I Timothy 1:1-3 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy my true son in the faith: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
There is scarcely a higher privilege afforded to the Christian than that of studying the Bible, unless it be listening to a man who by the Lord Jesus Christ has been called to serve his church and his Word by opening up and preaching the Scriptures to a congregation. Amongst the chief blessings of my own life, those times when I believed God was dealing with me, searching, rebuking, inspiring, renewing my soul and giving me greater love for my Saviour, have been during the Sunday sermons.
So when it comes to justifying to a congregation why one particular book has been chosen to be opened up for a few months, it is enough to say at first, “It is in the Bible. It is God-breathed and infallible. It is given that we be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness.” Paul’s first letter to Timothy has had that effect on those who have studied it. One of the finest commentaries on the book has been written in the last decade by Dr. George Knight, an American Presbyterian New Testament Scholar. He describes the gain he received from studying this letter: “The privilege of working through material in which Paul is instructing Timothy has been an enormous spiritual benefit for me. It has reminded me again of the preciousness of the gospel and of the apostolic deposit, which must be correctly taught and faithfully passed on. It has given me new resolve to seek to serve the Lord Jesus Christ courageously and winsomely by means of the enabling grace of God and the powerful presence of his Spirit” (George W. Knight III, “The Pastoral Epistles”, William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992, p.xv). Can we not pray that such blessings may not also come to us?
A hundred years ago the Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte made a very interesting point. He remarked that the best commentary ever written on the pastoral epistles was an autobiography written by the minister of a church in a Scottish hamlet called Ettrick – the “Memoirs” of Thomas Boston. Of course! If you read the lives of Spurgeon, or Lloyd-Jones, or Kenneth MacRae you are confronted by living pastoral epistles. Here are men who faced up to what I Timothy teaches and sought to apply its truths to their own lives and to their congregations throughout their entire ministries.
What must it have been like for Timothy to take the parchment from the messenger who brought Paul’s letter to him? Did he first sit down before he opened it and pray? Then he tremblingly broke the seal, unrolled scroll and was the first person ever to read what Paul had written here? Alexander Whyte says, “Well might Timothy, and well may every living minister today, lay down these two terrible Epistles, and say over them – Who is sufficient for these things? For no mere man is sufficient for such things as these. No mortal man is sufficient for such a holy ministry as that. But then no mere and mortal man is expected to be sufficient. You must not go away and suppose that the arch-Apostle himself was sufficient for half of the charges he laid, almost with a curse, upon Timothy. Paul, you may be sure, threw down his pen again and again in the composition of these two pastoral Epistles, and betook himself to his knees and to the blood of Christ before he could finish what he had begun to write.
“And these two Epistles, so full of matter for ministerial remorse, are to this day put into our hands, not to drive us to despair and self-destruction, but rather to summon us out of our beds every returning Monday morning to give better and ever better attendance to our reading of the best books, and to our writing in connection with them, To our sick-visiting in the afternoon, and to our whole walk and conversation all the day, and all the week, and every week, till a Greater than Paul comes.
“And more than that, these pastoral Epistles are not written to us who are ministers only. But all you people are to read these Epistles and are to ponder them and pray over them continually, in order that you may have it always before you at what a cost a true minister of the New Testament is made. As also to teach you to value aright such a minister when he is intrusted to you, till he shall finish his ministry among you, both by saving himself and those among you who have ears to hear him.” (Alexander Whyte, “Bible Characters”, ‘Timothy as a Young Minister.’)
This letter is a kaleidoscope of teaching, exhortation, instruction in New Testament godliness with warnings and encouragements. It speaks to individuals, to groups within the congregation, and to the whole church. It does not have the same structure as the letters to the Romans and Ephesians where first of all the mighty work of God’s salvation is expounded at length to be followed by its ethical implications for our daily living. Paul stands before Timothy and he rapidly brings out one piece of treasure after another. So we will find that one sermon will deal with the grace of God being poured out abundantly (I Tim.1:14), and soon afterwards we are having to think of the behaviour of women in the church (I Tim2:9-15), and then what goes to make up the qualifications of deacons and elders (I Tim.3:1-13), but that very third chapter concludes with a great text concerning the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. So though we are dealing with a single New Testament letter the range of themes it opens up in quick succession is enormous. It will not allow us to become bored though we are concentrating on these six chapters.
The contents of the letter are broadly as follows: the first chapter is an exhortation to Timothy to withstand false doctrine and advance the gospel. The second chapter deals with public worship and the place of women in a Christian congregation. The third chapter outlines the qualifications for elders and deacons. The fourth chapter speaks of apostasy, false asceticism and the discipline to be manifest in a worthy preacher. The fifth speaks of our responsibilities to such needy people in the congregation as widows. The final chapter is an indictment of materialism, and Paul’s last great charges and exhortations to Timothy.
Why does this letter have this particular construction? Let us put it in its own time-frame. It must have been written in the first half of the sixties, thirty years after the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. You remember how Luke’s history of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts ends with him in prison in Rome. During this incarceration he has sent letters to the Colossians and to the Philippians and he tells the latter church that he has some hopes to be released (Phil. 1:18-19, 24-26). We must conclude that this actually happened; Paul leaves prison for a period and immediately he is active again, all his pent-up energies released in a visit he makes to the island of Crete with Titus and probably Timothy also. The three of them preach in most of its towns. Paul leaves Titus on the island to pastor the new converts and constitute a church while he and Timothy make their way to Macedonia via Ephesus. However, they meet big trouble in that city. False teachers have begun to undermine the great church there, and Paul has to excommunicate the two ringleaders of the heresy, Hymenaeus and Alexander (I Timothy 1:19-20). Paul cannot remain in Ephesus but he leaves Timothy in charge of things while he presses on to Macedonia. It is while he is there that he pauses and writes two letters, one to Titus in Crete and the other, this letter, to Timothy in Ephesus. Paul seems to have been on his way back to Ephesus when he is arrested again and eventually brought back to Rome from whose imprisonment he writes his second letter to Timothy. He has decided to replace Timothy in Ephesus with Tychicus and he tells Timothy to come as quickly as possible to join him in Rome.
So that is a little summary of the content and the background to the writing of this letter. It is the first of three letters, two to Timothy and one to Titus, which have been called the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ for over 200 years. It is a good title. Imagine if we called them ‘leadership epistles’ or ‘management epistles’ which are accurate enough epithets. Yet we would all cringe because we already fear that the human wisdom shown in handling people in the modern business world has already got too much influence over the church. So we are happy to continue with this title, ‘Pastoral Epistles’ and discovering the principles God has given us as to how the flock of Jesus Christ is to be cared for.
1. THE AUTHORSHIP OF THE LETTER.
There should be no question as to who wrote this letter. The very first word should decide it – ‘Paul.’ It contains a number of personal references. For example, he tells Timothy in chapter 3 verse 14 and again in chapter 4 verse 13 that he will be soon paying him a visit. He makes references to such matters as Timothy’s ordination, and youthfulness, and his gastric problems. There are specifics about individuals, places and situations. Paul concludes the letter by urging Timothy to live a godly life as a man of God in the church. Are there now people suggesting that all this is supposed to have been made up by someone else? From the apostolic period this letter was accepted by the church: early believers like Clement and Ignatius and Polycarp at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century allude to it. Nobody ever doubted that this letter was written by the apostle Paul for eighteen centuries until Schleiermacher almost 200 years ago rejected his authorship.
Why do certain people state that it could not have been written by the apostle? Firstly, they complain about the necessity of believing that there was a initial Roman imprisonment from which Paul was released and then a second imprisonment. But that is not very difficult to accept: I Timothy teaches it, and in the fourth century we note that the famous historian Eusebius wrote about it. Many people think that John Bunyan had one imprisonment in Bedford jail, but more acquaintance with the life of Bunyan shows that there was also with him a brief release when he took up his preaching again before being rearrested and put back in prison.
Secondly, the vocabulary of the pastoral epistles is especially interesting. There are 848 words in total in these three letters and 306 of them are not found in the other ten letters of Paul. But does that indicate another person wrote the pastorals? The subject matter of these letters is different, and Paul is an older man, and the environment is different as are the people to whom he is writing. Great minds are versatile, original, fresh and creative. Does a writer distribute vocabulary mechanically like spots on a wallpaper? Averages befit average cases, but here is a writer who is exceptional. What a mind the apostle had. What a background and experiences were his by the time he came to write these letters. As E.K.Simpson says, “Great souls are not their own mimes.” If you chose the play ‘Hamlet’ to be one play you were certain Shakespeare had written, and then you examined his sonnets in the light of the vocabulary found in that play you could probably work out a case for somebody else having written the poetry. In these days when everything is on a data base that sort of approach to literary analysis is easily done. Yet it is significant that nothing significant has been written to advance the advocacy of the non-Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles based on their vocabulary since the year 1921 when P.N.Harrison published his book, “The Problems of the Pastoral Epistles.” The fact is that these little letters do not need computer technology and data bases for linguistic analysis. You can count the words of a few brief epistles very quickly. The brevity means that the interpretation of the statistics is going to be more subjective than scholarly.
Other reasons people have raised for rejecting the apostle’s authorship of this letter is that Pauline theology and ethical emphases are absent. That is a very odd argument. When Bertrand Russell would write some letters to a colleague he would talk of different themes from those of his lectures to students. He was still their author though his familiar ideas were not as prominent. It was a different kind of letter, written to an individual.
If Paul were not the writer then the author must be someone who is pretending to be the apostle Paul. It has been suggested, without any evidence, that someone might have had a fragment of a letter written by Paul and that he could have expanded the fragment and compiled these three letters from it. That is widely believed today. In other words I Timothy is a forgery. The great question that raises is how can that be that compatible with Christian honesty and candour? How would you judge a man who tries to impersonate you, and signs your name at the end of a letter which you have not written, maybe talking about money, and travel plans, and meetings, and warm expressions of affection? You would not be pleased with that man, nor would your friends and acquaintances when they would find out. You would all be outraged. You would think the man a crook. Do you think that the early church was more gullible and stupid than we are? That would mean I Timothy is largely a fake, and that is incompatible with those who follow the Son of God who said, “I am the truth.” A forgery is a fraudulent imitation, whatever the allegedly noble intentions might be of the man who wrote it. Could a writer who in this very letter denounced liars and impostors so trenchantly, and urged Timothy to have a conscience void of offence, have been the very impostor the modernist portrays him as being? The word ‘faithful’ is found seventeen times in the pastoral epistles. One suspects that it is the insistence in these letters on truth being known and believed, and errorists to be denounced and delivered to Satan that has given offence and caused this unchristian clamour that someone other than the apostle Paul was their author.
Nothing scientific has been produced to overthrow the claim of this letter that its author was indeed the apostle Paul, who was at the end of his life, and was addressing various issues in the church. Why do I bother to open up this issue? Because if you are studying the Bible as part of a school or college course you will be presented with these theories as if they were facts. I want you to know that we are familiar with these ideas and can answer them at much greater length than this brief summary. I speak about them also because into our own circles men who are considered ‘evangelical’ scholars use the phrase, ‘deutero-Paul’ frequently, not just for these Pastoral Epistles – where an authorship other than the apostle is almost taken for granted – but for the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. I also speak about this matter of authorship because if a book of the Bible claims to be written by a certain author, that closes the question as far as we are concerned. When it bears an author’s name and claims to have his authority then the issue is settled for us. How could this letter be accepted as God’s Word if falsification and forgery is as pervasively evident as must be the case if this epistle had not authored by Paul but by a pretender?
2. THE AUTHORITY OF THE APOSTLE
This letter comes from “Paul an apostle of Christ Jesus” These are its opening words, literally, “Paul apostle”. Saul of Tarsus was a witness of the living Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul was confronted by the risen Christ himself. That was a necessary qualification of an apostle. The Lord then commissioned him, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). The Lord had singled out Paul so that he bore all the authority of the Christ who sent him and spoke through him. Paul did not appoint himself to be the office. His apostleship was not from men nor by man, but, as he says in our text, “by the command of God our Saviour.”
i] Listen because of their authority
One of the most central issues in religion is what am I to believe? Who tells me what is truth and what is error? What is right and what is wrong? Here is this man Paul, and he announces his authority to be our teacher and receive our attention because he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God.” The creator of this universe has appointed Paul to be one of the teachers of the church. Incidentally this is the only place where you find the phrase ‘by the command of God.’ I suppose it is there because Paul in particular is going to address false teaching, and if anyone is looking over Timothy’s shoulder and reading this letter, or later listening to Timothy’s warnings in church he must know the source of Timothy’s own authority to speak as he does. He shelters, as the whole Christian church has sheltered for two thousand years, behind the words of Paul – “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God.” Either those words are a wicked lie, or they mean just what they say. True authority to teach so that people believe your words and act upon them is essential in true Christianity.
One of the strange and evil phenomena to have emerged in our day is that of the “bogus social worker.” 28 incidents of these people were recorded in 1997 and 20 in 1998. Typically what happens is this, a person visits a young mother and demands to examine her child or children for signs of abuse or neglect, saying that a complaint has been make. Sometimes the bogus social worker attempts an abduction. Most of these people knocking parents’ doors are women; they dress smartly and soberly, with a preference for blue. If the mother is suspicious and demands some ID and ask some evidence of their authority then the ID cards look inauthentic and suspicious. The bogus social worker then will run off. Only one person has been arrested so far. These people do this for the most unspeakably tawdry reasons.
The parent speaks up: “Where is your authority for announcing such important things to me? Who has sent you? Under whose command are you?” How crucial are such questions? They are most important. The very lives of children could be at stake. So it is in religion. We are aware of the rise of new cults. Millennial madness can grip some people. The nations are gullible and deceived. Men must have authority for claiming to be our religious teachers. Paul is telling us that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God. That is why we listen to him and obey.
Dr Cornelius Plantinga tells this story: New Englanders tell of an old man who lived outside a certain town. This man was an expert electrician. In fact, when he was young he had designed the electrical system for the whole town. He had figured out how lines and circuits could best be arranged to put every home in the town on a grid and bring electricity to each house that wanted it, and in the end virtually everyone wanted it. But the townspeople did not treat the man well. There was the prejudice of ageism. They said, “You are too old,” and they fired him and replaced him with a couple of younger electricians. In effect the town told the old man to get lost. So he moved out to a cabin in nearby woods, and nobody saw him or heard from him.
Then one day the town’s power failed. Lights flickered and went out. Refrigerators began to defrost. Central heating systems stopped working. The corner shops ran out of candles. The switchboard of the town hall was jammed with anxious people calling in and complaining. But neither of the young electricians knew how to solve the problem. They ran around helplessly. Then one of the town councillors remembered the old man in the woods. Possibly he could find a way to restore the supply. He was an authority on the town’s system because he had designed and installed it.
So the old man was brought to the central power plant. He walked around slowly for a few minutes shining his flashlight here and there. Finally he pulled a little hammer out of his bag, walked over to one main circuit and tapped on it. Instantly the lights went on and power surged through the whole system. The old man returned to his home in the woods.
Three weeks later the town hall received a bill. On it the old man charged the town $1,000.05 for his work. This is how he listed the charges:-
$1,000 knowing where to tap.
The old man was an authority on the town’s electricity supply because he was its author, designer and installer. The system came from him. So too the personal God dealt for centuries with one nation Israel, and to them his Son, Jesus Christ, came. After his death and resurrection, the great commission and the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost this living God’s plans expanded to deal with the whole world, with islands in the seas like Crete, and soon with the British Isles where our ancestors lived. He purposed to bring the story of himself, his Son and his great salvation to them through Scriptures which he inspired, gospels and letters written by his appointed apostles. So he gave to these apostles a unique and unrepeatable authority to speak and write on his behalf. The supreme authority in the universe is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our world was conceived in him and created by him. This same God has made men like Paul the foundation for the church. That is, every succeeding generation born into the world must listen to and obey what the apostles Matthew, John, Peter, Paul and so on have written in the New Testament.
The Word comes first: the church is born through the Word. So it was on the Day of Pentecost. Peter preached the Word and three thousand men were added to the church. Then they went on in the apostles’ teaching. The church comes from the Word, not vice versa. That is the pattern today. “He that hears you,” said the Lord Jesus, “hears me.” Why are we going to listen to Paul’s words these next weeks and obey them? Because we love the Lord Jesus Christ, and Paul is an apostle of Christ Jesus.
Paul’s letters are like loudspeakers through whom you can listen to one in great authority speaking to you and those in your home. The loudspeaker itself has no authority but by it you may hear life-changing words. Sixty years ago today, the first Sunday in September 1939 at 11.15 in the morning while many in the nation were at church the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain addressed the nation and said to them, “this country is at war with Germany.” Then he added, “When I have finished speaking, certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government…Report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received.” And he ended his message with the words, “Now, may God bless you all. May he defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them, I am certain, that right will prevail.” A number of you can remember that day sixty years later, where you actually were when you heard that the Prime Minister had spoken to the nation on the radio and that Great Britain was at war, and the impact that those words made upon you. They could not be ignored because the consequences for you and your family were immense. That radio receiver was simply the channel for that message to come to you. The writings of the apostles are the channels by which God speaks to us and tells us what we are to believe and how we are to live. “Men spoke from God,” says Peter. So our futures are going to depend on listening to what they have said.
ii] Listen because of their happy message
But you ought to listen not only because of the authority of the words but because of their delightfully welcoming tone: “by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope.” This great God who conceived of and created the universe, what does he do with his mighty power? “He saves,” says Paul. The apostolic message is principally about salvation and hope. That God is the Saviour became increasingly precious to Paul as the years had gone by. Only twice in the letters before the pastoral epistles has he referred to God as ‘Saviour’, but ten times in these three final letters. God had been the great Saviour of his people in the Old Testament, saving Noah and his family, saving Israel from Egyptian bondage, and from the Philistines during the judges, and from Babylon during their exile at the time of Daniel. God was their mighty Saviour, but here Paul can write to Timothy and he can say to him, “He is our Saviour. Never minimise the fact that you and I have been saved by him.” You remember how Mary praises God that he has become her Saviour, “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46). Individual men and women, sinner in this world who have lived shameful hopeless lives can turn from their sins by grace and entrust themselves to the Lord Jes us Christ and then can say of God, “He is my Saviour.” “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gals. 2:20). True Christianity is so very personal. That was Paul’s God.
Perhaps that first phrase is looking back to the Damascus Road and the time God saved him, but then Paul also looks ahead and tells Timothy that Jesus Christ is “our hope.” ‘O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.’ Timothy had this daunting task of church-planting on Ephesus while at the same time driving away the wolves who were seeking to destroy the flock. How could this young man survive? Through Jesus Christ: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Hope in God the Son. You have fightings without and fears within – hope in Christ Jesus. What is the winter going to bring into your life? Hope in Christ Jesus. Your worse fears are realised – hope in Christ Jesus. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phils. 4:13).
Christ and God are conjoined in this remarkable way – God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope. See how this is re-emphasised in the next verse: “Grace, mercy and peace from … who do they come from? … God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul tells Timothy, “You and I have this mutual relationship with God and with Jesus Christ.” He is always putting the Lord Jesus Christ there – on that divine plane. And Christ is our hope today. The world is heading for an open-ended encounter with him. We don’t know just when or how, but the fact of our Lord’s return does shape our attitude to the future. It fills us with hope. Our lives – as those saved by God – have a goal. All our work, and tears, and heartaches, and delights have purpose. No cup of cold water, no dropping a coin in a beggar’s cap, no kind act of friendship, no stammering word of witness, no blush is lost. It all counts. We matter, if God is our Saviour and Christ Jesus is our hope.
3. THE CHARACTER OF TIMOTHY
“To Timothy my true son in the faith” (v.2) Who is Timothy? He must have been a lad of about fifteen when through the apostle Paul himself he was converted at his home in Derbe or the neighbouring town of Lystra. That would have been about A.D.45, and so he was not yet 35 when he gets this letter. He had been brought up in the knowledge of the Lord by his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. There is a wonderful biographical reference to this in Paul’s second letter to him (II Tim. 1:5, 3:15ff). There were those delightful Sabbath hours when his grandmother Lois would read to him from her favourite Scriptures – the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David and Solomon. Little did the old woman dream that one day all the world would be reading about her. Was there a day that passed without Lois and Eunice praying for him? Did mother and grandmother think or talk to one another and ask about this dear boy, “What if God wants him one day to become a missionary and serve him on some distant island in the Mediterranean or in Asia Minor?”
Alexander Whyte talks about this home and he says, “I see Lois putting on her spectacles an hour before she summons in Timothy from the playground. I watch her as she selects with such care the proper passage that she is going to read with him. I admire her as she reads and re-reads the passage to herself, in order to make sure that she understands it herself. After which she prepares, and tried them over on her own knees, two or three petitions proper for the child to repeat after her, and to which he is to say his intelligent and hearty Amen.” Now where did Alexander Whyte get that picture from? From the Memoirs of Thomas Boston seeing there the thoroughness with which he prepared for family worship.
I had a letter this week from a dear older member of my family. Occasionally she comes here and we visit one another, and she holds us in such affection. We have spoken to her recently about the faith and written to her and in reply she wrote these words: “I grew up in a household full of music, art, serious intellectual thought – but not faith. My mother longed for it at the last, and never discouraged my espousement [sic] of Jesus from childhood. We never had a ‘structure’ in which to put His teachings into effect, in spite of, as it were, seeing the Holy City ever beckoning.” I felt the poignancy of those words as they represent millions of homes where the children have been quite deliberately cut off from the life and teaching and salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ. How blessed was Timothy and many of you!
So Paul about twenty years earlier had come to the town of Lystra and by his ministry made things about Jesus the Messiah and Son of God lucid and compelling for all this little family. So they were no longer mere Old Testament believers and ‘God-fearers’ but were trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul had become Timothy’s father in the gospel as he calls him here in our text, “my true son in the faith.” Those of us Christians who have not been given sons, nevertheless have received sons in the faith. Those who acknowledge “I am an only child” have discovered many brothers and sisters in the faith. Those of us whose fathers died before we knew them have had fathers in the faith.
In Lystra Paul was stoned by the mob and dragged outside the city and left as dead. When he recovered consciousness it might well have been to Timothy’s home he dragged himself. So there was Lystra in Paul’s mind, a brutal place but where there was a home where he was loved by the three generations who shared it. On his next visit to Lystra Paul probably stays there again and sees the maturing and the gifts evidenced in the young man so that he takes Timothy with him. He has him circumcised not to cause unnecessary cultural offence amongst the Jews to whom they will be often preaching. Circumcision was a worthless harmless rite. It was not a matter of obedience to God. It was done for hygienic and cultural reasons. Then Timothy had the hands of the elders laid on him and Timothy’s labours in the gospel began. He is often pictured as being timid, sickly, and lacking in personal forcefulness. That picture has been somewhat overdrawn. Timothy was tough enough to get this letter, comprehend it and to put into practice what Paul tells him. How many healthy older preachers with boundless ‘personality’ have ever grasped and obeyed what the apostle is writing here? Which has become men of God? You become strong and mature by the Word.
4. THE NATURE OF THE GREETING .
“Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.2). These are the most wonderful words. You have waited patiently to reach them, and they are in effect the text of this entire letter. The rest of the epistle is an explanation of divine grace, mercy and peace. Paul is talking about entities that exist, that are as concrete as mount Snowdon, and more lasting than the Millennium dome. Of course you cannot see these graces any more than you can see the wind. We see the clothes barely remaining pegged to the clothes line as the wind blows in off the Irish Sea – “Look at the wind” we say. But it is not the wind we see it is the clothes blowing in the wind. A field of wheat seems alive like a sea – “Look at the wind” we say as we point to the moving wheat, but it is not the wind but the effects of the wind we are pointing to. A tornado comes spinning toward you like a great top. “Look at the wind!” men may say, but it is the dust and rain and rubbish that the tornado has picked up and is twisting around that we see, not the wind. So it is with grace, mercy and peace. They are realities, although men don’t see them yet they may see their effect in sinners brought to know God.
I have just been reading some extracts of the diaries of the most famous atheist of the last fifty years, the American Madelyn Murray O’Hair. She led the charge to remove prayer from schools in 1963, and wanted the phrase “In God We Trust” to be taken off the American seal. She interpreted the phrase, ‘separation of church and state’ to mean the separation of Christianity from the state Four years ago Madelyn Murray O’Hair mysteriously disappeared and her whereabouts are unknown to this day. Some of her diaries have recently been published. For example, in 1972 she writes down her New Year wish list. What would she like to get that year? A mink coat, a Cadillac, a cook and a housekeeper. Those are very concrete visible objects. Maybe they are a tongue in cheek list. But then as you read them you can see that the diaries are full of despair. She wrote in 1977, “I have failed in marriage, motherhood, and as a politician.” She wrote in 1959, “The whole idiotic hopelessness of human relations descends upon me. Tonight I cried and cried, but even then, feeling nothing.” When she debated with Charles Colson on the David Frost show he told her that Christians were praying for her and he wished her the best. She snarled back at Colson, “And I wish you failure.” But most often in the diaries, actually in a half a dozen places, is this phrase, “Somebody, somewhere, love me.” Not the mink coat, nor the Cadillac, nor the cook, nor the housekeeper – love from someone was what she acknowledged to be the greatest reality to needed.
I am saying to you that Paul speaks here about grace, mercy and peace. I am saying to you that they are realities like a mink coat and a Cadillac, but much more precious.
i] Grace. This is affection for the repulsively ugly. It is the immense love of God for those who have become eternally unattractive through their sinfulness. Consider how the Lord sees his people: “Your whole head is injured, your whole heart is afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed in oil” (Isa. 1:5&6). What a repulsive sight! Man in his state of sin being judged by the Holy One of Israel.. Those are not the words of Jonathan Edwards but of God himself. Twenty years ago a baby girl was born in Tennessee without a face. She had a healthy heart and lungs, strong arms and legs and a normal digestive system but instead of a face was a shapeless mass of wet mucous membranes, with only a ragged opening for breathing and feeding. She was also blind. People who saw the child were silenced. Some turned away. They named her Alice, and the hospital supervisor said, “She has a purpose in this world and we are gong to treat her like any other needy new born child.” Alice’s mother was a frightened single teenage girl. The father of the child wanted nothing to do with her. Relatives thought the child was an ‘evil omen.’
One strong kind woman took an interest in Alice. Her name is Thelma Perkins who was then a nurse in the hospital. She often held her and fed her and talked with her and bonded with the baby. “I have held enough babies to know that they need love, and this one needs a lot of it.” So the years passed, and Alice went through a dozen operations to build her face She needed someone who would be interested in her, and be there for her, and tell her again and again that she was loved. Her own mother could not do that, so Thelma Perkins and her husband Ray became her foster parents. Ray taught her to walk, to explore the house with her thumb hooked in Ray’s belt, and to deal with the thoughtless comments of people who came upon her in the aisle of a supermarket. Other children were kinder to her than many adults.
Thelma and Ray have shown grace to Alice. She had no claims on them at all. They chose to get involved, to love her and provide for her at considerable cost. That is grace. They have acted like God does to us. In the book of Ezekiel God speaks to his people and he says to them, “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked at you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your own blood I said to you, ‘Live!’ I made you like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels” (Ez. 16:4-7). That child was you. God was the one who pitied you and gave you life and beauty, and that gift is his grace.
In Alice’s life there was no physical light. She had no eyes to see the loving kindness of Ray and Thelma Perkins, but she knows its reality in her experience. It is more important to her than a mink coat and a Cadillac. On February 7, 1983. Mr and Mrs Perkins legally adopted Alice as their own child. “She’s always been my little girl,” said Thelma. “The paperwork just made it official.” That paperwork is what we call a covenant of grace. There is a saving grace that comes from the Lord and it is being offered to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. Avail yourselves of it. You desperately need that divine pity which transforms the reject and the deformed and makes them lovely in God’s sight. Don’t go on merely surviving. Don’t cry “Somebody, somewhere love me!” Here is the particular love of God the Father freely extended to you. Enter into it.
ii] Mercy. Mercy is what we plead when we have no case to present. When we are guilty and know it we plead for mercy. All the world lies guilty before God, and you are guilty, but God can show mercy for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ. On Golgotha our own condemnation for our own guilt has been borne by him as our substitute.
Because my sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
An awareness of that mercy and our sense of debt to it transforms the lives of all who are its beneficiaries. Michael and Jo Pollard attended Emmanuel Evangelical Church in Baildon Green near Bradford, Yorkshire. He was an elder there and a schoolteacher. For almost thirty years he and his wife regularly drove a car loaded with Bibles and Christian literature into eastern Europe. Then two years ago in 1997, when they were in Hungary, sleeping overnight in their van in a lay-by, Michael, at 62 years of age, a mild-mannered bespectacled men, was brutally murdered by thieves. The nose and jaw of 57 year-old Jo were broken, and the thief tried to strangle her. It took the police less than 24 hours to catch the three robbers and murderers. Back in Leeds at the memorial service Jo sang a solo, “How Great Thou art.” It had been sung at their wedding. Last year she returned to Hungary and met her husband’s killer Dudas and his accomplice Bilesz. The third man refused to meet her. She embraced those men and when they asked for her forgiveness then she freely forgave them. Now she writes regularly to them and Dudas has told her that he has become a Christian. He has written, “Words cannot express how sorry I am for what has happened, but your forgiveness helps ease the pain I feel.” She also went to see Dudas’s family. The father is a broken man, and she has put her arms around him and wept with him.
Jo Pollard could show mercy to those men because God had shown mercy to her for all her sins. She can daily pray to God, “and forgive me my trespasses as I forgive them that trespass against me.” The Christian is a man, conscious he is much forgiven, who forgives. That divine mercy, from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord is real and is offered to you today. Acknowledge that you need it. It cannot help you until you do. Receive it and live a life of forgiveness. “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” (Matt.5:7).
iii] Peace. This is peace with God: not warm fuzzy feelings but a state of no tension whatsoever between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and me. It is as if I had been drawn up into that Trinitarian fellowship, and made another member. Not, of course, that I had been made divine, but as a welcomed and beloved recipient of the very same affection which they bear for one another. I am brought into and embraced by that divine love, and as there is no strain in relations between Father and Son so there is no alienation whatsoever between them and me. I am not an outsider looking in with aching admiration at their love for one another, but I have been brought to experience it myself. Peace – with God! My sin has all been dealt with. Every single molecule of it. Nothing left hanging about. Nothing left whatsoever. God has no grudge against us at all. There is no resentment in the Father and no disapproval in the Son. Never will the Holy Spirit hold forgiven sin against a forgiven sinner.
The believer is joined to Christ – in Christ Jesus. Our constant and eternal state is as if we had acted as the Lord Jesus behaved throughout his life. He treated people perfectly. He spent his energy with the most unpromising men and women. He didn’t give in to temptation. He was willing to die rather than go against the will of God. And in an act of justification God has imputed that righteous life to the account of all who have entrusted themselves to him. Jesus’ holiness is accredited to us. We are clothed, as it were in the perfection of the King of love and Lord of glory. What an amazing state to be in. When we pray this is the confidence we have as we enter God’s presence. Whatever our needs God will supply them richly to all who are in Christ. It is like shopping with someone else’s credit card. It is like getting past checkpoint after checkpoint into the presence of the most important person in the universe dressed in the uniform of another. It is like travelling on an alien passport to where angels can enter only if their eyes are covered, but we are saying to this most majestic of beings “Abba! Father!” It is like being carried in the divine womb, blood-rich with the very life of God. Total peace with God, and enjoying all the benefits that such peace provides. Try to live independent of God, and you die. You are left bleating, “Someone, somewhere, love me.” Militant atheism is like a declaration of independence from oxygen. But depend on Christ Jesus the Son of God and you know peace with the Godhead. You become more and more alive, more free, more splendid than you could ever imagine. “Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
5 September 1999 GEOFFREY THOMAS