Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Thomas the Doubter

Reading

John 20:19-31

Introduction

Not much is said about Thomas in scripture.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely list him among the twelve closest disciples of Jesus.  John gives us a little more information about him. 

When John first mentions Thomas, Jesus has declared his intent to go to the tomb of Lazarus despite the warnings that the Jews had already tried to stone him once and would do so again.  Thomas, with heavy resignation, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

The next time Thomas appears, Jesus is explaining to the disciples that he is going away to prepare a place for them but that they know the way to where he is going.  Thomas, not able to make any sense of this, butts in with, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?

In the account we've heard read today, Thomas sticks to what he knows: he saw Jesus crucified; saw the Romans make sure he was dead by spearing him; saw the tomb and the stone rolled in place.  Dead people don’t come back so, regardless of anything anyone says they saw, Jesus is dead.  For him to believe otherwise he must see it for himself:  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.

He seemed to have little confidence in his closest associates or in their ability to see things right.  Ever since, he's been known as Doubting Thomas which is somewhat of an unkindness, if the legend of his subsequent activities is true.  But, at this stage of his experience, he epitomises unbelief for us, just one week after the most significant sequence of events in human history.

His unbelief raises a few questions for us.
  • What does unbelief look like?  
  • Where does it come from?  
  • What effect does it have on us?  
  • What can we do about it?

What Does Unbelief Look Like?

The first symptom of Thomas’s unbelief is that he rejects the evidence of credible witnesses. 

The people telling him that Christ was alive were not strangers.  They were people known to him, people like himself.  He'd spent three years in their company, and had shared their experiences.  The only difference was that Thomas was missing when Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  They were overjoyed, and eager to tell Thomas they had seen the Lord.

We can imagine the logic behind Thomas’s reaction.  “I’m sure you think you did, but things like that don’t happen.  If it makes you happy, then good for you; but I’m a realist—you can’t expect me to believe the impossible.”  Thomas said he would not believe unless he saw it for himself.  Perhaps he thought the stress had all been too much for them and they'd lost the plot.

Are we not the same?  We meet people who claim a tangible experience of God.  They have the embarrassing habit of talking about God all the time.  They seem to have a bit more joy than the rest of us.  We say, “I won’t believe God can touch anyone in this way unless he touches me too.  But that isn’t likely to happen because God doesn’t do that sort of thing, and I don’t need it.” 

Another symptom is that Thomas rejects the words of Jesus.  Somehow, all Jesus had taught had gone over his head.  Jesus had explained to the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  (Matthew 16:21) 

We are also very good at judging things not against the Bible but against our own interpretation of the Bible, or even explaining the Bible away where it doesn't fit our experience:
  • There have been times of silence from God before and this is another one. 
  • God healed then but doesn’t today. 
  • The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for now.
We avoid the truth because it's easier than calling our experience into question. 

Our apparent religion leaves us in danger of “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Ti 3:5).

Where Does Unbelief Come From?

What is unbelief anyway?  It's not merely absence of faith; I think it's something more sinister than that.

It's not just having questions about the truth of something.  We all have honest questions about some of the things we believe.  It’s not that we don’t believe, more that we haven’t yet found the right perspective on the problem.  There’s nothing wrong with that. 

Unbelief is more of an inability to believe something, or even a determination not to believe something.  Look at what Thomas said in verse 25.  Paraphrasing, “Unless my exacting proofs are given I WILL NOT believe.”  He's already made his mind up!

How did Thomas get into this state?  One cause of unbelief can be our circumstances.  By tradition, Thomas was a carpenter, like Jesus, but we can hardly blame his occupation for his cynicism.  Perhaps he suffered terrible disillusionment when all his hopes for Jesus failed at Calvary.  What would he have thought after the crucifixion?  It all came to nothing in the end.  You fool!  Fancy being taken in by all that.

We can well understand Thomas's reluctance to join another risky adventure.  Thomas needed his perspective changing if he was to recover faith.

How many people have lost faith because of a sudden reversal of fortunes?  Could it be that it's not that Jesus has failed but that their expectations have been misplaced?  Might we need a change of perspective?

I have friends who, some years ago, lost their daughter at the age of eight through a tragic accident.  People said to them, “How can you believe in a God who lets this happen?”  Their response was, “How will we ever get through this without God's help?”

The apostle Paul gives us a big hint about another source of unbelief in 2 Corinthians 4:3.  He writes, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel...”.  People are locked into unbelief because Satan has blinded them to truth.  As “the god of this world”, he's pulling the strings of our society.

In the west, the Age of Reason has robbed us of faith. We look for rational explanations.  Where we can’t find one, we paper over the cracks with the idea that one day, when we have more knowledge, we will find one.  Well, one day it will be too late!  Perhaps the only explanation is God! 

Then, we have our affluent society.  We have no apparent need of God.  We can take care of ourselves.  We don’t need faith when we’ve money in the bank! 

Even as believers, we swim in the same soup.  We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society.  We cannot rely on only what we can see.

Once when I went scuba diving with a friend in the sea at Whitley Bay,  we were looking for a shipwreck we knew was there.  Visibility was awful, and we were tempted to give up, but we had a compass bearing to follow.  We pressed on and found not only the wreck but an enormous lobster and an octopus!  We'd have missed out if we'd gone only by what we could see.

Thomas was not alone in his unbelief, of course.  All the disciples were numbed in their senses.  All had lived in the world influenced by Satan but we can’t blame it all on Satan and circumstance.  Perhaps they all needed to hear the words that Jesus spoke to two others on the road to Emmaus.  “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Lk 24:25).  Our own hearts can be faulty.

I confess the often slowness of my own heart to believe.  I am an analytical person by nature and by training.  There is nothing wrong with that but my tendency has been to over-analyse things that affect me personally.  I've identified all the problems.  I've looked for the low-risk option.  I've tended to rule out steps of faith.  For me, this is unbelief.  God wants me to live by faith not to restrict myself to my own perspective.

We need to guard our hearts and minds against the influence of today’s society. As Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it."

What Effect Does Unbelief Have On Us?

The writer to the Hebrews says of the Israelites “...they were not able to enter [into God's rest], because of their unbelief.” (He 3:19).  Unbelief will keep us out of what God has for us.  Thomas, for a while, missed out on the joy of the other disciples because of his unbelief. 

I believe we are at a very significant time in the life of our Circuit: it could be make or break for us.  I believe God wants to work in Tynedale.  There's a wave coming in and, like a surfer, we need to catch it.  I don't want us to miss out on riding God’s wave of renewal because we don't have the faith to see it. We need to get in the water where the wave will be, not wait to see if the wave is really there.  If we only watch from the beach, the wave will break on the shore and be gone.

The writer to the Hebrews also warns, “See to it brothers that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (He 3:12).  This points us to the biggest danger of unbelief.  The writer here is not saying get rid of people with unbelief but see to it they find a remedy because unbelief can turn them away from God.

What Can We Do About Unbelief?

Here are three remedies to think about: the grace of God, the evidence, and personal choice.

First, think of the grace the Lord Jesus showed to Thomas.  He came back when Thomas was there and dealt very personally and directly with him.  He made sure that Thomas got to see his hands and side.  The Lord will surely meet us at our point of need too, if we give him the chance.  We need to put ourselves in the right place at the right time.  God has promised we will find him when we seek him with all our heart! 

Second, consider the evidence.  We have in the Bible the accounts of reliable eye-witnesses.  In Christian bookshops you can find no end of books about countless believers who have proven God faithful down the ages.  Search the Internet for a film called “Transformations” to see the changes God brought in modern times to the societies of a Columbian city, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi, a valley in California and a rural town in Guatemala.  Believe the evidence you see.  God can do the same here!  Expect to see God at work.

[The Transformations films can be found here Transformations I and here  Transformations II.]

Third, start making the right choices now.  Jesus gave Thomas a command: “Stop doubting and believe”.  But it was his choice to believe.  Let's not allow our thinking to be characterised by unbelief.  Let's recognise we are not immune from the circumstances of life and not let circumstance rob us of faith.  Let's recognise that the enemy of our souls is blinding the minds of unbelievers and that he will still try to blind us if we let him.  Let's each one of us make Jesus truly our Lord and our God, like Thomas did.  Let's trust him, no matter what.  “Stop doubting and believe”. 

Epilogue

After the events in our passage, Thomas is next heard of in Acts joining constantly in prayer with the other apostles after the Ascension of Jesus, renewed and restored and active in the life and mission of the church.  Beyond that is legend.  Thomas went to India and founded a church that is still in evidence today. He laid down his life there for what he believed.  Thomas the Doubter proved full of faith in Jesus Christ, his Lord and his God.

What of God's purposes in Tynedale?  Are we involved yet?  Is unbelief in our way, or are we ready to grasp the vision, believe it and pray and work for its fulfilment?  Can God use people like us?  Yes he can!

Friday, April 3, 2015

What Happened To Jesus At The Cross?

Reading

Mark 15:6-39

Introduction

Our reading is a powerful account of what happened to Jesus Christ in the events surrounding his death.  Many films have also been made about the life of Jesus.  I was once in a service where an excerpt from one of them was used as a backdrop to a song about the victory of the cross.  I found it impossible to sing that rightly joyful song and at the same time watch images of my Lord and Saviour being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem and then nailed to a cross. 

I was too choked up to sing something I found completely incongruous with what I saw.  And though the visual imagery of that film was itself powerful, the film has not yet been made which truly depicts the events of that day.  If it were to be made it would be strongly censored, if not totally banned, for the portrayal of the mindless and gratuitous violence and degradation inflicted on Jesus.

Piecing together the descriptions from the four gospels, and allowing ourselves to take in the enormity of the events, we can reconstruct a truly awful sequence of events.

The Events

After a mockery of a trial, Jesus was blindfolded, spat upon, slapped, and struck with fists by the Sanhedrin guards; was mocked and ridiculed by Herod’s men; was flogged by the Romans so that his back was torn to shreds; had a crown of vicious thorns rammed on his head, and then was beaten about the head with a staff by Roman soldiers, who mocked him and paid false homage to him.

He was made to carry his own cross but was so weak by now that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for him.  The gospels seem to gloss over the shame and agony of crucifixion.  As Mark puts it, “And they crucified him.”  What an understatement!  In fact, Jesus was stripped completely naked and stretched out by three Roman soldiers while a fourth drove iron spikes through his wrists and ankles.

Once the cross was hauled aloft and the full weight of Jesus’ body hung from those spikes in the heat of the day, he was mocked by his countrymen, the soldiers divided up his clothes and cast lots for his undergarment.

Finally, six hours later, he died.  Later than evening, just to make sure he was really dead, a Roman soldier drove a spear through his side into his heart.  Blood and water flowed from the wound, probably blood cells and plasma which had separated in the chambers of his heart, indicating that he had been dead for a long time.  Jesus did not swoon on the cross, as some would have us believe.  He died!

In the crucifixion of Jesus, we could easily see the triumph of evil.  Jesus went about doing good and healing the sick, but now it’s all gone pear-shaped and his ministry has ended in disaster.

In reality, everything happened according to God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.  All that Jesus experienced was a deliberate and purposeful act of God, and Jesus knew that it was what he came to earth for.  We shall see evidence of that when we look at OT prophecy in a moment.

It is no small wonder that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Who would relish the prospect of what lay before Jesus.  But His Father’s will was that the cup should not pass from him.  Jesus had to drink the cup to its dregs.  But why did this have to happen?  What was the point?  Before he died, Jesus cried out, “IT IS FINISHED”.  Did he mean, “That’s it, I’m done for”?

The Reason for the Cross

I have just related the physical events of what happened to Jesus at the cross.  Shocking as these events are, I have not recounted them to shock you, or to stir your emotions, or to make you feel sympathy for Jesus.  But I do want you to understand the full measure of what it was necessary for Jesus to endure.

The horrible execution he underwent was really only the tip of the iceberg.  Beyond the physical, something much deeper was going on. Those final words of Jesus contain the most significant meaning that any words could ever convey.

As Christians, we know that mankind has a deep, deep problem, summed up in the word ‘sin’.  Sin is the transgression of God’s Law.  His Law shows us the way he wants us to live, the right way to live, but we have failed.  Sin has terrible consequences for us.  When we break his Law, we are subject to the curse of the Law and come under God’s judgement: that we are worthy of death.  Sin separates us from God and, unless something is done about it, that separation is forever.  The scriptures tell us about these things.

Is 59:1 “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.  But your iniquities have separated you from your God;  your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.

Gal 3:10 “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.

Ro 6:23 “The wages of sin is death.

If you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at the cross.  If you want to know what God thinks of you, look at the cross.

Sin is a deeply serious thing, and we cannot do anything to save ourselves from its penalty.  But you are of inestimable worth to God.  Even so, there was only one way to save you, and Jesus willingly took that way for you.  Jesus Christ, God made man, the only one who could help us, went to the cross because of our sin and because of his love for us.

If we could save ourselves by our own efforts, do you think that God would allow his only Son, whom he loved, to endure the physical torment of crucifixion?  Jesus died for you so that you could know peace with God and live forever in his presence.

His death on the cross was not the end of a failed mission.  It was the triumphant culmination of God’s plan of salvation.  Jesus’ cry was not “I am finished.”  It was a declaration of success: “It is finished!”, or, “Mission accomplished!”

The Cost of Salvation

The scriptures tell what was happening at the cross because of our sin and because of his love for us.

2 Cor 5:21 “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.

Is 53:4-6 “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each one of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Is 53:8b “For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

Is 53:12b “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

1 Pet 2:24 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

2 Cor 5:19 “...God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.

Heb 2:9 “...he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Gal 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’

Col 2:13b-14 “[God] forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

Ro 5:6-11 "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  … God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!

Ro 3:25 “God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

In our reading from Mark’s gospel, we read that darkness fell from the 6th to the 9th hour.  From 12 noon until 3 pm the sun refused to shine.  Perhaps this was symbolic of what was happening to Jesus.  On the cross, the full horror of our sins fell on Jesus.  He took to himself the guilt of all our wrong acts, all our failures to act, everything that makes God angry with us.

At that point Jesus became so abhorrent, because of our sin, that God the Father turned away.  The unthinkable happened, far worse to Jesus than any of the physical pain: for the first time in all eternity there was a separation between God the Father and God the Son.

Can you feel the pain in his desperate words,  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  He bore the full penalty of our sins. He felt the utter despair that should have been ours.  When he died there was an earthquake, symbolising for us the broken heart of God at the loss of his Son.

At the point of his death, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, showing us that the way into the presence of God was opened for all who trust in Jesus Christ and his saving work at the cross.

Yes, if you want to know what God thinks of sin, look at the cross.  If you want to know what God thinks of you, look at the cross.  See how much he loves you!  At the cross, God’s own love satisfied all the demands of his own justice.

The Response

I have set Christ and him crucified before you.  It is good to remind ourselves about these things.  It is easy to become familiar with them and forget the tremendous cost of our salvation.  The cross is something we should never forget.  The cross is something that we can rejoice in forever.  Yes, we can rejoice in something so terrible, so awesome as Christ’s sacrifice at the cross.

1 Cor 1:18 “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

What is your response to the message?

Perhaps you have never heard this message before.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit has been speaking to you about your sin.  Have you realised your desperate need of a Saviour?  Have you realised that Jesus Christ is that Saviour?  Will you turn from your sins that took him to the cross and give yourself to him completely?  Will you depend on Christ alone to save you?

Christian, have you realised again the consequences of those sins that you hold on to?  Do you want to turn away from them forever?  As we meet around the communion table, confess those things and repent of them; receive his mercy and forgiveness and walk in the freedom from sin that he died to win for you.

The bread we share at Communion reminds us of his body broken for us; the wine of his blood shed for us.  Let us marvel again at his love.  May our hearts burst with overflowing thankfulness and praise for his sacrifice for us.  And let us go out and live like the new creations he has made us to be.