[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[This is a repost of an earlier blog post.  It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.

Purple

On the traditional Advent crown or Advent wreath, the first three candles are purple, colour of royalty and, we are told, penitence.

The association with royalty is familiar and fairly obvious. Until the creation of modern artificial dyes, purple was one of the rarest and most expensive dyes to produce, made from the shells of a particular kind of sea snail at a ratio of shells-to-dye that would make an economist wince.

Accordingly, it was the colour habitually worn by Roman emperors, and various sumptuary laws down the centuries have restricted the wearing of purple to royalty or the uppermost classes.

But purple is a strange colour to represent penitence.

I would personally have thought that brown, grey or black would be penitential colours, representing sackcloth, ashes and mourning.

But no; penitence is symbolised by purple.

It’s a more pleasing colour to look on than brown or grey or black, especially in a candle, but is there more to it than that? After all, if we were used to black candles in the Advent crown, purple would probably look weird.

On closer reflection, purple might be a better colour to represent penitence than I first thought. Penitence is different from sorrow or mourning. Not only is mourning broader than just mourning over sin, but you can feel sorrow for your sins without necessarily exhibiting repentance.

It’s like political apologies in which a public figure expresses “regret” over some indiscretion or other; this is all too often a minimal expression of sorrow over the consequences, not a changing of heart and mind over the decisions that produced them.

Even worse is when it’s an “I’m sorry I got caught”, but most of the time that doesn’t even qualify as regret.

Penitence is what the Bible calls “Godly sorrow” – the sorrow for sin that produces real repentance. And it’s purple because it’s productive, not empty.

It’s not the brown of self-flagellation or deliberately-inflicted discomfort as an attempt to somehow pay the penalty yourself. It’s not the grey of ashes or a burned indication of unpleasant consequences, nor the black of empty space and the open grave.

No; penitence is a living purple.

The association of royalty together with penitence may be an instructive one, too. The essence of repentance is agreement with God that you are in the wrong, and throwing yourself on His mercy.

The mercy of the King.

Symbolically, the dispensing of justice and mercy is one of the prime attributes of kingship; only a just sovereign can display real mercy, because if there is no justice then not getting what you deserve is just randomness or whim. Mercy tempers justice, because without compassion there can be no justice; it is a royal quality to show mercy.

Associated with this, magnanimity is another symbolic attribute of kingship. The giving of gifts is a royal prerogative; the greater the King, the greater the gifts. God’s grace is without limit because His Kingship is without limit. And the same with mercy. As Shakespeare put it, “the quality of mercy is not strained”, given by the ocean not the dropper, because God really is that great a King.

Royalty and penitence, meeting in mercy. As we approach the birth celebration of the King who is the atoning Sacrifice, purple may be more appropriate a colour than I thought.

Thankful

As disturbed as I have been at the prospect of a Trump Presidency and as saddened as I feel at the Evangelical community who voted for him in battalions, thankfulness seems to be thin on the ground this year.

However, thankfulness is one of those rare things whose true extent we only discover as we give voice to it, so the current political state of affairs seems like all the more reason to discover the true depth of my gratitude.

Here goes…

I’m thankful first and most of all for the fact that my Lord thinks I’m worth dying for. I am in awe of the value He sets upon me, and I have become conscious this year of just how high that value is.

I am thankful for my beautiful wife and lovely children. I’m thankful for our continued good health, especially when so many people I know are wrestling with long-term illness, cancer, diabetes, and so on. Thank you, God!

I’m thankful for the new home that we moved into this year, thankful to no longer be beholden to landlords and tenancy agreements for a place to live. I’m thankful for the provision of the Lord to make this possible and for the comfort in the present and the potential for the future that our house represents.

I’m thankful that we still live in a country in which we are free to worship God (or not) in the way we believe He wants. I’m thankful that Jesus Christ’s church in America is not undergoing persecution – no-one is denying us the right to worship or requiring that we do so in certain ways; no-one is throwing stones at our children just because we believe, or denying us employment to try to force us to give up our faith. We have complete freedom to trust in the Lord and to tell others about Him. That’s pretty wonderful, when you think about it.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I talk a lot about not putting faith in the political process to bring about God’s Kingdom; now I get to live it out. I’m thankful that the Kingdom of God truly is bigger than what manner of man sits in the Oval Office, greater than the course of a nation and stronger than my fears of how this might turn out.

I’m thankful that grace and truth really are stronger than hate and fear. I’m thankful that we don’t have to fight our battles according to the flesh, even more thankful that the battles we’re called to aren’t really ours to fight, but the Lord’s.

I’m thankful that God has not given up, that He is still at work through even the darkest of circumstances to bring people into the Kingdom of His wonderful light. I’m thankful that I get to be a part of that, and thankful that the results don’t all depend on me and my effort.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to celebrate this wonderful holiday, which is not only more resistant than most to being commercialised and ruined, but which gives me a whole four day weekend to spend with my family. Given that I normally work six days a week, this is not something to take for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Gratitude

Unlike some other Christian characteristics, like faith or hope, gratitude isn’t something we spend a lot of time talking about. We try and put our own gratitude and thankfulness into words, but that’s a little different. That’s expressing it, not attempting to capture it in words.

There are some reasons for this. It’s often the simplest words that are the hardest to define – when was the last time you tried to explain what “with” means without using the word? – and while things like faith are sufficiently heavenly as to require Biblical definition, we all know what gratitude is, right?

More simply put, it’s difficult to actually put into words.

Gratitude is an attitude of the heart that recognises “without you, this would not be”. We try to develop this recognition in our children by requiring them to say “thank you” when they get birthday or Christmas presents. Without you, I wouldn’t have this.

You can feel gratitude without expressing it, of course, but it’s a characteristic that invites expression. It’s perhaps a little delicate and ephemeral, and without being expressed, it dissipates, being replaced by a smug attitude of taking things for granted. Of expectation and entitlement.

Gratitude is actually vital to our spiritual wellbeing. Lethal to our sense of arrogant independence, it quietly insists that we are not self-made. Someone else had a hand in who and what we are today, both humanly speaking and in Absolute terms. Without You, I would not be.

Recognition of the good part others have played in who we are and what we have is right and honourable. It’s churlish not to and bespeaks a hard, self-centred attitude, stubbornly insistent that we do not need anyone, that we can produce all that we need by our own power. Or else a sense that the giving of others to us is no more than our due, that we deserve it.

Thanksgiving Day is a beautiful reminder that no-one is an island. We depend on one another; we none of us would be or have what we have today without the generosity of other people, and more importantly of the Lord.

I’m not always good at putting my gratitude into words, but thank you all, and thank You, Lord.

We’re All Broken

“Brokenness” language seems to have become common among followers of Jesus today to describe the human condition. “We’re all broken”, numerous songs declare, or “I was broken, but Jesus made me whole”, or similar.

As an attempt to move beyond Christianese and find a new way to communicate the Biblical truth that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, I’ll grant that something needed to happen. “Broken” may be a more accessible image than “sinful” for people who don’t really understand the word “sin” at all (and often think it means “sex”. Or only “big” things like murder).

If saying “everyone has sinned” has become meaningless to our listeners, then certainly we need to find another way of getting that idea across.

And the modern generation seems to have settled on “broken” as the primary metaphor.

It’s got a lot of things to recommend it, but it’s got some problems as well, and while I’m not suggesting we axe it from our vocabulary, I am suggesting that maybe making it our sole way of describing human sinfulness is not as helpful as all that.

Firstly, though, the good.

“We’re all broken” is, as I’ve said, often more easily understood than “we’re all sinners”. “Sinners” is a church word that people in general don’t understand or have a meaning for. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get various answers according to whatever the current Christian social bugbears are. Homosexual people. Abortionists. Liberals. People having sex. It’s a word of condemnation and the way some people claiming the name of Christ have thrown it around as an all-purpose accusation for anyone who disagrees with them has shorn it of its actual meaning.

“Broken” is better than this. It comes with a meaningful image – we’re flawed, imperfect, in need of repair. The fact that it conjures up an image does aid in communication.

Saying “we’re all broken” may also be perceived as less hostile than “we’re all sinners”. A common complaint of people who are not part of a church is that “Christains are always hostile and telling me I’m a sinner”. And we want to reach people and be heard, not rejected outright. There are ways to communicate the idea that we’ve all done wrong things and failed to do right ones without saying “You miserable sinner!”. If “We’re all broken” communicates this to the person you’re talking with, without getting you dismissed out of hand as another Christian hypocrite, you should by all means use that language.

Then, too, “We’re all broken” places us all on the same side. Christians have often given the impression that “we are the good guys, you people out there are the bad guys”. Us against them. You need salvation, you horrible sinners, but we Christians are just fine as we are.

This hasn’t ever been true, and “We’re all broken” is, paradoxically, an attempt to fix this. We’re aware that we all need rescuing from the desire we all have to do the wrong and not do the right. We’re all in need of forgiveness, restored relationships with God and other people, power to beat our addictions, an end to our habit of using other people for what we can get out of them.

“We’re all broken” is an attempt to find an image that communicates the idea that Christians are no different from anyone else in our need of the rescuing and restoration that only God can do.

But when we use imagery, we do need to be careful that the image produced in people’s minds is the one we want. That’s the power and the danger of metaphorical and image-rich language. It can communicate powerfully, but may have unintended connotations.

In this case, part of the problem is that we are no longer a society that repairs very much. If something is broken, we’re apt to throw it away and get a new one rather than repair it. And while technically this is sort of like what God does (“I will take away your hearts of stone and give you hearts of flesh” etc), the idea that God is going to throw us away because of our sin is not the one we want to be communicating.

Second, because of our societal habit of throwing away broken things, we tend to associate “broken” with “worthless”. Even if we’re talking about a valuable antique, the fact that it’s broken makes it worth less than an intact one. Depending on the extent of the damage, it may be worth considerably less. And this is a huge problem with this language.

“We’re all worthless, but God loves us anyway” is a lie from hell. It’s a seductive one, in a perverse sort of way, because a lot of us are already at least half-convinced it’s true.

We know the darkness within. We’ve all experienced rejection, whether from parents or authority figures or our peers. So much of our social skills are learning to camouflage our weaknesses and pretend that we’re cool; an endless quest for acceptance and worth. We deny it because we know with our minds that it’s self-destructive and unhealthy, but deep down we still half believe the lie that we have little or no value.

But it is a lie, and maybe we need to stop feeding it with our “broken” language.

I have intrinsic value, because I’m a human being made by a good, powerful and loving God in His own image. I have infinite worth and eternal significance – valuable enough and important enough that God couldn’t live without me. Literally.

And we can all put “I” in all of that.

The Bible itself uses a number of different ways to communicate the idea that everyone is in need of the salvation, the rescue that He has provided. The idea of righteous life (“There is not a righteous man alive who does what is right and never sins”). The idea of falling short, of missing the target. The idea of needing to be washed from our dirt, of needing cleansing as from an infectious disease. The idea that we were dead and in need of a resurrection. The idea of a second birth.

“Broken” can be a useful metaphor, but we should be aware of its limitations. Sometimes we may not be saying what we think we are, and we may well need to use a different image.

And that’s the point. There is no one-size-fits-all word we can use to communicate the idea of human sinfulness and need for rescue to everyone. For some people, it may be as simple as saying “we’ve all screwed up in some measure”. For others, the key truth may be that we’re each responsible for our own crap; for still others, that we don’t have to remain a helpless victim of what other people have done to us.

As communicators of the Good News, we need to listen – really listen without condemning, dismissing their concerns, passing judgment or trying to fix it – to the people around us. They aren’t going to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets straight away; we have to earn the right to hear that. And in earning the right to hear where they’re really coming from, we also earn the right to be heard when we say that Jesus can do something about it.

In some senses it’s not easy. It’s going to take time and focused effort; this is the opposite of the “drive-by witnessing”. We have to have real friendships with actual people based on them as friends, not evangelism targets.

But in another sense it’s the easiest thing in the world. It requires no special training to make friends with people based on shared interests, whether that’s quilting or mechanics or Star Wars or LEGO or fishing or sports. It happens on its own, even for us introverts. And when a deep, “spiritual” conversation happens among friends, it happens naturally in the course of friendship, unforced and without a phony sales agenda.

Some people are gifted at building connections with other people very quickly. I’m not; I’m a typical guarded and reticent introvert; it takes time to get to know me thoroughly (though I’ll tell you what I think on any subject you name. My opinions aren’t quite the same as me). But even I can make friends, though I’m seldom sure how it happened. And I usually have a pretty good idea that perhaps saying X rather than Y will raise my friend’s hackles.

That, and actually following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, are all we need to “do evangelism”.

“A Wretch Like Me”?

Grace. Philip Yancey called it “the last best word”. As Christians we sing about it, rest on it, depend on it. Getting the good things of God that we don’t deserve.

But it occurs to me that sometimes the way we preach about it and proclaim it is kind of dysfunctional.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me” is true, from a certain perspective. All our righteousness is like filthy rags. We fallen human beings aren’t capable of achieving the righteousness God is looking for on our own. Sin gets in the way. We’re saved by grace, not because of anything we’ve done. Alongside God’s righteousness, even the best unaided human is, well, “a wretch” isn’t too far off.

But I think sometimes we go just a beat or two too far with it. It becomes “you are junk, but God loves you anyway”. God is willing to pay an incredible, ludicrously high price, for junk. Because He loves us.

But we’re still junk.

On Sunday I heard an interesting message about God’s grace depicted in the story of King David and Mephibosheth. It was a pretty good message, but it definitely did this.

For those of you less familiar with the story, after King David’s kingdom was established, he called in his servants and asked them if there was anyone left from Saul’s family to whom he might show kindness, for Jonathan’s sake. Saul’s son Jonathan was his best friend, not sharing his father’s enmity to David. And David, for his part, never seems to have hated Saul the way Saul hated him, consistently refusing to take his life even when given the opportunity on a silver platter.

His servant Ziba, who had once been one of Saul’s retainers, tells him that there’s one of Jonathan’s sons still alive, a man crippled in both feet by the name of Mephibosheth.

David brings Mephibosheth to his palace. Mephibosheth comes, probably fearing for his life – after all, he is the last descendent of David’s enemy Saul.

“Don’t be afraid!” David tells him, saying that he intend to show kindness to him on account of Jonathan. He gives him all the property that once belonged to Saul’s family, instructs Saul’s servants to work the land for him, and invites Mephibosheth the cripple to eat at the king’s table.

“What is your servant, that you take notice of a dead dog like me?” is Mephibosheth’s response.

So often, we seem to want to let this response stand. Mephibosheth’s story is a picture of God’s grace to the undeserving. King David is the picture of God, and we are Mephibosheth. And we still think we’re a dead dog and that there’s no earthly reason why any sane God should love us and show favour to us.

Jesus died for you, with all of your mess and chaos. No matter how messed-up you are, He loves you and died for you.

You’re junk, but God is willing to show you favour anyway. Even die for you. For junk.

No!

God is omniscient. We focus a lot on His omnipresence – His nearness and with-us-ness and care for us – or His omnipotence – His power and might, the One who made the starry universe almost as an afterthought – and omniscience is a sort of poor relation that just rounds out the three but doesn’t really mean much.

But His omniscience is the foundation of many of His attributes, so when we downgrade it we’re in danger of doing violence to His character. In this case, what it means is that He sees truly. He knows all things, so He knows exactly what anything is truly worth. There are no smokescreens or marketing ploys that can deceive Him.

So if He says I’m worth the ludicrous price He paid, then that is really what I’m worth. God is not insane; He doesn’t die for junk. He knows better than we what we’re worth.

Mephibosheth is indeed a lot like us, and King David in this story does behave like God. But we’re missing the point if we think Mephibosheth’s own judgment of his value is accurate.

The first thing that needs to be brought out of this story is not actually in the story at all, but predates it. When Jonathan was the King’s son and David merely the young warrior who killed Goliath, David and Jonathan made a covenant. A covenant is like a promise, in this case a promise of friendship, but in Old Testament Hebrew culture covenants were inherited. By looking for a descendent of Saul to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake, what David is doing is exhibiting God’s character trait of Covenant faithfulness.

Similarly, God made covenants with human beings. Specifically with Israel, but study of the Scriptures can show that it was always His intention that that covenant relationship not be exclusive – that the Gentile nations would be grafted in to the same covenantal root. God shows kindness because of that covenant, which is why Abraham and Moses can both talk Him down out of destroying sinners. They appeal not only to His mercy, but also to His Covenantal faithfulness. This is also why we can rely on His grace and mercy today. If it were just like a human feeling, it might evaporate tomorrow, but He has promised to show mercy and grace. It’s who He is; He cannot turn His back on His own nature.

The second thing I want to bring out is Mephibosheth’s situation.

Cripples in Bible times were looked down on. Most cultures excluded them; they couldn’t fight or plough or do much of anything. Even the descendent of a king might be reduced to beggarhood. In a society in which good physical circumstances were seen as evidence and result of Divine blessing, a man crippled in both feet would be looked at as under God’s curse.

Worse, Mephibosheth’s family had been fighting against the current king. It seems like all the other descendents of King Saul had died fighting David. Mephibosheth was the last one left, maybe surviving only because no-one thought he was important enough to be worth killing.

He has, however, apparently had all or most of his property taken from him. He wasn’t able enough to stop people from taking his stuff, and with the King being the enemy of his family, no-one else was going to stand up for him either.

His response to David’s kindness shows what he thought of himself and his situation: “What is your servant, that you notice a dead dog like me?”

A dead dog. An animal doubly unclean – it’s a dog, for a start, but it’s also a corpse. “I’m junk. Worthless. Why are you doing this?”

How like our response to God sometimes!

And we think it’s the proper response!

“I’m junk. Messed up. Crippled by sin, and I’ve been Your enemy. I’m worthless. Why would You die for me?”

“Because I love you” is true, but not as helpful as we like to pretend. Because “because I love you” doesn’t address the issue of our value. I’m still junk, but God happens to like junk and is willing to pay a high price for it.

Tosh.

The real response of God to our junk self-image is not “I love you anyway” but “you aren’t junk”!

Trust Me. I know all things. I know what you’re really worth. I don’t lie. If I say you’re worth the price I paid for you – that is your true value!

The third thing I want to bring out is what King David does for him. What Sunday’s message focused on was that David brought him into his palace to eat at his table. It’s a picture of God bringing us into fellowship with Him. We eat at His table, in His presence from here on.

But it’s not the only thing David does for Mephibosheth. It’s not even the main thing; in fact, without the other, Mephibosheth is left in the position we often think of ourselves in. I’m at God’s table, in fellowship with Him, for some bizarre nonsensical reason, because I’m a dead dog.

No, what David does first is to restore Mephibosheth’s dignity and value. He restores his property. By Old Testament inheritance law – encoded in the Law of God – as the sole surviving descendent, all the property that belonged to Saul was rightly Mephibosheth’s. He didn’t have it, because people had stolen it from him and he hadn’t been able to stop them. But it ought to have been his.

David’s first response to Mephibosheth is to give him back his own. This doesn’t say “you’re junk, and the only way you’ll amount to anything is because I’m going to feed you”. It’s not “you’re worthless, so I have to give you stuff for you to have anything”. It’s not patronising charity, it’s a hand up. Here is what belongs to you. You are a valued human being and ought not to have been stolen from like that. You can’t get it back on your own, and you have no-one else to fight for justice on your behalf, so I will provide you with justice. You are valuable, valued, worth it.

Here are the servants you should have had all along. They will take care of the land for you.

This is also what God does for us. As fallen human beings, we’re in Mephibosheth’s shoes. The devil has stolen from us all the stuff that God intended for us to have – joy, peace, dignity, value, integrity. Relationship with the Father. Ability to walk in righteousness. The prosperity of our souls. We weren’t strong enough to stop him, didn’t understand what was happening, couldn’t or wouldn’t fight it. Fell for his lies. Whatever. And with God our enemy because of sin, there was no-one on earth who could or would plead our case in the heavenly courts.

What God offers is ourselves back. Here are all the things you ought to have had, but for sin. It’s a restoration of our dignity and a flat contradiction of the lie that we are actually junk that God just happens to love.

Being brought to the King’s table is just the icing on the cake. Without the other, Mephibosheth is right about his value. But King David isn’t seeing junk. He sees a son of Jonathan, the inheritor of his covenant. Son of kings.

And this is who we are! Sons of the King by creation, through Adam. Inheritors of the covenants made by God to all mankind through Adam and Noah. Valued. Worthwhile.

Like with Mephibosheth, the devil has stolen our perception of our value right along with everything else. We think we’re dead dogs, and get utterly amazed that God would pay that high a price for us. We’re so convinced we’re junk that it sometimes feels wrong of God to do that.

But God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows the real value of everything.

And if He says that what I’m worth is Jesus dying on the cross, that is really what I’m worth! He’s not lying to make us feel better. Not trying to butter us up – why should He? Anyway, He doesn’t lie. He’s not paying a ridiculous price to give us value, but to affirm our value.

I’m not a dead dog. Really!

A Man Under Authority

“I tell you the truth; I have not seen such faith even in Israel!”

An awful lot has been said about this incident between the Roman centurion and the Son of Man. People have interpreted the centurion’s comments about being “a man under authority” in all sorts of ways. Some of them are definitely weird – like claiming that this teaches that the Kingdom of God is a hierarchy like the Roman Army – but others seem to make some sort of sense.

It’s a puzzling statement, though, and I thought we might take a look at it.

The situation is that one of the local Roman occupying troops’ commanders has a servant who is seriously ill.

In a time before antibiotics, the understanding of germ theory or modern medicine, the likelihood was that if you got sick you would probably die. And even if you survived, you might be seriously weakened or blinded or something like that. This isn’t a mild case of a 24-hour stomach bug or something. In fact, Luke makes it clear that the man’s servant was near death.

But the man is a Roman, an oppressor. A member of the army of occupation tasked with keeping the people of God down. If this was the American Revolution, he’d be a commander of the Redcoats. If this was World War 2, he’d be in the Gestapo.

But this man isn’t like your regular run-of-the-mill oppressor. He seems to be what was known as a “God-fearer”; that is, someone who respected and worshipped Israel’s God, but who had not taken the step of getting circumcised as a full Jew.

Some respected members of the local community come to Jesus and ask Him to do something about the situation. Apparently the centurion had heard about Jesus and put them up to it, but whether because he thought they’d stand a better chance of persuading Him, or as a tactful way of approaching someone who might be the Messiah without looking like he was coming to arrest Him, we are not told.

Asking the One who might well be your long-awaited Messiah-King to do something nice for someone in your oppressors’ army is potentially an impolitic thing to do, but the community elders have an answer for that.

“This man deserves to have You do this for him because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue!” He may be a Roman, but he’s demonstrated that he loves our nation and our God as surely as Rahab hiding the spies or Jael taking a tent peg to Sisera. You can do this without compromising Your Messiah-hood.

There may be an element of works mentality here on the part of at least the elders who come to Jesus asking Him to do this. I’ve heard it said that this shows that they thought that it was the man’s works of building the synagogue and loving Israel that made him merit Jesus’ help. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. And in either case, it is evident from what follows that the centurion himself was under no illusions in this regard. All the giving to build the synagogue that the Bible records that he had done was done out of pure love for God, not to try and make God love him. God loves him anyway, whatever he does or doesn’t do. This is what “unmerited favour” means.

Jesus agrees to go to him, but while he’s still some way from the house, the centurion sends a messenger, with the message that has prompted so many thoughts and interpretations.

“Lord, I don’t deserve to have You come under my roof. Just say the word, and my servant will be healed. I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one ‘go’ and he goes. I tell that one ‘come’ and he comes. I tell my servant ‘do this’ and it is done.”

I know I’ve done nothing that should merit Your special favour. I didn’t build the synagogue just to earn points with You. But if You want to do this, just say the word, and I know it will be done.

I know that no mere man has the authority You do to heal diseases and cast out demons. That authority is God’s, and He exercises it in You. And the reason I know this is that my authority isn’t my own, either; it comes from above. That’s the reason I can just issue a command to my men and have them do it. They are being commanded by the Roman Army, not just me. If it was just me in my own self I’d have to stand over them to make sure it was done, but it isn’t. To my men, I embody the Army. It’s the Army issuing the commands. Just say the word, because I know that it’s the same as God saying the word. You embody Him; He acts through You.

It really is an extraordinary demonstration of faith, not just that Jesus could heal at a distance but in Who Jesus is.

Somehow this Roman had stumbled into faith that Jesus is God before even the Twelve had got there. No wonder even Jesus is amazed!