Alfred Place Baptist Church

14:27-31 Self-confidence dismisses divine warnings

Mark 14:27-31 “‘You will all fall away,’ Jesus told them, ‘for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’ ‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘today – yes, tonight – before the cock crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.’ But Peter insisted emphatically, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ And all the others said the same.”

Every pastor has the responsibility of warning and encouraging his flock. Every parent has the task of admonishing and sympathising with his children. Even instructors have the same kind of vocation when introducing men to potentially dangerous situations, for example, think of raw recruits who are handling TNT or dynamite for the first time, or apprentice linemen climbing electricity pylons and working on high voltage cables, or rookie soldiers crawling across a field under live ammunition fire or being taught the principles of bomb disposal, or research students experimenting with deadly viruses, or a crew of test pilots taking a huge plane into the sky for the first time. A senior instructor will use the trepidation of those recruits to his own advantage, to underline how careful they must always be, and to do what they’ve been told. “Never get presumptuous. Follow the basic rules, and if you do that consistently you’ll have nothing to fear,” the instructor will say to them.

So it is with us; there is no secret to living the Christian life. It consists of our trusting and obeying the Saviour in everything. We listen to his warnings about our own condition and about the future; we’re to take them desperately seriously, and we’re also to be constantly encouraged in trusting God’s promises. The Lord Jesus gives us an abundance of such exhortations, and we live on them by sitting under biblical ministry and in our private devotions by considering what God says. I have read this week the sweet life of the late John Marshall of Hemel Hempstead (Banner of Truth) and discovered that a mutual Indian friend, Sebastian Mani, is mentioned in the book. Sebastian was contacting John about some open air meetings which he was arranging in Trafalger Square, London, in which John was to take part. So Sebastian called John late one night. “Sorry to phone at this hour. Are you in bed John?” “No. I’m reading my Bible,” he said. The Christian reads the warnings and promises of the Scriptures.

1. THE WARNINGS AND PROMISES OF THE LORD JESUS ARE GRACIOUSLY GIVEN.

You notice here firstly the clear warnings of the Saviour: “‘You will all fall away,’ Jesus told them, ‘for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.’ ‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘today – yes, tonight – before the cock crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.'” (vv.27-30). Jesus promises every disciple a safe arrival on the other side, but there’s no promise of a smooth journey there. The Lord Jesus made the immediate perils very clear to these men. He didn’t dress them up in vague language, but rather said this; “You . . . all . . . will . . . fall away.” Words of such lucidity – “all will fall” that they couldn’t fail to understand his meaning. He spoke as one who had lived with them for three years and knew their personalities from close observation. I’ve just come across this phrase, “Contact is for collision.” Christ’s frequent contacts with us are often in collision with our own ideas and behaviour. Indeed our own contact with the world in which we Christians live puts us on a collision course with its values and attitudes.

So Jesus was speaking to men whom he’d come to know intimately, but he also spoke to them as the incarnate God who knew men’s hearts, the one who knew the future – the destruction of the temple and the end of the world. He spoke as the one who predicted what was going to happen to himself, his betrayal by Judas, his arrest and trial and crucifixion and resurrection. He knew all this and he’d told them about it almost half a dozen times as Mark alone records these sayings. It seems as if every month he was preparing them for what would happen at the end. Jesus knew the future, the death of Lazarus, the precise location of the fish with a coin in its mouth, a man bearing a water pot walking through Jerusalem and so on. Had he ever said anything erroneous or unworthy? Not once. So when the Son of Man who was no scaremonger, who loved them so deeply, looked them in the eye and told them, “All will fall,” then let them prick up their ears and pay heed to what he was saying.

More than that, he backed up what he said from the Word of God; “for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'” Jesus is quoting from the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 13 and verse 7. “Listen to what God himself has said through one of his servants the prophets,” exhorts Jesus. What does Christ say? Several things.

i] God is going to smite Christ the good Shepherd. What lay before Jesus? Golgotha, and what was the smiting that nailed him to the cross? It was God’s own work, lifting up the sledgehammer, and attaching his Son to the tree. Think of it! We are not building our understanding of this smiting upon ten words found in an obscure little prophet named Zechariah. Hear what the prophet Isaiah wrote in the 53rd chapter of his great book, where he is describing the death of God’s servant. Why did he die that cruel death? Isaiah tells us this, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6).

Do you understand this scene? Here is one who claimed to be the servant of God, who always did the will of his Father in heaven. Here is one whom God loved more than anyone else in heaven or earth. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There never was a more loving Father; there never was a more beloved Son;

“Who is he on yonder tree dies in shame and agony?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story;
‘Tis the Lord, the King of glory.”

This is the one who is ending his blameless life nailed to a cross crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Why? What is he doing on a cross? Why is he hanging there in the company of thieves nailed to crosses on either side of him? Do you survey it? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Who can justify such an end? Does God know what is going on in Jerusalem? Is God helpless to save even his own Son? Isn’t God unjust in allowing the only one who always did his will to die in this horrible way? These are the moral problems caused by the cross of Christ. Why did Jesus – of all men – die like that? We rattle off a string of names of the people responsible, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas and their hatred, the plotting jealous Pharisees, vacillating Pilate, the betraying Judas, the cruel soldiers, the lying witnesses, and behind it all Beelzebub himself – that is why he died. Yes, of course, wicked hands crucified him, but couldn’t Almighty God have protected his own Son? Couldn’t he have built walls of salvation around him and kept him in the arms of his love? If God couldn’t keep the one he loved more than anyone else how are we going to be kept – who drink iniquity like water?

The Bible answers that Jesus Christ was delivered up to the cross by the determinate council and foreknowledge of God. It was God’s plan to put his Son to death in that particular way. Scripture says that we are to consider Jesus not stricken by the devil but stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted by God in his sufferings. So Isaiah the prophet, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has declared, “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,” (Isa. 53:10), and Jesus reminds the disciples in our text what God says in Zechariah, “I will smite the shepherd. I am the one who will do it!” When Almighty God smites a creature how fearful is such a smiting! But why? How can God the Father smite God the Son when that Son is holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners? The only perfect innocent in the universe becomes the greatest sufferer in the universe. Jesus knew no sin, and yet he was made to pay the wages of sin. Why? How dare God torment and torture to death his own Son? How can he remain silent when his Son cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Are we silent when our children cry to us? What justification can there be for the terrible scene on Golgotha, the unbearable pain, the darkness, the dereliction, the mob taunting him for hours as he dies.

The Bible’s clearly affirms this, that God so loved the world that he gave up his only begotten Son to this death. Have you thought that God, his Son not sparing, sent him . . . to die? Can you take it in, that that ugliness was God’s plan, yes, this blot on the moral universe – God crucifying his own Son, the righteous God exacting from the sinless one the wages of sin? God smiting God! What a hateful, wretched, ugly event it is! It is a greater scandal to faith than the destruction wrought by this recent tsunami. It is more of a scandal than Aberfan, or 9/11, or Auschwitz because here we have what someone has called “the Omega-point of the demonic and the irrational.” On a green hill far away God’s holy child Jesus is being dealt with in the way that a torturer and child abuser and a mass-murderer might conceivably deserve to be dealt with, or the man who this week stabbed that young pregnant mother in a country lane leaving her paralysed – what iniquity! Does God know what he is doing on Golgotha? Has he blown his mind? Has he flipped? I ask again, how can a God of love tolerate the cross of Jesus? That is the most important question anyone can ask because its answer presents us with the very heart of Christianity.

The answer of the Bible is that the smiting of Christ was a sacrifice made by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God was not capriciously dealing with Jesus, nor out of mere whim was he tormenting him in malice – he was not toying with Christ. Jesus was the divinely appointed Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There is something in the very nature and being of God himself that requires the judgment of death for sin, but God in his love provided the object of judgment in the Lamb. He found him in his own flock, in his own bosom, his blessed Son and he transferred sin, by his own action of imputation, to the holy Lamb of God. Jesus assumed our sin; he in love took our liabilities and answered for them. The curse of our sin he made to be Jesus’ curse. Our guilt and shame became his, and nothing was spared – there was no holding back – because it was the beloved Son of God. He did not spare his Son! He was banished from God. A whole universe and more was put between himself and the Son of his love. Jesus entered outer darkness when he became our sacrifice for our sins. That is the way he secured our immunity to destruction, it was when Christ became the Holocaust, the burnt offering, utterly vulnerable to the exactions of God’s righteousness, totally exposed to all that sin deserved. A simple man summed it up like this, “Either I die, or He die. He die; me no die.”

So Christ was smitten by God and Christ willingly endured the smiting because of his love for us. This death of Christ has fully propitiated the wrath of a great and holy God towards all that contradicts what he is, all that defiles and stains his creation, so that now God has nothing against us. All he had against us has been dealt with in the transaction that took place between himself and his Son. Nothing else matters. Nothing else answers to God’s justice and love. After God has smitten his Son he is absolutely satisfied to turn towards us and bless us in every way in this life, and he can take us to be with himself for ever. Our Saviour’s obedience and blood is enough. That is why God smote him, because he was dying in our place. The horror of the smiting was all due to God’s love for us sinners. The willing receiving of the smiting was through Christ’s love for us.

Jerry Bridges, the helpful author of a number of Christian books, says how he was reading the Bible and praying one morning and thinking about his own falls into sin, feeling quite discouraged with himself. “God, you would be perfectly just in sending me to hell,” he said. In other words, “You would be perfectly just in smiting me.” Then, immediately on the heel of those words, came this thought, “No, you wouldn’t, because Jesus has satisfied your justice for me.” The Shepherd has already been smitten for our wrongdoing. Smiting, God cannot twice demand, first on the back of the Son of God and than again on our own backs. Smiting was once and for all.

Then there is the other thing of which Jesus reminds them from the prophet Zechariah;

ii] The sheep will be scattered. This is the consequence of Christ be taken and put to death. The disciples will run off in all directions. They will show they still have the hearts of foolish sheep. Isaiah in that same 53rd chapter compares men and women to sheep going astray, taking off in full flight. Peter Sheep and Andrew Sheep, James and John heep see their great Protector violently removed from them. “We’ve got no shepherd! Let’s go!” And off they run here and there, for somebody else, or somewhere else, anywhere, they don’t know where. It is the most perfect picture of our country today. Christ has been removed by all the supremos of our civilisation. All the great powers of culture and education and the media have taken away our Jesus. He is not for them the way and the truth and the life. There is no one, and so men flee to all sorts of cults, and experiences, and relationships, and philosophies, and pleasures, and drugs, and eastern religions, and materialism, and nihilism.

This has happened most of all in the professing churches. The modernists came in and they smote the Christ of the Bible. They took away the virgin born Christ, the Lord who believed all the Old Testament, the Saviour who died as a substitute for our sins, the Jesus who rose from the dead on the third day, the Christ who will one day return and judge the world – they smote that Christ, and so the sheep were scattered into a hundred different denominations and organisations. The sheep that once looked to Christ became scattered looking for other shepherds. It happened here in Mark 14 for the first definitive time in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it has happened again and again throughout history, and Christ warns the disciples that it’s going to happen. “If I am taken, you will take off in all directions.” So let’s be aware of the cause of the division in the professing churches, and why we will never pray for union with those who deny our Saviour. Let’s be sure that we find our future unity in the Christ of the Bible. There is no other way.

iii] Again, notice that even Peter, the leader of the Twelve, was going to fall away. Peter hears Jesus saying these words to him; “‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘today – yes, tonight – before the cock crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.'” What a scattering of Peter! Not just cowardly flight but flight which is going to be followed by repetitive denial of Jesus. The Saviour makes it absolutely clear. It is not that later on in life, when Peter will be travelling alone somewhere, without Christian fellowship, and is a little bitter because some Christians have let him down, that then, under intense brainwashing and sleep deprivation, with the threat of execution hanging over him, then he might under torture just possibly disown Christ. No, it is not like that. It is never like that. It is never, “Think of the day you are faced with the rack and the stake and the fires, and how might you react then?” It is always, “Watch out for tonight!” After you have heard the greatest sermon in the world in the Upper Room, and after you have taken the Lord’s Supper, and after you have spent hours in the presence of Jesus, and after you have heard him pray for you with the Holy Spirit, then, within a few hours, before the night is out, before the cocks crow to signify the dawn, you will have disowned your Saviour three times! That is the warning! Sin is waiting at the door to pounce on you. It is as unbelievable and graphic as that. Watch out all of you, but especially watch out Peter because it is going to be worst for you, for you are going to fall further than all the rest.

iv] Again, Christ does not leave them with warnings; he also adds a wonderful promise. “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” This is what he says to them, “I am going to be smitten by God and afflicted. Do you understand this, that I am gong to die, and you will be scattered, but I’ll rise again from the dead. I’ll go ahead of you to Galilee and I’ll meet you there.” The sacrifice on the cross is to be followed by resurrection on the third day, and reunion. The scattered sheep are going to meet again around the living Shepherd. He has told them about this many times already. He has rarely mentioned his certain death without adding, “but I shall rise,” and here again he promises them that death will not have the last word. He is going to rise and meet with them in Galilee! He is more powerful than death because he is the Son of God. He is filling their minds with this teaching.

Do you understand the wonder of all this, that Jesus Christ is going to be smitten as the Son of God, and he disciples are going to be scattered from the Son of God. He is going to be raised as the same Son of God, and this Son of God is going to meet with them in Galilee. There is no contrast here between the man who was smitten and the man who rose. When he hung in weakness under the smiting of God he was then God’s Son. God’s Son in weakness, true, but he was still his Son. In Galilee he will be the Son of God in power. When he was smitten he was utterly humiliated. No one has ever been humiliated as much as Jesus Christ. By every earthly criterion he was a friendless, dying criminal, deserted by God and man, lacking in power and influence, but on the third day he rises and lives and reigns for ever utterly preeminent. He refuses to escape the smiting by running away to Galilee from the Upper Room, but he’ll go there when he is risen and gather these scattered sheep together. The resurrection is really his investiture with illimitable power. So these are the warnings and promises of Christ.

2. THE WARNINGS AND PROMISES OF CHRIST ARE TOTALLY REJECTED.

You notice how complete is the disciples’ rejection of Jesus’ words. Instantly Peter declares, “Don’t worry. I won’t leave your side.” There were occasions when our Lord had said something and then the disciples met together and they asked one another what Jesus could have meant by it, but there was no discussion here because they understood only too well what he’d said, and Peter is their spokesman. How utterly vehement he was, “Peter declared, ‘Even if all fall away, I will not.'” “It’s perfectly all right. You can count on me.” What can we say about Peter? There is something wonderfully attractive about him, isn’t there? His resolution and his zeal shine out of him. He was a transparent man, and we love to see such qualities in a person. Peter was without guile; what you saw in Peter was what you got, but here he is contradicting Jesus, and not Jesus only but the Bible itself. “You are wrong Jesus,” he is saying, “and so is your use of Scripture.” There have been many religious men who have claimed to be the inheritors of Peter, sitting in Peter’s chair, and bearing Peter’s authority, who have also been contradicting for centuries what Jesus has said. Either Scripture and Jesus are right or Peter is right, but they cannot both be right.

You also notice how Peter contrasts himself with the other disciples. We all do it. We find people we imagine to be more sinful than we are and take some pathetic comfort from that. “I can’t speak for this lot,” Peter says, “maybe they’ll all fall away, but I am absolutely certain about one thing. You won’t find me letting you down.” How presumptive he was, boasting in his own strength. Then Jesus cuts him down to size; he says to Peter, “today – yes, tonight – before the cock crows twice you yourself are going to disown me three times,” Peter was insulted. He found the words incredible; Jesus obviously didn’t know what a fine man Peter really was, reliable, solid as a rock, what depths of courage he had. Jesus wasn’t dealing with some ordinary disciple, this was a hyper-disciple, a 24/7 disciple; he was in business serving Jesus. Peter felt he had laid all on the altar, and he was out and out for his Master. He looked back at the Lord and spoke with the utmost sincerity, and, believing every word, this is what he said very coldly and clinically, “Listen, Jesus, even if I have to die with you, I’ll never disown you. I’d choose death rather than deny you.” Then all the others got up out of their seats and walked to the front and kneeled before Jesus in total dedication – well, we can imagine it can’t we? “Amen,” they said to Peter’s words. Everyone of them was prepared to die with Jesus. They put their names on missionary service cards and sang, “We rest on Thee our Shield and our Defender.” They were going forth to awaken the world. Well, we can see it in our minds’ eyes can’t we?

What did all those high religious feelings amount to? Within an hour and a half he who said he’d never fall away fell away. Within a few more hours he who said he would choose death rather than deny Christ denied Christ. How quickly their strong convictions disappeared – like the morning dew. How soon their great protestations to follow the Saviour through thick and thin vanished into thin air. They, who were so brave when they were surrounded by fellow Christians, were a bunch of cowards when surprised by a party of soldiers carrying swords and staves and torches. A wave of danger swept away the sand-castles of their good intentions. They spoke as if they were standing on the rock of ages; they acted as if they were clinging to the last piece of driftwood.

3. THE REASONS FOR THEIR FAILURE TO LISTEN TO CHRIST ARE CLEAR.

Why were they so dismissive of Jesus’ warning? There is no perplexity at all about this. There’s no need for some profound psychological analysis. No need for some alleged ‘word of wisdom’ or ‘word of knowledge’ to explain it all. The reasons are plain.

i] They failed to take seriously the words of Jesus.

Weren’t they aware of the hatred of Christ in the corridors of power of the nation? That week they had witnessed the parade of chief priests and Pharisees and Sadducees and lawyers coming to Christ with their searching questions, trying to get him to incriminate himself. They had heard the rumours of the hostility that was focused on our Lord. The Saviour had warned them on many occasions of his arrest, and trial, and death. Now he brings it home to them and warns them that they’ll all fall away, and that their leader Peter would disown him before the dawn of the next day. Jesus couldn’t have made it clearer, but they weren’t listening to Jesus. They had no foresight concerning that Friday, as to just how dark and evil it would be, but Jesus had made the danger transparently clear to them. What else could he have said or done to prepare them? They faced Gethsemane without any idea of what was going to happen because they weren’t listening. They were raw recruits on their way to battle, with no experience of warfare though their instructors had tried to make things as plain as possible. So instead of standing watch when they got there they went off to sleep.

We are just like them. I can preach on righteousness, temperance and judgment to come and how many of you are trembling? Very few. We are all facing a future in which we are going to meet many temptations, coldness of heart, the roots of bitterness going down into our souls, selfishness and self-pity welling up within us. Hear me! There are going to be special times of testing; Satan will want to sift us as wheat. After we have fought with the footmen we are having to fight with the cavalry. Then we will face the last great trial of all when all of us enter our final illness and we grow weaker and weaker and we know that it won’t be long before we are dead, and after death there is the divine judgment and our destiny spent in heaven or in hell. These are the facts about the future of every one of us. Do you have the foresight to see that what I have just warned you about is infallibly true? That I am telling you what God says about your future, and that you have to make preparation for all these things.

You must prepare by crying to God for mercy in the name of Jesus Christ. You ask him that he will forgive you for your sins through the Saviour he sent, and that he will give you the Holy Spirit to help you stand in the evil times that lie ahead of us all. I am telling you to take seriously the words of Jesus: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (Jn. 3:36). Only those who believe in the Son of God possess eternal life; no one else sees life. The wrath of God remains on them. Are you under the wrath of God today, or under the protection of the Lamb of God? Take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.

ii] Their minds hadn’t grasped the meaning of Jesus’ death.

The coming death of Christ had been explained to them. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, and all of them had heard John preach. The great truth he had told them about Christ was this, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When in Caesarea Philippi Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, then immediately Jesus began to tell them of his death and resurrection. He told them that the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. He told them that he was the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. He had initiated the Lord’s Supper and he had told them, “This is my body given for you . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

But they were still prisoners of their tradition and operating in terms of another view of the Messiah, that he would establish a kingdom and make Israel a great world power. They were following a Christ without Calvary. They had no idea of the extreme sinfulness of sin, that atonement would have to be made for them to be pardoned, that without the shedding of blood there would be no forgiveness of sins, and that this would be made not by the blood of goats but by Jehovah Jesus, dying for their sins. They had no grasp of that, and when Jesus was killed all that remained of faith in their minds was a regret that they’d been mistaken – “We trusted it had been he who should have redeemed Israel.” They couldn’t be the heroes they dreamt they were without a grasp of the cross. It’s when you’ve seen Jesus crucified for you that you can say, “All the vain things that charm me most I sacrifice them to his blood.”

How many truths do we hear week by week and they’re making no impact upon us at all? Days of disappointment come and we are unprepared for them. Hagar was in the wilderness parched with thirst, and nearby there was a well, but she never saw it. We are like her. So many helpful truths are preached to us, or our eyes go across the words of the Bible as we read them but they make no impact on us at all. We read them all and yet we read nothing. Every one of us preachers needs to be a patient man, because we must have confidence in this fact that truths that seem neglected at first often bear fruit after many years.

iii] They didn’t know themselves.

A man who knows where his weakness lies may become strong at that point through knowledge and exercise, but a man who is ignorant of his weak points can’t be strong at any point, and the Twelve didn’t know that they were weak. All of them deluded themselves that they were strong enough to die alongside Jesus, but at the first whiff of danger off they ran like rabbits. How little we know how we’re going to behave in a particular situation until we’re there. How much do circumstances change our feelings.

There is far more wickedness in all our hearts than we know. We can never tell how far we’ll fall when we’re faced with temptation. When young David was anointed by Samuel to become king, when he killed Goliath with the sling and they destroyed the Philistine army, when the Spirit of prophecy came upon him and he wrote Psalm 23, do you think in the aftermath of those times he’d have believed the Lord if he had warned him not to become a peeping Tom on the roof of his palace, and that that would lead to his adultery, and murder and the death of a child. “Never!” David would have said. “Not me! I’d never take another man’s wife and arrange for her husband to be murdered.” David was utterly sincere, and completely wrong. There is no degree of sin into which a man of God may not run. Just wait for the right circumstances and the power of temptation, and unless we are watching and praying we are done for. “He that trusts in his own heart is a fool,” (Proverbs 28:26). A blind eye is worst than a twisted ankle, indeed, a blind eye can cause a twisted ankle.

iv] They were inexperienced young men.

They had hardly preached or evangelised. They were not a group of veterans showing coolness and courage at a time of danger. They were entering their first skirmish; they were raw recruits having left home and friends and fishing boats to follow Jesus. None of that equipped them to be soldiers, and the initial testings they had experienced hadn’t made them soldiers because when the Roman soldiers appeared later than night their knees knocked and they ran off to hide. They had no experience of the hour of the Prince of Darkness.

I am reminded of a man called Henry Winstanley who erected in the year 1696 one of the first lighthouses to stand on the rock where the present Eddystone Lighthouse stands. He was so confident about it that he said he’d like to be in his lighthouse on the night of the most fierce of storms. He got his wish because in November 1703 he and some workmen were trapped in the lighthouse at a time when a hurricane blew. At the first light of dawn the local people went to the top of the cliff to see how the lighthouse had survived, but it was nowhere to be seen. Just two twisted iron bolts were left of the whole structure. Nothing else of the work of man was left. Winstanley had no appreciation of the power of the storms, and that ignorance destroyed him.

These disciples were only sheep, just like all of us, and no one expects sheep to do anything but to run away when a wolf comes into a field. A sheep’s only protection is a shepherd, and once these men had rejected the counsels of the Shepherd they were in deep trouble. That’s why Christ is so tender with them. “I will go ahead of you to Galilee,” he said. “I’ll meet you there.” He knew all about them before he’d chosen them. He knew they would all forsake him and run away. He knew Peter would deny him and Judas would betray him, yet still he took them with him to see his mightiest miracles, to share in his great grief, to hear his teaching in the Upper Room. He did not rubbish them because of their failures. He took them like a wife takes a husband with all his weaknesses, like a congregation takes an imperfect minister and doesn’t put him away. Jesus is more merciful and compassionate than men are. It is his glory that he passes over the falls of his people. He loved them before they were converted. He knows what they will be after conversion – unprofitable servants, and yet he still loves them. In spite of all their shortcomings he owns them as his own. A congregation is nothing more than a big hospital; all of us are sick and need daily treatment from the Physician who’s in charge. There’ll be no complete cures until the day of resurrection, but we must listen to the warnings and encouragements of this great doctor if we are going to be useful and sensible and happy disciples.

1st May 2005 GEOFFREY THOMAS