This week’s story explores through Bible readings from Old and New Testaments what God’s grace is, and how you can experience it in your life. The readings we’re looking at this week are Psalm 14, two Old Testament passages about when God changed His mind, and also when God would not change His mind, in Exodus 32 and Jeremiah 4; Jesus’ teaching in Luke 15 about the extraordinary effort that goes into rescuing a sheep in difficulty, or finding a lost piece of jewellery; and Paul’s teaching for his assistant Timothy drawing on how God met him and challenged him to turn from a judgmental and cruel past life, that’s in 1 Timothy 1.
• See The Living Word Bible Study for groups and individuals: Sept 11: Grace Flows To Those who Know Their Need of God
Psalm 14 sets the scene by contrasting a godless person’s aimless, scheming and ultimately anxious existence, with those who know God and know His peace in their lives.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”… The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are… any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt… They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the Lord.
But…they are… overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous… Evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores His people, let… Israel be glad!
Psalm 14 excerpted
God is holy. That means He is untainted by any selfish motive, and free from any strand of unfairness, vindictiveness or desire to control. He cannot countenance sin in any form, whether that is personal selfishness, or a more overt rebellion against his ways. Like going to another country and respecting the customs, when we turn to God we must respect His ways and put them above our ways. When we don’t, we need to put that right with Him. There is no compromise here.
The old covenant perspective is black and white – obedience and blessing, or disobedience and bad consequences. God expected absolute loyalty in return for His absolute provision and protection.
But when Moses was no longer present to remind them, they quickly forgot and turned to pagan ways, as we read in Exodus 32:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf… They are a stiff-necked people… My anger [burns] against them and…I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
**But Moses sought the favour of the LORD [saying]…“Why should your anger burn against Your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with… a mighty hand?…Turn from Your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on Your people.
**Remember Your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore… ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land… [as] their inheritance forever.’ ”
Then the LORD relented and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened.
Exodus 32:7-14 excerpted
In less difficult times, God’s people began to lose their focus on God. When they no longer had to rely on Him, they got out of the habit of relying on Him!
It’s a human failing and one that is familiar to us today.
At that time there were reminders — a great many of them. Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah all spoke into this situation and warned of the consequences. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria which should have acted as a final warning to its neighbours and kinsmen in Judah. Still the slide into godless independence continued. Moses had pleaded with God to relent from judgment — but this time there would be no further chances, as Jeremiah proclaimed in God’s solemn warning:
“A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward My people… Now I pronounce My judgments against them… They do not know Me… they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”
I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty…at the mountains, and they were quaking…
I looked, and there were no people…and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins… the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent. I have decided and will not turn back.”
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 excerpted
This is a low point — and it was partly fulfilled by the ‘special military operation’ that overran Judah and Jerusalem and saw most of the inhabitants that were still living exiled to Babylonia. But it is not the end of the story. In some ways, it is the beginning of ours, because God was to provide a much easier route to forgiveness and salvation, a new and better covenant that Jeremiah also foretold and a way for people of every kind, colour, social group and ethnicity to know God. How? Through encountering God’s Son, Jesus, either as the Galilean rabbi who was then crucified after a short three years of ministry — or by encountering Him spiritually today. This is the new spiritual birth spoken of in John 3. You don’t have to be particularly knowledgeable or spiritual and strangely, it helps if you don’t see yourself as religious because you won’t then be relying on that. You don’t have to be a ‘good’ person to believe in Jesus and trust in Him — as we are about to hear — because He knows where you are. You just need to hear His voice on the inside, and respond. To recognise who Jesus is and open your heart to Him and let Him change you. Let’s hear this in Luke 15:
Now, tax collectors and sinners were gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine, and go after the lost sheep until he finds it; and joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home? Then he calls his friends and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
“I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, and search, and when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:1-10 excerpted
This is challenging to us in terms of our church priorities.
Leaving the 99 good church attenders to go after the one who isn’t, would be a different kind of mission statement! Similarly, to stop everything to concentrate on the lost coin is hardly what we do. However we try to define the sheep in the fold and the one outside, we come back to God’s abundant grace and mercy to those who do not deserve it — a fair description both of what God’s grace is about, and of Christian salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice.
If we are not quite convinced, and like the Pharisees we want to hold on to our sense of merit and entitlement and believe that it holds sway with God, Paul shares some personal testimony about God’s grace in his life, with his apprentice Timothy. He uses this story to emphasise to Timothy that understanding how God’s grace works, is the really important teaching to grasp and to pass on. We hear it in Paul’s own words in 1 Timothy 1:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord… that He considered me trustworthy… Even though I was… a blasphemer and a [violent] persecutor… I was shown mercy… Grace… was poured out on me… along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying… Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst… For that… reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible… be honour and glory for ever and ever.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 excerpted
Now, this is coming from Paul, a Jew, and a Pharisee by background! He knew ALL about the sense of entitlement and superiority that observant Jews believed. It had been important to him — the way that form and ritual are emphasised in certain formal Christian church traditions today. But we have to ask ourselves, whether this is more Old Testament than new. Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion, and in several places in the Bible we learn how God detests religion — because religion and what it requires us to do, rather than believe, is the enemy of His grace and unconditional mercy.
Jesus urged His hearers simply to have a change of heart — and trust in Him.
When we start adding ‘church doctrine’ to Jesus’ intentions and the Bible’s teaching, we end up with something that is more about us than it is about Him — and it leads in the direction of salvation being through the church and its ordinances, instead of salvation being through Jesus and His sacrifice for us. Paul had stern words to say about false teaching which attempted to build back the religious framework of Judaism that Jesus, Son of God, had rendered obsolete and cancelled! At His crucifixion there was an earthquake and a remarkable sign when the heavy woven separation of the holy of holies in the temple was torn from top to bottom. No separation, no more priests and exclusivity.
And this bears out what Paul is sharing. In His early sense of entitlement and religious superiority, he had become a persecutor, an accomplice to murder and “the worst of sinners”. In his actions he hated God and especially hated the Galilean rabbi Jesus of Nazareth and His followers of “The Way”. As a candidate for the kingdom of God, He was disqualified! Yet God sought him out, confronted him with a vision of His glory, Jesus spoke to him and told him to go and seek help from one of the people he had come to arrest (that’s the story of Acts 9) and then used him as an example to others of how ANYONE can simply believe and receive eternal life.
God would not change His mind when His people refused and refused and refused to change their minds — as Jeremiah foretold — and subsequently opened up a path of salvation through His Son, Jesus, which was not restricted to Jews and which did not favour ‘good’ people.
The less of ourselves we bring to the party, the more we are able to receive what God has already done for us. The less weight we put on our good works — religious, charitable or any other form — the easier it is for Jesus to sweep us up, carry us back and give us a new start in His new life. When we stop struggling for our own independence, we experience what God’s loving grace really is — and why it really is too good to be untrue.