in-training who eventually took care of the Ephesian church, as he grew in maturity and wisdom.

In his letters to Timothy, Paul gives him some very important instructions. For example, 1 Timothy 4:12-13 “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” Or another example, 2 Timothy 4:1-2 “I give you this charge: preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”

You see, from Paul’s writings to Timothy, we see what’s really important and central in the Christian life; and we therefore see what makes us fruitful and faithful followers of Jesus; then we can see clearly what really keeps the church going until King Jesus returns. The key is not the occasional awe-inspiring, motivational speech. No, emotions aren’t enough. The secret isn’t making sure we vote in a way that ensures our local government is entirely Christian. No, it never has never happened, and will not work that way.

The key truth, the center of it all is sticking to God’s Word, always feeding from it and drawing encouragement from it. Nothing else outside of Scripture will suffice. It’s the mind and thought of the Living God that gave the Thessalonians the understanding, love, confidence, hope and endurance they needed. As long as they fixed their eyes on Jesus Christ in God’s Word – they did well. I wonder if you think that way about God’s word too in times of difficulty and trials. Paul goes on to tell them another key ingredient to living a life faithful to Jesus Christ, and, unsurprisingly, this is also based on Scripture.

(2) Certainty of Suffering

In verse 3 of our passage, he tells them “you yourselves know that we are destined for this” meaning we are bound to have sufferings and struggling in following Jesus. Continuing at 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, and just as you know.”

Brothers and sisters, when we pay careful attention to God’s sufficient word, we understand clearer how life according to Jesus works. We see from the lives of the Christians in the Bible, both the Old and New Testament, from Moses to Paul and Joseph to Jesus – we see the pattern of life according to the Living God. Suffering and trials are not optional. They’re promised. We should not be surprised when they hit us!
Paul tells the Thessalonians that they were destined for these struggles. It’s not that they made some mistakes. It’s not that they committed a particular sin against God and they were being punished. Persecution was an integral part of their lives – in fact, it was and is the primary way we become one with Jesus Christ, in His life and suffering, then his death, and then his resurrection!

How do you view struggles and persecution in your Christian life today? Have you found yourself surprised by how difficult it is to follow Christ? I think that many times, we don’t respond well to persecution and struggles in following Jesus because we expect a comfortable life. But following Jesus is very costly, and the devil’s main job is to remind us of that. Satan’s key mission is to continuously tell us that life without Jesus would be easier, that if we stopped following Jesus, we could do so much more, be more carefree, enjoy the many good things this world has to offer without worrying about our conscience or what Jesus would or would not do.

But it’s precisely because of this that we’ve got to remember why suffering is worth it. Paul reminded the Thessalonians it’s because King Jesus, the true and living God suffered and died for all mankind for our rebellion and sin against God. He also emphasized in chapter one that this true and living God had raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore spare us from the fierce judgment to come.

In essence, our God King has gone all the way for us. He’s fought the battle to the death, for His Father’s cause and for our salvation. He’s shown his full commitment to us – even to the point of death, he never relented. And, yet, the battle did not end in defeat, His suffering which ended in death only served to secure the victory over evil and sin for us!

As one of my favorite preacher, Charles Spurgeon describes in his last ever sermon, this King he served, “He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold he always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden, he carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in him.”

If that’s the Gospel reality of our lives, surely it’s enough to face the sufferings and struggles of this age, as the Thessalonian church has shown.

(3) God Strengthens as We Wait for Christ’s Return

The third way in which Paul encourages the Thessalonians. Despite sending Timothy to soldier alongside them, despite giving them a good reminder of the certainty of suffering. And despite being encouraged by a good report from Timothy that they are doing well… Paul still prays “most earnestly night and day that they may see the Thessalonian church face to face and supply what is lacking in their faith.” (3:10). In fact, he’s so desperate that they continue to walk with Jesus that he says in verse 8, we are alive if you stand fast in the Lord – or if you give up, we’ll be so discouraged and broken it’s as though we’ll have experienced death itself!

Remember the Myanmar village I mentioned earlier? I understand what Paul means in verse 8. When one of the partners update me that the church community is doing well despite difficulties and the reality of physical threats there – I am filled with encouragement and I also wonder, “hey, my brothers and sisters there are trying so hard to follow Jesus, they’re doing well too. I must not only pray for them, I need press on to know God more, continue to serve Him more fervently here in Singapore!”

You see, Paul understood that suffering and persecution were terribly challenging. After all, he went through those things himself. He knew that it was not enough to rely on past victories, it just wasn’t going to suffice to look back and say, “oh, we’ve been faithful for the first two years, we’re doing okay.” From his personal experiences, he know its far too easy to give up on following Jesus, that suffering and struggles in the Christian’s life only get harder and harder.

Ever felt that way? The more you try to follow Jesus, the harder life becomes - of course, there’s the internal struggle and wrestling with sinful desires. But, it’s also more so in our relationships with others. We may not always face the same type of opposition as the Thessalonian Christians – you know, government opposition or political persecution. But I think some Singaporean values like pragmatism, ensuring stability in life, taking less risks in family and career choices, these so-called values that have a central place in our society tend to create the greatest opposition to our Christian beliefs and Christian lifestyle choices.

For instance, perhaps it’s workplace decisions you make to honor God that offend your colleagues and superiors; perhaps it’s career choices you make for a more Gospel-focused vocation that your family disagrees with; perhaps it’s lifestyle changes when you turn away from an old life of sin that offends a close friend; in such situations of opposition, do we find wisdom and encouragement in God’s word, do we look to Jesus and His church for support and solidarity?

It’s because persecution and struggles in following Christ become more and more intense that Paul ends of chapter 3, praying, “Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 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.” He really hopes that the Thessalonian church love each other more and more, as following Jesus gets tougher and tougher. The unity and security we can find in God’s family is such an important reminder in times of trouble – we need to journey with one another constantly in our Christian lives! Then we are more likely remain faultless before God as we struggle before men. And there’s something else Paul says to encourage them. I wonder if you notice it? In the final verse, he explains that all of his prayer requests point to one thing and one thing only – the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

This return of King Jesus, the church’s waiting for his coming will truly change everything. In fact, one of the primary themes of 1 and 2 Thessalonians is this – struggling, and waiting for King Jesus to return! You see, at the end of each chapter in 1 Thessalonian, Paul concludes by reminidng the church of one thing: the certain return of King Jesus. How does this certain return of Christ change our lives?

It means we face suffering and struggles with great assurance that prays, “hang in there, keep your eyes fixed on King Jesus, He will come and establish His kingdom soon.” It’s means we learn how to earnestly pray and remind ourselves, “King Jesus is returning, He will right all the wrongs. Do not be moved by these afflictions.” But I want to emphasize that we also pray with a unique love that says, “King Jesus suffered and endured so that I could see the love of God in Him. Surely, I must do the same that others can know Him too.” Imagine if we prayed these things and ask for the Holy Spirit to help us remain blamless in conduct, holy in word and thought before God as we wait for King Jesus to return!
The story of the Thessalonians. It’s a simple story, yet a life-changing, planet-shaking one. It’s an account of the Living God and his people turning world upside down. It’s the story of them proclaiming, there’s another King Jesus. Of course, this story upsets the world, and that puts the King’s people and His Church in a threatening situation for the rest of their lives. But He’s coming again. The world lives as if there is no God, or no returning of Jesus, no day of judgment. Yet, it’s crucial we live always in the truth: in the presence of God, waiting for Jesus and prepared for the final day.

When we do so, we are sometimes surprised that we find incredible strength, encouraged by God’s promises in the Bible! And we’ll also see, just like how it was in the Thessalonian church, that one of the primary ways God helps us in our sufferings is through the love and support of our Christian family. If you’re someone fighting a solo battle today, you’ve gotta seek support and help in God’s family here in Zion Bishan. Lastly, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we’ll also find deep patience and courage to face a world turned upside down, a world that hates King Jesus and His followers. So then, brothers and sisters, do not be moved by these afflictions.

Stumbling Blocks & Foolishness

*Mini 5-min long sermon prepared as part of preaching training in my church.

What do we mean when we say someone is a ‘stumbling block’ to others? I imagine something like this...

"Eh, you know your friend Jonathan that bible study leader, he keeps messaging this Jamie and bringing her out on dates 1 on 1. But he’s got a girlfriend already right - tell him don’t stumble her leh, how can he do this?"
You see, when we talk about stumbling block these days, we mean someone giving another person a wrong idea. We mean someone setting a bad example with the way they live their lives. But in 1 Corinthians 1, the way that Paul talks about stumbling block is slightly different. Paul tells us a stumbling block is something or, more accurately, someone unexpected. Paul takes the phrase to a cosmic level, he tells us that this ‘stumbling block’ affects the most important issue for all of humanity. This stumbling block affects what kind of God you believe in – whether it’s a God of your own imagination, or whether it’s the God of Jesus Christ.

The stumbling block Paul talks about refers to the Lord Jesus Christ, the power of God. Paul tells us that the Jews have a serious, terminal condition when it comes to believing in their God. As he says in v. 22, the Jews demand signs, they only respond to miracles and amazing deeds. But can you really blame them? Their history is deeply entrenched in miracles – the Living God spoilt them with 10 mindblowing miracles. He even helped them escape the superpower nation of that time by walking on a dry ocean bed pathway opened in the middle a sea. But the Jews missed the whole point of the signs – they were just hints telling them to focus on God’s ultimate salvation in Jesus Christ. Even in the Gospel accounts, with God Himself walking among them, the Jews ask Jesus “what sign do you show us for doing these things?”

Because of their addiction to signs, the Lord God 'trips them up' by with something unexpected. It’s not the way the Jews want it but there it is – the hero they’ve been waiting for all their lives, broken and bloodied on a Roman cross. There’s nothing flamboyant, there are no miraculous signs, there’s no magic show, nothing for them to buzz about – it’s just a dying man. They didn’t expect God to be so weak.

But other than stumbling block, Paul talks about something else – he talks about foolishness. You know, these days, when we say “you are a fool for love” or he's a "fool for her" – we imagine a person blinded by love, wasting a lot of effort, spending a lot of time and money on somebody. Only that person doesn’t quite return the same affection.

Again, Paul talks about foolishness quite differently from what we think. In fact, he says in 1 Corinthians 4 that the apostles, the church leaders are ‘fools for Christ’ or, in other words, they reflect foolish godliness the way Jesus did! In fact, Paul says Jesus is the very foolishness of God, the weakness of God. Well, if the Jews suffer from a fatal sickness which is their demand for signs, Paul says the Greeks also have a chronic condition – the Greeks seek wisdom. They have carefully worked out logic, they have painstakingly reasoned out complex philosophies. They are the kings of human thought – they’ve combined all of humanity’s knowledge and determined how the universe functions. If you know a little bit of Greek philosophy, the Greeks believe that true power and strength lies outside of humanity. Mankind is feeble and destined to die. And so they’ve created all kinds of warrior gods  – Zeus the god of thunder, Athena the god wisdom – these are all divine gods, they’re not fleshly, they don't interact with weak humanity.

But Paul tells us how Jesus comes to deal with such lofty human ideology. Jesus becomes flesh, dwells among us, takes on carnal weakness. There’re no lightning bolts from the sky, this Jesus is not distantly aloof, he’s not divine-from-a-distance. This heavenly king comes to serve, this life-giving God comes to spill His own blood and give His own life.

If you want a crystal-clear picture of the God of the universe – don’t begin with your own expectations, don’t conceptualize with your own mind – start with Jesus Christ crucified on the Cross. Maybe, at first, who Jesus reveals God to be may not be what you expect, but He’ll show you who God really is.

Future's Bright

*Shared at an inter-batch prayer fellowship meeting in NUS Law.

I wonder if you've ever thought what your future will be like? What lies ahead? A good life? Struggling and suffering? How will your future job be like? What will your future wife or husband be like? You see, it would be really awesome if we could send someone ahead of us, to sort everything out, to make sure our future’s bright and the future’s glorious, wouldn’t it?

And that’s what the Israelites do before they enter the land of Canaan. The story of Israel began in Genesis when the Lord made a covenant with Abraham about his promised seed. Isaac and Jacob came along in the family line. Then, Jacob’s abandoned son Joseph brings his family, the small nation of Israel down into Egypt where they thrive. But things changed quickly and a new Egyptian Pharaoh enslaved Israel. But through Jesus Christ the outstretched arm of God, Israel is redeemed from slavery. The Living God introduces them to His new way of life, with His new law and national rules at Mount Sinai. And now in the book of Numbers, the Living God prepares them for the land promised to their first grandfather Abraham. They’re on the edge of the land of Canaan, and they’re about to send someone ahead into the future to make sure everything’s okay. And here’s how everything unfolds in Numbers 13:17.

17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan and said to them, “Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, 18 and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19 and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.”

And so, Moses - their shepherd who led them out of Egypt has called for an undercover mission. He’s chosen 12 spies, one each from each tribe of Israel. And for some reason, he’s given one of the spies a new name. In the midst of choosing his special forces recee team, he just decides to rename the representative from the tribe of Ephraim. “Hey, you, okay are you ready for the most important moment of Israel’s national history? We’re going into the land. You are going help recee the land. You’re ready yeah? Oh by the way, what’s your name? Hoshea? Ok no, from now on your name is Joshua. No more Hoshea. Just Joshua.” And one day, at God’s appointed time, this Joshua would lead God’s people into the land of Canaan. Of course, we should know that Joshua and Jesus are essentially the same names because they are two different ways to read the Hebrew word Yeshua.

But that’s not all for the special ops recee team because there’s a guy called Caleb from the tribe of Judah - the tribe where the line of kings would come from. And Caleb’s name is interesting because it means “after the heart” that is to say “a man after the Lord’s heart.” So, Caleb, Joshua and the other 10 spies head out for 40 days to recee the land and check out the future on behalf of all of Israel.
In Numbers 13, their report is given: 26 They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
So the land is great, there’re huge fruits and plentiful things! But it seems there’s also bad news. Look down further at v. 28: However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. In verse 31, they continue: 31 “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”… verse 32 “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. Verse 33. We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Turn to the next chapter in Numbers 14 where it continues: 1 That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. 2 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

Israel is all dramatic and emo because they’re consumed by their fear of these giants. But, hang on a moment, 2 of the 12 spies seem to bring a different account - Joshua, Mr. Jesus and Caleb, Mr. After God’s Own Heart. Hear what they say. In chapter 13 verse 30: But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” And in chapter 14, verse 7: “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

And so, what will Israel do here? They have two options before them. Option number (1) They can choose to be consumed by fear from what they hear the 10 spies tell them. They can refuse to enter the land because they are at a military disadvantage. Option number (2) They can remember that the Living God is the Lord who saved them from the great superpower nation, Egypt. They can remember He promised them the land and simply enter it.

Of course, Israel ignores Joshua and Caleb. It’s a common theme in the bible for God’s people to reject anyone named Jesus or persecute those after God’s own heart.

But let’s pause here for a moment to think. Have you ever read this part of Israel’s story and wondered what’s going on? Why do Joshua and Caleb talk like this? Did they visit a different land? I mean, objectively speaking, the Canaanites are for a fact taller than them, stronger than them, and they have great defences in their fortified cities. So what’s a nation of pilgrims and nomads gonna do against them. What does Israel have - they don’t have horses or chariots or great weapons or strong soldiers. They just came out of Egypt as fast as they could. And so why do Joshua and Caleb give such a positive account? Isn’t the situation so obviously clear - it is an outright disadvantage for Israel, isn’t it?
What do you think Joshua and Caleb saw - and what do you think other ten spies saw?

Here’s what I think influenced Joshua and Caleb saw during their recee mission. Look at Deuteronomy 1. In Deuteronomy, this is after Israel has walked 40 years in the wilderness, they’ve seen that the Living God provides for them, water from the rock cleft for them, manna or bread from heaven, their clothes and shoes did not wear out. And after they’ve walked one big round in the desert, the Israelites stand at the edge of the Promised Land again. And what Moses tells the Israelites, I believe Joshua and Caleb remembered after their recee mission. Moses says in v. 29: ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 30 The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ 32 Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God, 33 who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.'

You see, Joshua and Caleb saw what Moses saw. They remembered that the Living God was the very same mighty warrior who fought for them to save them from Egypt. They remembered that the Living God was the same Heavenly Father who carried Israel his son all the way through the wilderness. They remembered that the Living God was the Pathfinder who always went ahead of them to scout out a place for them to camp in the wilderness, a place of safety, a place of shelter. They remembered that this same God who did all these wonderful things promised Israel the land of Canaan, for sure, confirm will win as long you obey and go in to occupy.

It’s like Joshua and Caleb had put on a pair of spectacles that the rest of Israel refused to put on. Their eyes were opened to the mighty deeds of God, you could say they had promise-seeking eyes. And when they looked at the land of Canaan and their giants, it’s not that the giants were shorter or scrawny because of some magical optic illusion in these spectacles. No, but they fixed their eyes on God’s promise, they focused their vision on God’s faithful track record. And so, they were able to say, do not fear the people of the land, their protection is removed from them, the Lord is with us!

And that’s what the Israelites needed to do! They needed to fix their eyes on God’s promise and God’s mighty deeds. And most importantly, they needed to fix their eyes on Jesus! They needed to fix their eyes on God’s redemption by looking to Joshua, he was the forerunner of Jesus Christ who would bring God’s people into the land of the living. They only needed to trust the words of Joshua.

What does this mean for us? We face terrifying prospects and uncertainty in the future. We face fearsome giants who threaten to shake our faith. And I’m not even talking about examinations or our future employment specifically. But anything that threatens to take our eyes away from looking to Jesus and to God’s promises. Anything that puts us off from marching on ahead into the future with deep assurance of God’s providence. Anything that hinders us from growing in godliness, in Christlikeness. How are we going to deal with these things?

I think we must remember that we’re quite like Israel, aren’t we? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we will succeed in all we do as long as we trust God, or that all we do will be victorious even from an earthly perspective. Unless we belong to a nation of 6 million given a divine promise to enter a geographical piece of land promised to us, things are quite different!

But we can still learn from Israel. I think we must remember that our sinful past is long behind us - there’s no more Egypt to return to, no more slavery of sin to return to. We need to remember that our present and our now are fully secure as Jesus Christ journeys alongside us. Our future is absolutely certain with our Heavenly Father who will carry us home to him one day.

As the book of Hebrews tells us, today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts. Look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and like him, for the joy of a certain future with God set before us, endure the present and run the race.

When We Don't Feel Like Praising God

Here's how the ideal day begins: I wake up bursting with delight - I am a child of God after all! Leaping out of bed in the strength of my Savior, my steps bounce with joy as I head for the morning shower. The refreshing touch of water on the skin covers me with praise as I remember the daily mercies of the Lord God falling upon me as the morning dew descends upon the flowers. What a time to be alive! Thank you for every new good morning!

Here's how the TYPICAL day begins: I wake up, with the startling intrusion of the phone alarm. The effort given to get out of bed and into the showers is both begrudging and halfhearted. On the way out of my room, I've to open my door - I've got an Adam 4d poster on the inside of my door which I happen to read as I open everyday - "The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day is to have my soul happy in the Lord." George Muller wrote it, the wonderful evangelist who built Christian orphanages for children in Bristol. "Alright George, but not today," I tell Mr. Muller (as I did yesterday). What a day I'm going to have ahead, much to do, many to meet, little time to rest, barely room to slack. Thank you Lord for this day, but... Not really man.


Valerie shared at our batch prayer group yesterday the Scriptural exhortation to praise the Lord at all times:

- He's great, so praise Him! "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in city of God, in His holy mountain." (Psalm 48:1)
- He's really merciful, so praise Him! "The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who will say ‘Praise the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His mercy endures forever’ – and of those who will bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord." (Jeremiah 33:11)
- Christ offered Himself up for our sins, so praise Him! "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name." (Hebrews 13:15)

How do we praise? Well, the Psalmist says in the 111th Psalm - "with my whole heart"!

When do we praise? Anytime and all the time it seems!

Psalm 34: A psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed c.f. 1 Samuel 22: 13-15 when the anointed king of Israel had to flee from Saul, to descend into feign madness (his condition was super poor) ~ Everything was against him! But he begins Psalm 34:1 like this "I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth." As Val suggested, perhaps this is what makes a man or woman of God. When you’re down, everything’s against you and you can see no natural reason for doing it, you still praise God.


But it's not that straightforward isn't it? Most days we don't feel like praising, or we feel drained of joy and gratitude, it does take a lot of effort to remember Jesus' goodness or to delight in the daily God-given life we have in Christ. I couldn't help but wonder, what do we do when we don't feel like praising, which happens almost on a daily basis?

If we coerce ourselves to praise and rejoice in God, do we not incur the indictment of Jesus - "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Matthew 15:8)? Should we be hypocrites or half-hearted children of God?

Then, I also rememebred Psalm 22. It's the Psalm most known as Christ's prayer/groan of dejection on the Cross of Calvary - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The first 18 verses accurately detail the horror scene of the cross: the Father has abandoned the Son who's become sin on our behalf ("Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?"); the world and even God's people have rejected the Messiah ("But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people."); the haughty spectators laugh in disbelief ("They mock me, “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;""); they stripped him naked to open shame ("they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."). You get the idea, it's rough. In fact, it's the darkest point in history. The Son who has never experienced up the wrath and rejection of His Father God but only eternal love (John 17:24, Proverbs 8:30) is now cast off.

Yet, the same Psalm ends off in assured praise and a strange but sure hope: "You have rescued me..." (v. 21); "the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord" (v. 26). And, perhaps most startingly, from Psalm 22, the author of Hebrews (chapter 2) quotes, "I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you" (v.22).

So we see that in the midst of the deepest suffering Jesus faces, on the day no one feels like waking up to, Christ declares that He will lead the Church, His people, in praise of the Lord who delivers and saves! (Hebrews 2:12) It is especially on Calvary's tree that Jesus seems to remember most why He's had to do what He had to do. On the cross where love and hate collide, where God's love meets God's justice as they often say, Jesus remembers His purpose - He also knows that the Lord of Life and Death will bring resurrection and raise Him from the grave it seems ("all the prosperous of the earth shall eat and worship.... even the one who could not keep himself alive.").

It is no wonder the author also said, "for the joy that was set before Him, Jesus endured the Cross" (Hebrews 12:2). Unsurprisingly, when Hebrews quotes Jesus declaring Himself as 'worship leader' of His congregation, leading His people in praise of the Lord... Notice the context. It's part of the Hebrews dude's explaining how Christ has come to be one with humanity, how He's taken on our weak flesh, and how He can relate to us and understand our infirmities. And He experiences these things chiefly at the Cross, the pinnacle of all suffering.

And it is there - there at the Old Rugged Cross!! - that He beckons us to praise alongside Him, to remember the Lord's deliverance. From the depths of our darkness, to see the light of heaven and set our hope in the Living God. That s why Hebrews 12:2 also says, "fix our eyes on Jesus" the author and finisher of our faith.

This means today I don't have to will my unwilling soul into praise-filled songs. Today, I don't have to declare empty songs of joy half-heartedly. today, I don't have to spiritually constipate my heart with delight. Those 'spiritual disciplines' are not entirely useless in themselves... But... My first and primary duty in order to have my soul happy in the Lord is to look at Jesus at the Cross.

Leprosies of the Heart and Blood-Soaked Birds

We talked last week about skin diseases and how they represent our sinful condition in the book of Leviticus. Remember Leviticus 13 tells us that the disease is much more serious than it looks, it is more than skin deep. Similarly, sin goes deeper than the surface. Sin is the very condition of our hearts - the prophet Jeremiah says our hearts are desperately sick, and we need the Lord to search it out, diagnose and heal us.

Secondly, remember also the sickness underneath leads to death ultimately. Slowly but surely it will. Remember how it quietly numbs the victim’s senses and dulls him to pain? In the same way, sin also leads ultimately to death, dulls us His spiritual call, sin leads to eternal separation from the Lord. The sick leper cannot enter the presence of God, he cannot even enter the camp of Israel because he is so unclean and contaminated! But we also mentioned that there is hope for the leper, there is hope for the sick sinner. Some of us here live under the crushing weight of sin daily. We know Jesus Christ but we live in despair because our fleshly desires and the poison of our sinful heart simply overwhelms daily like a wave against the shore, over and over again. But today, we need to know again there is hope for the sick sinner, for us. In Leviticus 14, we will see that there are occasions when the sick person is healed. The Israelites know it is only their God, the Living God, who can bring healing. So, let us see how our God brings healing.
But before that, let me tell you about a man called Dr Paul Brand. He was a Christian missionary doctor who lived among lepers in India. This is what he documented about the ‘healing process’ his medical team discovered. First, Dr Brand began with the hands. Lepers have claw-like hands that are rigid. He transferred muscles and tendons to restore a full range of movement. The surgeries and rehab took months and sometimes years. He did the same for the patients’ feet, and these patients had to go through rehab to relearn how to distribute weight and pressure, to walk normally again.

But then there were the physical deformities, the scars. No one wanted to employ fully these recovered lepers even though they were physically functional because they really didn’t look human. I don’t mean to be rude but think Voldermort from Harry Potter or Anakin Skywalker after he got burnt in Revenge of the Sith. The scars were so bad that some patients asked Dr Brand to reverse the effects of surgery so they could have obvious physical deformities again, so that they go back to their life of begging and earn some money. For this, Dr Brand added cosmetic surgery into the healing process. They reconstructed noses, they prevented blindness by restoring the patients’ ability to blink. The lepers who lost their eyebrows had to have new eyebrows to look normal. To do that, Dr Brand transferred a piece of their scalp with the hair, nerve and blood supply intact and sewed it on the patients’ foreheads.

It takes so much effort to help a leper recover through medical procedures, but even then, the leper is never ever completely healed - the disease may subside but the effects always remain in the form of scars of minor physical disabilities. All this is meant to affirm what Scripture says - that true healing can only come if the Lord visits the leper and brings full cleansing. That’s exactly what happened in Mark’s gospel when Jesus stretched out his hand to heal a leper. And Mark records that immediately, the leprosy left the man and he was made clean. And then Jesus told the man, go show yourself to the priest as a testimony. But as a testimony of what, Jesus? Well, as a testimony that the one who heals skin diseases, the only one who can bring wholeness to lepers, he is here! God has visited his people! But of course, Jesus’ touch is quite the cheat code - we need to look at the healing process in the Old Testament to get a better picture of how sin is cured and how all of us are made whole again. So, please look with me in 2 Kings 5 at the story of a man called Naaman.

1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. 2 Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman's wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (she’s talking about Elisha the prophet, God’s servant to Israel) 4 So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” 5 And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” Right, so obviously Naaman gets his wish granted because he was a great man, a mighty commander and his king favoured him.

So Naaman went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” Okay so the king of Israel isn’t overreacting or being dramatic here because he knows only the Living God can bring such healing.

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” Elisha says don’t emo, there’s a way out.
9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. Can you just imagine the scenario? The super commander of the mighty Syrian army comes with his many Ferraris (because horses) to Elisha in Israel. The prophet doesn’t even come out to chat with him personally. Not only that, he sent a mere messenger to give instructions. And then, the instructions sound pretty ridiculous to him - go wash in this Jordan River 7 times and everything will be okay after that. Then he starts raging about other better rivers with cleaner waters and decides he can’t deal with this crazy solution.

13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. Thankfully, Naaman has pretty perceptive servants who tell him not to be silly and actually give it a shot. After all, the solution was pretty simply - even if it didn’t work out. That’s why they said, “has he actually said to you, ‘wash, and be clean’?” can it really be that simple? And so Naaman does actually give it a shot and he comes us clean with baby skin, new flesh!

Now, again this healing process is really interesting and quite similar to God’s prescribed way of healing skin diseases in Leviticus 14. Look with me at Leviticus 14. After, someone has been healed of leprosy by the Lord, this is what he’s supposed to do before the priest. In verse 3…
3 if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, 4 the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedar wood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. 5 And the priest shall command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. So, one of the birds is killed and its blood is collected in a clay bowl. 6 The priest shall take the live bird with the cedar wood and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Bird number 2, which is still alive is baptised with the blood of the dead bird number 1, and throughout this process, to emphasis the baptism significance of the healing, fresh water is running over the birds.

7 And then the priest shall sprinkle the blood seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field. What’s going on here? Well, because the other bird dies, bird number 2 gets to go free. Of course this speaks of Christ, who baptises us in His blood to cleanse us of our sins! And all this while, just imagine what bird number 2 is thinking? Its soaked in the blood of its friend, its flying away with blood-drenched wings. It’s the same for the leper who gets sprinkled with the blood of the bird too. It’s the familiar picture of the Cross, Word of God tells us the blood of Christ has been shed for the forgiveness of sins, we are now free and purified before the Lord.

8 And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. And after that he may come into the camp, but live outside his tent seven days. Just as he was sprinkled with blood 7 times, he has to wait 7 days after bathing.

9 And then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair from his head, his beard, and his eyebrows. He shall shave off all his hair, and then he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean. When we see 7 days we’re thinking of creation, and when the leper enters the 8th day completely shaven, no hair, beard, no eyebrows even, he’s clean. It’s almost as if he’s become a new creation, he’s been given a new life, and can now stand before the Living God and live with his people! Just to emphasise his new life, he even looks like a newborn baby. He is baptised into full wholeness, just like Naaman at the River Jordan. I’d like to end off by reading to you a short paragraph about Naaman’s healing from the Jesus Storybook Bible.

"God knew that Naaman was even sicker on the inside than he was on the outside. Naaman was proud. He thought he didn't need God. His heart didn't work properly - it couldn't feel anything. You see, Naaman had leprosy of his heart. God was not only going to heal Naaman's skin, he was going to heal his pride. Naaman finally agreed to wash in the river, and instantly, his skin became smooth like a baby. Naaman wanted to pay Elisha. 'God healed you. You can't pay,' Elisha said. 'It's free.' And so it was that a very sick man was healed... God knew sin was like leprosy. It stopped his children's hearts from working properly and in the end it would kill them. Years later, God was going to send another Servant (just like Naaman's servant girl) to forgive all of God's children and heal the terrible sickness in their hearts. Their hearts were broken. But God can mend broken hearts."

Again, I wonder if we think enough about this question - what is our view of our sin? Are our hearts broken by the power of sin today? Or our hearts hardened by pride, like Naaman against God? Perhaps we doubt he'll be able to help us? Or do we feel unworthy and ugly even before God? Look to Jesus at the cross. See the precious flow of his blood. We have been baptised in the blood of Jesus Christ and by this we have overcome our sin.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
(Isaiah 1:18)