29/04/2007 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
There are many times when life doesn’t make sense. E.g., just over the past few weeks, I’ve talked with Christian friends about some really hard circumstances they’re facing and they’ve asked the question we all do: ‘Why is this happening to me (or to someone I love)?’ But there are also times when life doesn’t make sense in a slightly different way. E.g., over the past few weeks I’ve talked with Christian friends facing big choices in their lives, and the way ahead just isn’t clear. And they’ve asked the question we all do: ‘What should I do? What does God want me to do?’ Well, our Bible passage this evening gives help in those situations when life doesn’t make sense – when we face either an evil or a choice. And it begins with the issue of suffering and evil.
Now you might be someone who’s not yet a believer, and this is your big sticking point with Christianity. How can there be a good God, given all the suffering and evil in the world - including what’s come your way? And I hope, and have prayed, that this part of the Bible will help you. But I can assure you that Christians feel the problem, too – in fact, more than you do, because we firmly believe that God is there and that he is good. And yet there is suffering and evil - some of which touches us, sometimes very painfully. And that can make us question whether God is really good, or is really in control – or even whether he’s really there at all. Now the Bible doesn’t address the problem of evil in a way that leaves no further questions and clears up all mysteries. But it does say enough to help us go on trusting in God and making the choices that face us today – even when life doesn’t make sense.
So let’s turn in the Bible to Acts 1, to carry on the sermon series we began last week. This week we’re looking at Acts 1.12-26. On the surface, it’s about Judas Iscariot – the apostle who betrayed Jesus to his death. But under the surface it’s about suffering and evil and how God is in control of it and uses it to further his plans. So let’s pick up at v12, where we left off last week. Jesus has made a final appearance after his resurrection and just returned to heaven. Verse 12:
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. [I.e., the apostles minus Judas Iscariot, who by this time is dead] 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.And that mention of Judas would have brought back awful memories: memories of Judas slipping out of that last supper on the Thursday night before the Friday Jesus died; memories of later that night of Judas leading the Jewish authorities to Jesus and betraying him; memories of Jesus being arrested and tried and handed over to Pontius Pilate and ultimately crucified. And then memories of the rest of that Friday and Saturday, feeling numb and shocked and disbelieving and all the other things you feel when something bad hits and you ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ And for a believer that question becomes, ‘Why is God letting this happen? What is he doing?’ And often at the time, we simply don’t understand.
These first disciples certainly didn’t. Just keep a finger in Acts 1 and turn back to Luke 24. Remember, Luke wrote both this Gospel and then Acts as a sequel. We looked at Luke 24 two weeks back as a ‘prequel’ to this series. And it records what happened that first Easter Sunday when they found Jesus’ tomb empty and started seeing him alive from the dead. Look at v13:
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself [risen from the dead] came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.I.e., ‘We had thought we understood what God was doing with our lives... but now we really don’t.’ Skip to v25:
25 [The risen Lord Jesus] said to them, "How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament (OT)] concerning himself. (Acts 24.25-27)So what makes sense of things, and restores the ability to trust God, is looking at life in the light of God’s plan revealed in the Bible. And these disciples learned that lesson well that day. So let’s turn back to Acts 1 and let the apostle Peter teach it to us tonight. I’ve got three points and the first is this:
Firstly, GOD’S PLAN INCLUDES EVIL (vv15-17)
Look at Acts 1.15:
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, "Brothers, the Scripture [ie, God’s plan revealed in the OT] had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 he was one of our number and shared in this ministry." (vv15-17)I.e., God’s plan included the fact that Judas would be chosen as one of the apostles and would betray the Lord Jesus to death. Ie, God’s plan includes evil. Not that God has a shadow of evil in him, nor that he causes evil. But his plan for this universe allowed evil. And that’s very striking. Because, as I said at the start, the fact of suffering and evil is one of the biggest sticking points for people looking into the Christian message. Again and again people have said to me, ‘If there is a God, wouldn’t he have made the universe good?’ And the assumption behind that question is that God made it bad. If you know those Gary Larson cartoons, there’s one with exactly that message. It’s a picture of an old man with a white beard – which is obviously meant to be God. And he’s in his kitchen, taking a cake out of the oven. And it’s a round, football-shaped cake and you can tell it’s the earth because you can see the continents on it. But it’s a bit burnt and there’s a big crack in it and there are pieces falling off it. And the caption at the bottom is, ‘Half baked.’ I.e., God didn’t make it properly. He’s the cause of what’s wrong.
But that isn’t true. Genesis 1 and 2, the opening chapters of the Bible, say that God ‘...saw all that he had made and it was very good.’ Ie, he made it good. He didn’t introduce evil into this world. We did. Because Genesis chapter 3 tells us that evil is nothing more and nothing less than rebellion against God. Evil is us willing and doing what God says is wrong – just like Judas did. So although God is responsible for the creation of the human will, he’s not responsible for the exercise of the human will. That responsibility lies with each one of us. And the other thing to say is that God didn’t originally create the human will with any design flaw that means it was inevitably bound to go wrong – like a car or vacuum cleaner with a design flaw that means it has to be recalled by the manufacturer. There was no design flaw in God’s creation. Adam and Eve freely exercised their perfectly good wills against God - and dragged us all down into the same rebellious human nature.
So God’s plan includes our evil. Let me make three applications before moving on. One is this: keep trusting that God is there and is good and is in control, despite the fact of evil and the many kinds of suffering it’s led to – including our mortality. The Bible says that God has allowed evil. But that doesn’t mean he’s caused evil – remember, he’s responsible for the creation of the human will; we’re responsible for the exercise of it. Nor does it mean that he likes evil - he is totally good and in allowing evil he’s allowing something he is totally against and will one day overthrow. And nor does it mean that he ‘couldn’t help it’ happening. Nothing in this universe happens because God ‘couldn’t help it’. Things only happen because God actively allows them to.
The second application is this: do take comfort from the truth of God’s sovereignty – which is the Bible word for God’s total control over everything. There are many times in life when we can’t see how God is using something bad to further his plans for our good. But the Bible says this elsewhere (Romans 8.28): ‘And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.’ Now there have been times of my life when, to be honest, I’ve felt mocked by that verse. I remember hearing it preached on after the worst year of my life, and thinking, ‘This may be true of the others sitting around me but it isn’t true of me.’ But it was. I simply couldn’t see how. But that verse doesn’t say, ‘And we know how in all things, God works for the good of those who love him’ – ie, we can always understand it at the time. We can’t. Peter and the other disciples couldn’t on the evening of Good Friday or on the Saturday. For them, only in retrospect, after the resurrection and a fresh look at the OT, did things begin to make sense. For me, only about a year later did that worst year of my life begin to make some sense, as I saw in the light of the Bible something of how God had used it for my good. But it’s not as if you’re never left with any more questions. You can always ask why God couldn’t have taught you something, or changed you, in a different or less painful way. And I also want to say: it’s not necessarily true that we will understand in this life why God has allowed certain things to happen. Sometimes only the retrospect from heaven will make sense of things. For now, we may not know how God is working all things to our good; but having shown his love in giving his Son to die for us, he calls us to trust that he is doing so.
The third application at this point is this: do take comfort from the fact that the Lord Jesus knows from his experience of being a man what it’s like to suffer. Eg, what it’s like to be betrayed by someone close; what it’s like to be in extreme pain; what it’s like to die. The Lord Jesus didn’t go through every kind of suffering we may go through – he never went through a divorce or a surgical operation or redundancy. But he did go through all the feelings that go along with suffering. And when we’re hit by bad things and pouring out our hearts to him in prayer, the truth is that he knows exactly how we feel.
That’s the first thing. God’s plan includes evil
Second, GOD’S PLAN INCLUDES THE ULTIMATE OVERTHROW OF EVIL (vv18-20)
Look down to v18, where Peter describes what happened to Judas after he betrayed the Lord Jesus:
18 (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) (vv18-19)Now in Matthew’s Gospel (27.1-10) we’re told that the Jewish authorities paid Judas money to betray the Lord Jesus, but that after he’d done it, he gave the money back and then hanged himself. Matthew says the authorities then used the money to buy a field because legally they couldn’t put it into the temple funds. So Bible critics and sceptics say there’s a contradiction. I think they’re simply two accounts of the same thing. In v18, I think it means Judas bought himself a field metaphorically speaking – ie, it was bought with his money that he handed back, so in a sense it was his purchase. And it’s perfectly believable that, having hanged himself, his body fell down and ruptured as Luke says. But then look at v20:
20 "For," said Peter, "it is written in the book of Psalms, " 'May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,' [quoting Psalm 69 as footnote ‘d’ tells you] and, " 'May another take his place of leadership.' [quoting Psalm 109, as footnote ‘e’ tells you.] (v20)So Peter is quoting the OT to show that it wasn’t just Judas’ betrayal that was included in God’s plan. But Judas’ judgement, his punishment, as well. I.e., God planned that Judas would betray the Lord Jesus and that he would then punish him for doing so. And people ask, ‘Is that really fair? After all, if God made Judas do it, if he had no choice, how can God then punish him for doing it?’
And the answer is: God didn’t ‘make him’ do it; he did have a choice. Because the truth is: Judas willingly betrayed the Lord Jesus. It wasn’t that he started out neutral towards God and then God acted on him to harden his heart to betray the Lord Jesus. No, Judas started out, as we all do since the fall, with his heart set against God, and what God did was simply to leave him to harden his heart more and more and more - until he reached that decisive moment on that Thursday night when his rejection of the Lord Jesus reached the point of no return. If you’re a Christian, thank God that he didn’t let you reach that point. And if you’re not yet a Christian, pray that God won’t let you reach it.
So this is one of many parts of the Bible which teach that two things are always true. One is: that God is always sovereign – ie, totally in control of everything, including the decisions we make. And the other thing is: that human beings are always responsible – the decisions we make are genuinely our decisions and God doesn’t ‘make us’ make them. God is sovereign and we are responsible. So, eg, in this case, God was sovereign: he led his Son the Lord Jesus to choose Judas as one of the apostles so that ultimately there would be a betrayer. But at the same time, Judas was responsible. What he did, he did willingly. He’d come to hate and disbelieve in what Jesus stood for. And when he got up that Thursday to go and betray him, Judas wanted to do it with all his heart. And because Judas was responsible, God then judged him for what he’d done because it was, as v18 says, ‘wickedness’ – even though it served to further God’s plan.
Let me make two applications of this point. One is this: keep believing that God is sovereign and that human beings are responsible and don’t use one of those truths to deny the other. So, eg, sometimes bad things happen and people deny God’s sovereignty, because they don’t want to say, ‘God has allowed this to happen.’ They think it’s more comforting to say, ‘Well, this has happened, but not because God has allowed it - God wouldn’t allow anything like this.’ And at first glance, that seems helpful and comforting because it distances God from the bad thing that’s happened. But if it wasn’t God who ultimately allowed it, then who did? The devil? But then we’re saying that the devil is more powerful than God – or at least equally powerful, in which case who knows which of them will win in the end? There’s no comfort in that untruth. People sometimes say, ‘The devil seems to be having a real go right now.’ And that’s true. The book of Job teaches that the devil has real influence to bring about suffering. But it also teaches that he only has what influence God allows him. And that truth – the truth that God is sovereign and nothing happens unless he allows it – is the only truth that brings ultimate comfort. It doesn’t always bring us the comfort of understanding what he’s doing; but it does bring us the comfort of knowing that he hasn’t lost control - and never will.
The other application is this: be encouraged that evil will one day ultimately be overthrown. God’s plan includes evil. But it also includes the ultimate overthrow of evil. In the Bible, there are plenty of examples of evil being overthrown within history – eg, the flood in Genesis 6, or the end of Judas’ life here in Acts 1. And those are signs within history that ultimately at the end of history, God will overthrow all evil when the Lord Jesus returns.
And that is a huge part of the Bible’s answer to the question of evil and suffering. A huge part of the answer is that the evil and suffering we see around us now won’t last forever. God will ultimately deal with it and perfect justice will be done on every one of us – including those who have partly or even totally escaped justice in this life. And in the kingdom of heaven, all the consequences of evil will be done away with – so there’ll be no more sickness or death or loneliness or being hurt or any other form of suffering. Which is very good news - assuming that you’re on the right side of the Judge – ie, assuming you’ve turned to the Lord Jesus for forgiveness and a fresh start in this life. (Which is what Acts 2 is about, which we’ll come to next in this series.) So,
God’s plan includes evil
God’s plan includes the ultimate overthrow of evil
Thirdly, GOD’S PLAN CALLS FOR OUR CONSCIOUS CO-OPERATION (vv21-26)
Have a look at v21. Peter’s just quoted God’s plan as revealed in advance in the OT – that Judas would betray Jesus, then be judged and then be replaced. So, v21:
21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection." (vv21-22)You see what’s going on? They understand God’s plan revealed in the Bible, v20. And then they say, ‘Therefore, this is what we must do consciously to co-operate with God’s plan.’
The point is: there are some parts of God’s plan that we don’t and can’t consciously co-operate with. E.g., it was God’s plan that I would be born on 29 April, into a particular family and a particular set of circumstances. And I didn’t consciously co-operate with that part of God’s plan at all. I’ve just had to accept it. And that’s true of a lot of things – God sovereignly gives us each the abilities, the opportunities, the limitations, the strengths and the weaknesses that we uniquely have. And perhaps one of the hardest things in life is accepting those, rather than wishing we were someone else and somewhere else.
But other parts of God’s plan do come about through our conscious co-operation. E.g., the fact that I’ve been working here at JPC for 12 years. That was a choice that involved my conscious co-operation, just like the choice to replace Judas involved the conscious co-operation of the others. So we’ve seen something of how to approach suffering and evil in the light of God’s plan revealed in the Bible. What can we learn, to finish with, about approaching choices in the light of God’s plan revealed in the Bible? E.g., choices over whether or not to go to university or college; or if so, which one and which course; or choices over which job to do, or whether to change jobs; or choices over relationships and marriage; or choices about all sorts of moves.
Well, the crucial thing is to find out what the Bible says on the area of choice. So, e.g., here in Acts 1, v20 is what the Bible said on the matter of replacing a missing apostle. An e.g. from today would be that if you’re considering going out and marriage, you need to know that the Bible says God’s plan for a Christian is that you marry only another Christian. That’s 1 Corinthians 7.39. So if, e.g., someone says, ‘Well I feel it’s OK to marry someone who’s not a Christian - I’ve prayed about it, God’s given me peace about it,’ they’re deceiving themselves.
The next thing is to use your mind to apply what the Bible says to your situation. So here in Acts 1, in vv21-22, they work out that Judas’ replacement needs to be someone who’s witnessed what Judas witnessed. And by definition, an apostle had to be a witness of the risen Lord Jesus. And as often happens with choices today, having used their minds to think about the choice, they ended up in v23 realising that there were two possible, equally ‘right’ choices - and nothing, apparently, to choose between them. So Joseph would be a ‘right’ choice. And Matthias would also be a ‘right’ choice. It’s a bit like being offered a place at University A and University B, and assuming it’s not a course in bank robbery, both would be ‘right’ choices. So how do you choose between two ‘right’, perhaps very similar options?
Well, let me say that what they did here is not normative for us today. Remember the principle: narrative in the Bible isn’t necessarily normative. Ie, what they did on a particular occasion isn’t necessarily what we should do in general. What they did here was to cast lots –i.e., basically, they tossed a coin. They said, ‘Heads, we’ll have Joseph, tails we’ll have Matthias.’ And then in v24 they prayed to the risen Lord Jesus, ‘Show us which of these two you’ve chosen by exercising your sovereignty over which way the coin comes down.’ And they tossed the coin. And it came down tails.
Why did they do that, then? Well, because by definition, an apostle had to be both a witness of the risen Lord Jesus and had to be chosen personally by the Lord Jesus. I.e., no human being could choose an apostle. By definition it had to be the Lord Jesus’ decision. But he was now risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, so how could they get him to make the choice? The answer is: they got two possible candidates and then prayed to the Lord Jesus, ‘We’re trusting that you are sovereign over the toss of a coin. And through your sovereignty over whether its heads or tails, please choose the one you want.’
Now why didn’t I do that when, e.g., I was making my mind up about moving to Newcastle to work at JPC? I could have said to the Lord, ‘Lord, I’m going to toss a coin and if it lands heads I’ll go to Newcastle and if it lands tails I’ll stay down south.’ But the Bible shows that the Lord expects us to make those decisions. So he’s not going to choose for you which university offer to accept; he expects you to choose. He’s not going to choose for you whom to marry; he expects you to choose. And so on. Those things are not to be decided by coin-tossing committed to prayer. He expects us to think what the Bible says on the subject, apply it to our situation and then the next thing is to make a choice that best serves his plan revealed in the Bible. So, e.g., when I applied for the role at JPC, I was also applying at the same time for other, secular work. But I ultimately chose the JPC role because, as the person I am with the gifts God has given me, I believed it was how I could best serve his plan for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church. And that’s the question to ask when trying to decide between two (or more) similarly ‘right’ and good options: what is best for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church? I.e., what is best for my evangelism, ministry and holiness? And if there really is no clear best – if they’re that similar – then it simply comes down to the option you prefer. We often regard very similar options as a real headache (‘how can I possibly choose between them?’) Instead, we should thank God that we’ve got two (or more) good options, and be grateful that, if they’re that similar, it really doesn’t matter which we choose – God can be trusted to bless us, either way.
Now over all that conscious co-operation, we should also commit these choices to the Lord in prayer – as they did here. We should pray for help to understand and accept his will as revealed in the Bible. We should pray for help to apply it to our circumstances. And we should pray that he would sovereignly over-rule our circumstances (rather than our coin-tossing). So, e.g., as we apply for a job and go for an interview, it’s a great comfort to be able to pray, ‘Lord, as far as my wisdom can see, this would be a good option. But if you definitely don’t want me to do this, please get me turned down.’ And in his sovereignty, either he’ll get you turned down, or he’ll get you a job-offer (which doesn’t mean he definitely wants you take it. It means he’s giving you a final decision to make).
So that’s the second part of Acts 1 – for when life doesn’t make sense, for when things are far from clear – either as we face evil as they did in Judas, or as we face choices as they did with replacing Judas. We’re to remember that God’s plan includes evil. We’re to remember that God’s plan includes the ultimate overthrow of evil. And we’re to remember that God’s plan calls for our conscious co-operation.
Looking at life like that in the light of the Bible doesn’t answer every question or remove every mystery. But it does give enough light to help us go on trusting in God and making the choices that face us today.
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