Romans 15:29 “I know when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.”
There are some comings which are overwhelming;
The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
And the sheen of his spears was like stars on the sea
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
So Lord Byron wrote in The Destruction of Sennacherib. There are other comings, like the coming of the Queen to Westminster Abbey on the day of her coronation, preceded by hundreds of other heads of state, the whole route of her coming lined with soldiers in dress uniform, coming in a golden coach pulled by eight horses clothed in their finery. What a coming that was. There are other comings, like a young couple ignored by all slipping into Bethlehem one evening and finding every door closed to them even though Mary was experiencing birth contractions. They are sent to a stable and there their firstborn son Jesus is born. Some comings are magnificent while others are meek and lowly.
When Paul was considering his entrance into Rome he thought it would be both meek and magnificent. It would certainly be meek; no one on the road would look twice at him as he walked to the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns. There was nothing striking about him settiing him apart from anyone else on the bustling road to Rome. Paul had no herald running before him crying, “Make way for the apostle!” He didn’t ride a chariot; he was walking along with thousands of others, as they do in Africa, day and night, always people walking at the edge of the roads. Yet Paul was going to Rome by the will of God, at the time God had appointed for his coming, bearing the message that God had given him to speak. What a message that was and what enabling God would give him to declare it in Rome under the shadow of Nero’s palace at the heart of the empire of man. Paul was anticipating that coming; “I know when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ.” What is the blessing that is Christ?
1. THE BLESSEDNESS OF WHO CHRIST IS.
i] Think of how John’s gospel begins (I am indebted to Donald Macleod for a sermon of his on the opening words of John). It tells us that Christ, the Word, was in the beginning, and that phrase is taking us right back to the opening words of Genesis, to the absolute beginning, to the beginning of time, to the beginning of space and the beginning of all creation. We are told by John that at that point, in the beginning, when the cosmos came into being then Christ was. We’re not told that then the Word was made, or that Christ was created, or that then he began to exist, but we are told that already the Word was in existence. The Word was then in being when everything else began. Christ already existed. He did not begin to exist when God said, “Let there be.” He was the Word speaking the word of creation. The Blessed Christ is the unbegun Word; he is the unoriginated Word; he is the uncreated Word; he is the unmade Word. At that point when history opens and creation begins – at that point Christ is there, already existing. There never was a time when the Word was not. Jesus was always there, before any particles of mass or energy existed, before there was any kind of created synthesis, before there were any bangs, big or small, Christ already was. Jesus never began, any more than he will ever end. He is absolutely eternal. He goes right back beyond the beginning. In the beginning there he was.
Then we are told in the most magnificent and unqualified directness that the Word was God. The Word was everything that God was. Christ had deity; Christ had godhead. Whatever constituted divinity the Word had it. Whatever is the essence of God the Christ had it. Whatever God is then Christ was that. He had every single perfection of God, every attribute of God. He was infinite, eternal, unchangeable, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnicompetent, all those great words of theology we apply to Christ, every big word belongs to him. He had the form of God, the image of God, the glory of God, the likeness of God, the nature of God, the being of God, the names of God and all the prerogatives of God. Christ was worshipped by an innumerable company of angels; he performed all the functions of God. He was the Maker of the heavens and the earth. Without him, John said, nothing was made that was made. Christ was there creating, crying, “Let there be light . . . sky . . . land . . . sea . . . sun . . . moon . . . birds . . . fish . . . animals . . . man.” He was sustaining and providing, preserving and governing, upholding the universe. Christ was engaged in all of that because he was the working God, the involved God, the supervising God, not one who was like God, not like God at all, but he was God. Christ had the same nature as God, and the same essence, and the same being, and the same name, God!
And when I see that I go down and I worship him. My mind believes that he is God; my heart believes it, and the moment I believe it my knees bend and my neck bends and I fall before him. That moment I become his slave. I worship him and adore. O for grace to love him more! I break forth in doxology, in wonder, love and praise. It is enough for me that Christ is God; then I bow before him. That is the supreme blessedness of Christ. I don’t ask for my feelings to be moved, but the moment Christ is God you have to worship. The moment you know that he is God you must come to Christ in total submission and unqualified adoration.
ii] Then you see that John tells us another thing about Christ that he was with God. He was in the beginning; he was God, and he was with God. Now there is a mystery in that; there are depths and profundities there because there is only one God, one living and one true God. Then this great Bible, this book in which God tells us something of himself and which says again and again, “I am only one,” now is saying that the Word was God and the Word was with God. There is, in Principal Macleod’s happy phrase, in the great glory of the depths of God ‘withness.’ Christ was God, and Christ was also with God, so that means that in God there is no loneliness; there is no solitude in Jehovah. Some men have suggested that God made the world because God needed the world. “God was all by himself and he needed something to which to relate, against which he could know himself and his own personality,” they have said. Then I come across this great fact, this trinity, this triunes of God, and I see that God was never alone, that in this one great God there is ‘withness.’ Christ was with the Father and there was no loneliness; there was togetherness. They were towards one another like two people in love, and they have always been living face to face, their lives going out towards one another in affection, and interest, and commitment, and admiration, and joy, and in communication. They know one another exhaustively as no one else knows them. They keep no secrets from one another. There are no locked drawers. They are living towards one another and it is a great and moving picture of God. God the Father loves Christ the Son. God the Son loves God the Father. God the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son. They are with one another and towards one another.
Then incidentally one day the Christ who was always with God hung on the cross of Calvary and he was without God. He cried out that he was forsaken by God; one day he was no longer there. “I cried,” he says, “but you didn’t answer.” I think of the pain because it was new; it was unfamiliar and unknown. Always he had been with God; God’s face always there, the smiling encouragement of the most loving Father in heaven and earth; God’s voice was heard; God’s support was experienced, and then on that terrible day God wasn’t there, just nothingness, only unrespondingness, simply vacuity. Christ was with God, and then one day he was without God. And if I asked again why that was then the answer is that he might bring us to God, that we might be with Christ
iii] So Christ was in the beginning, and Christ was God and Christ was with God. Then we are told about him that he became flesh. He became a true man with a real body and all the vulnerability that that body meant because it put this eternal Christ in time and space. It put Christ where pain was, where deprivation was, where human cruelty was, where weakness was, where hunger and thirst was. It put Christ where there was scourging, and torture, mockery and ridicule, nails and hammers, crosses and executioners. That body in all its three-dimensional concreteness, that flesh and blood reality, is where men now discover God. Christ took frail flesh and came among us in all our own physicalness.
In this world Christ proceeded to be with God, but now in a human body, with a human “head and shoulders, knees and toes.” He served him with physical energy and resilience as his reasonable service. But it wasn’t only with a human body he loved God and loved us because Christ took also a human psychology, a human mind and soul, a human way of knowing or then the reality of not knowing certain things, for example, who had touched him, where was Lazarus buried, of not knowing the danger, or the time of his second coming. Christ experienced our human feelings, fears, sorrows, surprise and amazement. But he entered into the depths of our own human emotional darkness to the point where we find things unmanageable. He began to be sore amazed; he was overwhelmed. Sometimes men portray discipleship as if all Christians were heroes striding across the fields of human endeavour as if they knew nothing of depths, and brokenness and the darker side of human emotions. Sometimes ministers dumb down funerals; they want to lighten everything and get people to laugh at the saddest times. Sometimes we tell people with thorns in the flesh to be stoical. There are occasions of bitter frustration and we are told that we have no right to tears. I have no patience with any of that because if it is unworthy for a man to be down, Christ was down. If it is unworthy for a man to be despondent Christ was despondent. If it is unworthy for a man to be in darkness Christ was in darkness. If it is unworthy for a man to be close to being overwhelmed then my Saviour was overwhelmed.
I do not hide that; I do not pretend I can defend Christ’s blessedness by obscuring or denying those elements of so-called weakness, because they’re no weakness, they are strength. They are the strength of Christ’s blessed compassion, and his blessed sympathy, and his blessed sensitiveness. I believe he was exquisitely sensitive and that he felt emotional pain and physical pain more keenly than any other human being.
I believe that Christ can be touched with my feelings of how weak and unfirm I am. He sympathizes with it because he has been where I am. He had a part of every pang that rends the human heart. He knows our fears on the first day of school. He knows our concern when we are no longer in charge of a situation. He knows what it is to be bitterly disappointed. He was once a teenager; he experienced his body slowly changing and maturing. It looks as if he lost his father at a very early age and I can imagine that in all the glory of his humanness he was broken by that because I knew he wept when his friend Lazarus died, so how did he feel when his father died? Joseph had been so good to him and his mother. All his teenage recollections are as vividly before him this moment as if they occurred today. He has not forgotten anything of what he experienced. So he knows all the creaks and joints in my own personality. A man there is, a real man reigning in heaven as our Lord, and I believe that I can accept my humanness because God’s Son accepted his. He knows its limitations, its weaknesses and vulnerability because this frail flesh is what the eternal Word took.
iv] Then we are also told that Christ lived among us. He got involved; he pitched his tabernacle right where we are. He didn’t simply take our natures but he also came into the place where we live. He walked our cruel streets where a man is beaten and left half dead. He came into the world which knew him not. There was no respect for the faith. He came where no one recognized him. He came where men betrayed their friends, selling them for pieces of silver. He came where men did not receive him, and where the devil came tempting him, making propositions to him. He needed to pray for wisdom and strength to face what lay before him, and sometimes his prayers were in agony and bloody perspiration. He came where men could strip him and mock him, and plant a crown of thorns on his head. That is where he was, and that is where I must be, speaking the language of that place, living within earshot of those groans. I must be conversant with its injustices and oppressions so that I can speak to the heart of a poor man or woman who lives in that darkness.
Don’t be afraid of putting yourself in a position of vulnerability, out of your depth, not knowing what is going to happen next, uneasy and afraid. Don’t be afraid for the sake of Christ to be in circumstances where you can’t cope by yourself. Don’t think, “I’ll never become a mental health nurse. I’ll never become a church planter in Soho. I’ll never speak up in a tutorial. I’ll never witness to my boss” because Jesus Christ came down and down and dwelt right among us.
But it was here that Christ’s glory shone. In the heart of darkness Jesus shines, and the glory could not be suppressed. All around was apathy and incomprehension and there in the midst of it the divine glory was shining. Even when there was great darkness all over the earth, and Christ was hanging on the cross his glory shone. He was lifted up and still his glory shone. And there were hours when his glory was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a grave, and men said, “That’s the end of all that now.” But on the third day the glory shone more brightly than ever, like the noon day sun in all its brightness, so that men fell before him. This is the blessedness of who Christ is. Then there is something else;
2. THE BLESSEDNESS OF WHAT CHRIST DID.
i] Christ is his people’s inspiring teacher. He was sent by God to bring a very carefully circumscribed message to the world. It did not tell us everything we would like to know, but it did reveal the will of God for our salvation. Christ did not speak on arts and sciences, the criteria for good poetry, or on genetics. He did not suggest the best way of making a European Union work, the nature of economic reform and the workings of government, recipes for the tastiest food or on dress design. He did not speak on global warming or on world government. There are other means of obtaining information on those subjects which ultimately have come from him, however he did declare very plainly the truth as to how we might be saved from our guilt and condemnation. The Shorter Catechism says, “Christ executes the office of a prophet in revealing to us by his word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation.”
Our Lord prayed the night before his crucifixion and he says to his Father in heaven, “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them” (Jn. 17:8). In other words Christ was conscious that his role was a messenger boy bearing good tidings from the God of love to men and women. He was conscious that he was a divine herald sent by the heavenly King of kings to tell the whole world what God would have them hear. He told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), and to prosper that end he assured them of his perpetual presence with them. So Paul goes to Rome saying in the language of our text, “I know when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ” because the Lord had said to his apostles, “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
So Christ began teaching people and we are told that they were amazed at what they heard, in other words, they were blown out of their minds, they were breathless, at panic stations while in a synagogue, listening to a sermon. There was a sense of awe and shock. They were covered in goose pimples. It was an absolutely scary experience. There was no feel-good factor about his teaching. It was not like the pleasant suspense that comes from reading a mystery and wondering what is going to happen next. This was like being on a runaway bus; they were certainly not in control; they didn’t know how things were going to work out. They were deeply disturbed at his teaching because it was an encounter with God. It was a mini-repetition of Sinai when the people hearing the voice of God were scared stiff and they begged Moses to end it. They were deeply convicted of their sin and longed for this God to go away. It was typical of all the other encounters with God that are described to us in the Bible. No one falls backwards and laughs hysterically. They all long for this encounter to come to an end.
Christ spoke with such authority. I once worked as a clerk on the front desk of a largely Jewish apartment block in Philadelphia and became friendly with a number of the occupants especially one Jewish lawyer. He told me of the various synagogues in the area. “What kind of sermons do you hear?” I asked him. “Generally book reviews or discussions of various social issues in America.” Those were the kinds of sermons that normally took place in the synagogues of Galilee. Then Jesus began to speak and instead of parading how clever he was in knowing the ancient rabbinical debates he spoke with extraordinary originality on the Sabbath and told them he was its Lord, that he had authority to forgive sins, that he was the one Isaiah spoke about on whom the Spirit of God was given. He spoke on oaths, the basis of divorce, the inspiration of Scripture, what is true prayer and how people could inherit eternal life. He did all this on his own authority. He set up his great ‘I’ – “But I say unto you . . . verily, verily I say unto you . . .” as over against the 300 years of rabbinical discussion about the length of a sabbath day’s journey and how one tithed the herbs found in the back garden.
Jesus applied the word to them. He showed them what were the implications of such commandments as, Thou shalt not commit adultery, and Thou shalt not murder. He showed them sin was an inward power resident in their hearts, and that they needed a birth from above to enter the kingdom of God. He told the Pharisees that they were whitewashed sepulchers and that the people they’d convert were as surely destined for hell as the Pharisees themselves. He looked them straight in the eye and confronted them. He was not an academic preacher. He was not interested in abstractions. He dealt with the people before him, and he applied to them the message his Father had given him to declare. Of course it was delivered in different ways relating to the people hearing him. To Nicodemus it was confrontational, while to the woman of Samaria it was teasing and provocative and theological. To the Pharisees it was condemnatory, and to his own disciples full of encouragement. But it was all part of the one message that came from heaven, and it is in this way he still speaks, and still people are saying today that no one ever spoke the way Jesus did. I have been with a dying man in these last days and I brought to him the words of Jesus. A wounded soldier was dying on the battlefield and he asked his companion to open his bag and take out his Bible and read to him from John 14 and verse 27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” The man was able to die in peace comforted by the words of Jesus.
ii] Christ is his people’s all sufficient priest. A priest makes sacrifice and in the Old Testament the sacrifices were bulls, goats, lambs, doves, flour, wine and oil. They were not cheap and imperfect sacrifices but really valuable, something that the offerer would treasure for himself. Yet these were sacrificed in making atonement for sin. Atonement means attaining oneness, at-one-ment. No longer is there this barrier between us and God. Now the Lord is no longer alienated from us because of our sin; God has been reconciled to us through the sacrifice that had been offered to him, the worthy spotless life has been sacrificed in our stead. God and ourselves are one in fellowship and affection. We can look up and see his great smiling face and we can cry “Abba, Father!”
Christ is the final priest come into the world from heaven, but he does not offer the blood of animals. He lays down his own life for us. God’s great High Priest has offered his blood and died. Atonement has been made and wonderful accomplishments have come from him. Our sins have been dealt with; the slate has been wiped clean; the vast list of all our wickednesses, page after page, almost endless pages it seems to us, has all been deleted at Golgotha. They are all gone. The record is irretrievable. You cannot find it; the hard disk of our sin is utterly blank. God laid our sins on Christ and he has dealt with them all. We have nothing to fear from God because now our sins are as though they never were. We call that the ‘expiation’ of sin.
Again what our great High Priest did on Golgotha was to bear in his own body God’s wrath and anger due to our sin. I often warn you about the concept of some deity in heaven who is alleged simply to love unconditionally the serial murderer and the drug baron, and the ruthless torturing crime boss, some god who is not angry at the tortured child’s tears – what kind of god is that? One who is properly repulsive to us. God cares about right and wrong; he is angry with such wickedness every day, and aren’t there sins we have done which have provoked him? What is going to placate that wrath? What was there in Rome when Paul arrived? Hundreds of temples and altars, thousands of priests and priestesses, tens of thousands of sacrifices all seeking to appease the gods for man’s shame. But Paul preached, “He has come! The Lamb of God has arrived.” That was the apostle’s message, and he has taken away not just Israel’s sin but the sin of the whole world. It has all been dealt with, when God turned away the focus of his rectitude from us to his Son on Calvary. Christ has propitiated his Father’s wrath against our sin. He can love us as he loves his own Son because we are now as free from guilt and blame as his own Son. We are now reconciled; the barrier of our guilt has been removed. He says, “Come to my Supper; break bread and drink from the cup with me. I am the host and you are the guests, every single one who believes in me. We can eat together because Jesus has made us one.”
Again, what our great High Priest did on Golgotha was to redeem us, in other words we were slaves to sin all our lives. Sin instructed us to reject God, and never to pray, not to read the Bible or go to a gospel church. Sin told us stop people who were trying to witness to us, to become utterly rigid with one track atheist minds, and we were exactly that because sin controlled us, but Christ came, not to be served but to serve us by giving his life as a ransom price. He bought us for himself. He broke sin’s power over us by submitting to all it could do to us in him, and then he rose on the third day and lives as our mighty kinsman redeemer. Now his people belong to him; they sing, “His child and for ever I am redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.” Today, when sin starts to say, “Boring long sermons, inconsistent Christians who let you down,” we say, “True, but my hope is all in my Redeemer, Jesus Christ, not in people, not in one preacher, not in myself.” So this is what Christ has done in his great atoning death on the cross, he has expiated our sins so that they are no more; he has propitiated the wrath of God against us; he has reconciled God to us and us to God; he has redeemed us from our slavery to sin. And now he who died for us lives for us and also makes intercession for us at the right hand of the majesty on high. What a wonderful living High Priest we have.
iii] Christ is his people’s glorious protector. Christ is powerful; he is more powerful than death; he rises on the third day conquering death itself. It cannot have the last word; that prerogative is Christ’s. He tells us that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. So he controls our lives, sends enough trials to keep us dependent on him but not too many to crush us, supervises providence so that all that we meet works for our good – it must because Christ is in control not chance. I read the recent book of an American journalist and author Joan Didion some of whose descriptions of contemporary life in her earlier books have been quite fascinating. My wife gave me this her best selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, as a present. It describes Joan’s response, as an atheist, to the death of her beloved husband. Not having God in any living, growing relationship you can imagine how bleakly she has responded to the sudden death of her husband John. She is basically a Stoic, and the very last sentence of her book shows its pessimistic defiance and scorn of the Christian message. “No eye is on the sparrow, and John told me that.” How different those who know that God is in control of their lives. Nothing happens by chance. The grave does not fill by accident. Luck does not nudge the King off his throne to work havoc in our lives. He whose eye is on the sparrow certainly keeps his eye on us in our darkest hours. God himself experienced the death of the one he loved the most. He knows how to protect us.
So his people cannot stop confessing, “Jesus is Lord.” The persecution would start when Rome forced them to say that Caesar was their lord. Rome was nervous of a fifth column in the empire and Paul appealed to Caesar to speak up on behalf of the Christian church. He was seeking to assuage Rome’s fears as to what kind of King was Christ. There is a tension between our obedience to our heavenly king and our submission to the powers that be that are given by God to protect the nation from criminals, and that tension is being experienced all over the world today. We cannot be silenced in proclaiming the glorious power of our great King and our allegiance to him has to come first in our lives. Serving him is a wonderful freedom. We trust him implicitly and absolutely, even when our worst fears are realized. He is the one who has given us the full forgiveness of God. He prays for us all the time. To trust in this King is to trust a fascinating Prophet whose word is completely true and trustworthy.
So that is my inadequate description to you of the full measure of the blessing of Christ. He is glorious in what he is as God and man, two distinct natures and yet united in one person. He is glorious in what he has done for sinners as their teacher, high priest and protector. How blessed we are as a church to be going with that message to this community. It is not half a measure is it? It’s a full measure. It is not a message for the academics but not for the common people or vice versa. It is not a message for the old but not the young, or vice versa. It is not a message for men and not women, or vice versa. It is not a message for some religious types but not for others, or vice versa. It is a message which is fully measured out by God, full of the blessing of Christ’s person and Christ’s work. It is so full that the very worst sinner can be submerged in it, washed and cleansed. It is so full that it can keep refreshing those men whose happy privilege it is to take it and preach it to the world. They have the assurance that when they stand and preach this gospel to people they do so with the enabling Christ gives them. Paul could tell the Thessalonians, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thess. 1:5). The blessing of Christ is what he is and what he does, living in us, strengthening us and using us to awaken others to their need of him, illuminating their understanding giving us new appreciation of the glories of Jesus Christ and helping us to bow before him and make him our prophet, priest and king for ever. Let us pray that this Christ be preached here and in churches everywhere all this round earth over so that when men come to a congregation they might know that they are coming in the full measure of the gospel of Christ.
11th March 2007 GEOFF THOMAS