Tuesday, 8 January 2013

In the Hour of Trial: Or why I don’t believe that the saints persevere.

Two Men

14And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer… 21But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.
31“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”…

39And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”... 45And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
47While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” 54Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. 55And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. 56Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” 57But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” 59And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” 60But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. 61And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Luke 22:14-15, 21-23, 31-34, 39-62

So what then is the result of this tragic story?  Obviously for Jesus it leads to the cross and the resurrection.  But there are two other main characters here, two men who both betrayed Jesus that night yet who are remembered very differently today.  Judas and Peter – where does their story end?

Two conclusions

3Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.”
Matthew 27:3-5

38And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
Acts 2:38-41

17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Matthew 16:17-18

Two betrayals took place that day – Judas betrayed Jesus to his face, Peter behind his back.  Judas betrayed him with a kiss, Peter with a denial.  Judas for money, Peter for ‘street-cred’ and out of fear of reprisal.  Judas Jesus’ disciple, Peter his friend.  Two agonising betrayals – both foreseen by Jesus, both betrayers forewarned.

And the consequences?  Judas hangs himself rather than live with the guilt and Peter becomes the rock Jesus chose to build his church on – converting three thousand people with his first sermon.

What was the difference?  The answer is in the first passage there in Luke 22.  See it wasn’t that Peter was a better person than Judas.  It wasn’t that his betrayal was less serious or less hurtful.  It certainly wasn’t that he had more excuse.  It wasn’t that he was more holy or that he loved Jesus more.  All of those may be the case but the fundamental difference is this: Jesus prayed for Peter.

Jesus prayed for Peter.

At the end of the day that is what made the difference.  They both betrayed Jesus but Jesus prayed for Peter.

31“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Luke 22:31-32

Has the sheer magnificence of that verse struck you yet?  Simon Peter, the brash, bold, ‘always puts his foot in it’ fisherman from Galilee was attacked by Satan – sifted like wheat.  And Jesus prayed for him.  For him!  He withstood all the assaults of the powers of hell and returned again because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took to his knees to pray for him.  The Lord of the universe knelt, interceding before the throne of God to save the soul of a grubby fisherman from Galilee.


And that?  That is just the groundwork so to speak.  The real wonder of it is yet to come.

Jesus prays for you

Jesus prays for you, for me, for all his ransomed people.  He intercedes before his Father’s throne for all of us in our trials.  He has done since even before he came to earth in his pre-incarnational form as the angel of the LORD:

12Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ 13And the LORD answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.
Zechariah 1:12-13

“Even now, behold, my witness is in heaven, and he who testifies for me is on high”
Job 16:19

He did so when he walked this earth.  Knowing what was about to befall him, knowing what he would suffer this was his prayer before he went to Gethsemane; this was his first concern before his death:

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one… 20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
(John 17:9-11, 20-21)

Sadly there is not space here to quote the whole of that great prayer but I encourage you to go and read it.  That quoted here though is sufficient to show it, Christ’s great concern the night before his death was to pray for his disciples, and to pray for all who would believe in him that God would keep them and protect them and deliver them safely to him.  Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, prayed for you.  And this interceding work by no means stops at his ascension.  As Thomas Goodwin wonderfully puts forth in his book ‘The Heart of Christ’ Jesus is no less loving towards us in heaven as he was on earth.  His heart he says “is as graciously inclined to sinners as ever it was on earth”.  Christ cares just as much if not more, than he did that day in the garden when the first thing on his agonised mind was his people.  Intercession for his people is a significant part of the reason for his return to heaven.  Jesus is our advocate, our intercessor, the one who represents us before God’s throne.

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous”
1 John 2:1

And we have his Spirit here with us as well, also offering up prayers for us:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Rom 8:26

As Goodwin so helpfully puts it: “The Spirit prays in you because Christ prays for you.  He is an intercessor on earth, because Christ is an intercessor in heaven.  How Christ intercedes is a subject of debate among scholars but as the nineteenth century Scottish theologian Dr William Symington said it ought to be enough for us “to know that the intercession of our Divine Advocate is conducted in the best possible way, for promoting the glory of God, his own honour and the good of the people.

So then we have a divine advocate, Jesus Christ who prayed for us while he was here on earth and continues to intercede for us in heaven today.  Just like he did for Peter, interceding to save him, he does for us.  And just as it was for Peter, that intercession is effective and powerful.

“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
Hebrews 7:25

This then, is why I dislike that old term ‘the perseverance of the saints’.  The only reason you or I ever make it through the trials and temptations we face is the fact that we have a great high priest who stands before the throne of God.  One who is more filled with grace and mercy towards us than we could even dare to imagine.  One who loves us so much that:

“your very sins move Him to pity more than to anger... yea, His pity is increased the more towards you, even as the heart of a father is to a child that hath some loathsome disease... His hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but His bowels [we would say heart] shall be the more drawn out to you; and this as much when you lie under sin as under any other affliction. Therefore fear not, ‘what shall separate us from Christ’s love?’”
Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ

The answer to that is obvious.  Nothing.  As long as Christ stands before the throne there is nothing that can keeps us from his love.  No amount of sin can ever keep us from his love.  The old doctrine that those called by God can never fall away is obviously true, how could they with such an advocate and protector as they have?  Yet calling this truth the ‘perseverance’ of the saints, as if we had anything to do with the fact that we continue in faith through hard times, is just not helpful at all.  We could not persevere for long if it were not for Christ’s intercession.  Better then that it should be called the preservation of the saints for that is what it is.  Unimaginable grace, shown to us every day.  Grace to forgive us our sin and mistakes.  Grace to heal our wounds and scars.  Grace to call us back when we stray, to welcome home the prodigals, seek the lost sheep, find the lost coins.  Grace greater than all our sin.  Grace that asks every day that we be spared the trials we cannot cope with, helped through the trials we face and forgiven the trials we fail.  Preserving grace, shown through the prayers of Christ for lost and weary folk below.

Looking honestly at my heart I know it is not a persevering heart.  It is a Judas heart that prefers material wealth to the riches of Christ.  It is a Peter heart that would rather be thought well of by the people around than by Christ.  Yet looking up I see the heart of Christ and it is more full of grace than I of sin, more full of love than I of betrayal and I am overcome with gratitude that such a God would set such a heart on such a man as I am.  Because of Christ, this is a melted heart, a preserved and prayed for heart that cannot but win out in the end because he works so wonderfully on my behalf.  And so all I can do is pray, in the words of that wonderful hymn:

In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall,
Nor for fear or favor suffer me to fall.

With forbidden pleasures would this vain world charm,
Or its sordid treasures spread to work me harm,
Bring to my remembrance sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance, cross-crowned Calvary.

Should Thy mercy send me sorrow, toil and woe,
Or should pain attend me on my path below,
Grant that I may never fail Thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever cast my care on Thee.

When my last hour cometh, fraught with strife and pain,
When my dust returneth to the dust again,
On Thy truth relying, through that mortal strife,
Jesus, take me, dying, to eternal life.
James Montgomery

<<For a long time I’ve though that preservation was a better term than perseverance.  I can’t remember what first made me think of it but this particular blog was inspired by a sermon from Jeff Haskins at Compass Christian Camps on Christ’s ascension and also from the hymn quoted above.  Much thanks to him and to James Montgomery.>>

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