Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"THE APOSTLE PRAYS FOR CONGREGATIONAL HEALTH ON THE BASIS OF GOD’S WORK ON EASTER SUNDAY."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 79:5 & Hymn 45:1,4
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The church of Jesus Christ in Kelmscott is, in so very many ways, typical of every church of Jesus Christ. One sees in the midst of the congregation so many fruits of the Spirit, evidence that the Lord God has taken persons from Satan’s side to His side and renewed them, changed them. By the infinite grace of the God of all mercy, there is love in the congregation for one another, there joy in the congregation in the service of the Lord, there is peace in the hearts and peace in our attitudes to each other, there is patience in the face of abiding weaknesses and a desire to see no wrong, and the list continues. Elders come back from home visits, and time and again bring reports to this effect. The deacons visit and observe how the communion of saints functions, and report in the same vein. One can only be so very, very thankful for the Lord’s mercy in our midst.
As is typical of every other congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the church in Kelmscott has not yet reached the goal of perfection. We all know it, and the elders and deacons report it too: "we do not have perfect faith, and we do not serve God with such zeal as He requires." Brokenness remains in the homes of the congregation, and brokenness remains in the way brothers and sisters of the congregation interact together. Like every other congregation, Kelmscott too knows its stronger and weaker addresses, has in its midst things that do not please the Lord, that do not display maturity in the Lord’s service.
Today is Easter Sunday, when we remember specifically the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. Is there anything in Christ’s resurrection, we wonder, that might encourage a church in the struggle against continuing brokenness? How does Christ’s resurrection concretely touch us in the work office-bearers must do in the congregation and in the work congregation members continue to do amongst each other?
The Lord shows the way in the conclusion to the letter to the Hebrews. The Hebrews addressed in this letter were as beset with abiding imperfection as any church of Jesus Christ in the New Testament dispensation. Publicly the author of the letter prays for this church-in-its-brokenness, and bases his prayer on the reality of the resurrection.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE APOSTLE PRAYS FOR CONGREGATIONAL HEALTH ON THE BASIS OF GOD’S WORK ON EASTER SUNDAY.
1. The request of the prayer.
The apostle’s prayer for the Hebrews, congregation, is contained in vs 21: "Now may the God of peace … make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ…." That’s his petition, a request he utters publicly – for his prayer is put to paper for the Hebrews (and us) to read.
Why, we wonder, would the apostle pray with the Hebrews? What circumstance required a public prayer? The gospel had obviously come to these Hebrews at some time or another, and met with faith, even with enthusiasm. But that early zeal had worn off, and the temptation was great that these Hebrew Christians revert to their Judaism and deny Jesus as the Christ. That is why the author of this letter goes to such detail to show that Jesus Christ is greater than the angels (chaps 1,2), is greater than Moses (chaps 3,4), is greater than the High Priest of the Old Testament (chaps 5,6). More, the author draws out that Jesus fulfilled the gospel of the Old Testament tabernacle, for Jesus through His sacrifice on Good Friday has opened the way for sinners to approach God in that little piece of heaven in the back of the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies. So, he says in chap 10, we should have boldness to speak to this God in prayer, drawing near to Him with a true heart in full assurance of faith (vs 22). What should the content of our prayer be? Vs 23: we need to hold fast to our confession. Vs 24: we need to stir each other up to love and good works. Vs 25: we need to encourage each other to assemble together Sunday by Sunday. His point in mentioning these things? Obviously, he mentions these things because they were beginning to lack amongst the Hebrew Christians. From 10:32f it’s clear that these Christians were experiencing pressures from the world, and so were in danger of falling away (vs 39). Chap 12:3: the Hebrew Christians were becoming weary and discouraged in their souls. Vs 12: their hands were hanging down, their knees were feeble; in the struggles of the Christian life, they’d run out of puff. Given the struggles we experience in our own Christian lives, we can relate so well to the Hebrews….
Then, yes, it’s wonderful that the apostle writes a letter to the Hebrews. Here’s pastoral care, encouragement for the Hebrews. But we also know, congregation, that there comes a moment when even instruction and encouragement doesn’t suffice anymore. A weary soul needs something else. A weary soul wants to lay the struggle before God – prayer. Perchance we’ve all experienced it: how refreshing, how encouraging, that someone prays with us, for us. Lays it all before God, and leaves it there….
That, congregation, is what the apostle to the Hebrews does in our text. He’s written his letter, encouraged the Hebrews in this way and that, and now ends with a prayer.
What he prays? "Now may the God of peace … make you complete," he says. The word rendered "make you complete" was used in the ancient world to describe the work of the doctor in setting a broken bone. The word was used of the sailor who outfits his boat, making it ready for departure. In Mt 4 the word is used to describe the labors of John and James with their father’s nets; they were "mending" them, repairing them for tomorrow’s job. In Eph 4 the term is used of the labors of office-bearers; they prepare the saints for the work of ministry. In each of these cases there’s a deficiency, something broken that needs to be set right, fixed up.
And yes, among the Hebrews something was broken, something had to be set straight again. The weariness had to be taken away, the lethargy and discouragement had to go. In its place had to come a renewed love for one another, where each encouraged the other in the Lord’s service. They had to learn again to meet together (10:25), they had to learn again to respect each other in the Lord, respect also their leaders (13:7,17). But how, O how, could such noble goals be reached? The apostle knows: prayer! Lord God, the brokenness is too much for the Hebrews to fix; will you set straight the broken bone, will you mend the net, will you equip them for further service. Fix the Hebrews, Lord, so that they may be able to perform every good to do Your will. Work in them, Lord, what is well pleasing in Your sight. Fix them, repair them, so that they be the people of God You want them to be, fix them so that they are the congregation you want them to be.
We realize: this is quite a prayer. Necessary, undoubtedly, and necessary for every church of the Lord in this broken world. But what guarantee is there for weary and discouraged souls that the Lord will in fact hear such a petition, and fix up what’s broken? That’s our second point:
2. The basis for the prayer.
The basis for the apostle’s prayer, congregation, is recorded in vs 20. His petition is directed to "the God of peace." With that title for God he expresses his conviction that it’s the Lord who gives peace. The peace God gives is not simply an absence of war and controversy; the peace God gives is a life of harmony, of agreement, is a climate where life can blossom. With the fall into sin the Lord pronounced His curse over life, and so life could not blossom; there would instead be sweat and tears, tensions and discord, and it all would end in death. God desires peace, though, and therefore gave His only Son to suffer the death we deserve. On the cross of Calvary "the chastisement for our peace was upon Him" (Is 53:5). Result: the way is open for the peace of God to touch lives broken by the fall. This is God’s work; He’s "the God of peace."
Then the apostle does a remarkable thing in his prayer. Where is the evidence that the Lord God is truly "the God of peace"? How did this God bring out this peace, this harmony? Says our text: This God "brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead." So pleased was the Lord God with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that He raised Him to new life. And who is the Jesus God raised from the dead? The One God raised is the "great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant." Given that "the God of peace" brought such a Shepherd from the dead, the author of Hebrews dares to ask God so boldly to fix up the Hebrews, mend their brokenness. For us to appreciate the wealth of the basis of this prayer, we need to consider carefully what the apostle says about who was raised that Easter Sunday.
As it is, beloved, the author of this petition is working with various passages of his Bible, both from Jesus’ words as well as from the Old Testament. I refer first to Jesus’ words in John 10. He was, He said there, "the good shepherd." So good a shepherd was He that He would give His life for the sheep (vs 11, 15). Yet that would not be a disaster for the sheep, for the Shepherd would lay down His life deliberately, and equally He would "take it again" (vss 17f). That is: the proof that He was "the Good Shepherd" lay in the fact that He would not only lay down His life for the sheep (more shepherds have done that over the centuries), but would also take up His life again. To arise from the dead would be unique, and it would demonstrate that His sacrifice for His sheep was valuable, was worth it, acceptable to God – for God had pronounced death on sin. Equally, if He would take His life again, arise from the dead, He could continue to shepherd His sheep – and that could only be of great blessing to the flock. What a Shepherd that would be: loving His sheep so much that He’d lay down His life for their benefit, and yet not be knocked out of action; He’d arise to carry on with the shepherding! Blessed are the sheep who have such a Great Shepherd! Well, says the apostle to the Hebrews, I pray for you Hebrews on the basis of precisely this resurrection. The Good Shepherd of John 10 has in fact laid down His life, but He’s also taken it again so that you Hebrews actually have Him as your Shepherd!
There’s another passage of Scripture that plays a role in the prayer of this apostle. It’s the passage we read from Isaiah 63. God had bestowed His boundless mercy over the house of Israel, showered on this people His goodness. Vs 9: "in all their affliction He was afflicted…; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old." But what was Israel’s response? Vs 10: "they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit." So God turned and became their enemy, fought against His people (vs 10). But even as He fought against His people "He remembered the days of old," remembered Moses and what He had done with Moses. What it was? God "brought them up out of the sea" – Moses, "the shepherd of His flock".
We’re so familiar with those events at the Red Sea. We know how Israel was oppressed in Egypt, how God set Israel free from bondage to Pharaoh. We know too how Moses led the people through the desert behind God’s cloud of fire and smoke…, only to run stuck between the mountains and the sea, with the army of Egypt behind them…. Moses a reliable shepherd for Israel? "Are there no graves in Egypt, that you have brought us here to die?" the discouraged and weary people grumbled. So God worked with His mighty arm, and opened a path for His people through the midst of the sea. Down they went, down between the two deadly walls of water. How long could that water stand upright? How long before the laws of gravity pull the water down and bury the Israelites in a watery grave?? How glorious God’s arm, then; sovereignly, mercifully He brought Moses up out of the sea again, and all Israel with him – up, up, out of the sea, up and out of the watery grave. Had Moses lost the way, proven himself to be a useless guide? No, not at all! The Lord upheld the reputation of His servant, more, the Lord exalted the reputation of His servant: Moses was a good shepherd for God’s flock – by God’s great grace. That’s the material of Isaiah 63.
As the author of the letter to the Hebrews prays for the Hebrew Christians he borrows language from Isaiah 63. Not only does he speak of a shepherd (as also Isaiah does), but he makes specific reference to the word ‘brought up’ from vs 11. Moses the shepherd had led his people down, down into the sea, but God by His mighty hand had "brought them up out of the sea." Jesus, the better Shepherd, died on Good Friday, and was buried, down, down. But the apostle knows of Jesus’ resurrection, and he describes it with the same word Isaiah used: the God of peace "brought up our Lord Jesus" –not from the sea but- "from the dead" – which was symbolized by the sea. And as Moses’ credibility was restored and even enhanced through the episode at the Red Sea (cf Ex 14:31), so the reputation of the Lord Jesus Christ could only be enhanced through His resurrection from the dead. Moses could provide manna in the desert, and water also, and give the people the leadership they needed (be it all under God’s blessing); how much more could the Great Shepherd care well for the needs of His sheep among the Hebrews! He had come to give life, and to give it more abundantly (John 10:10); very rightly, then, could the author of this letter pray that the God who provided such a Shepherd would fix up His broken, weary, embattled people.
There’s more still. So God raised Jesus from the dead. What kind of Shepherd is this resurrected Jesus? Has He given any example of how He would Shepherd His sheep? Here’s the third passage we need to look at. Just before Jesus went to the cross He told His disciples that "all of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night" – as the Scriptures say: "I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered" (Mt 26:31; cf Zech 13:7). That’s what happened. Jesus the Shepherd was arrested, mocked, struck – and the disciples fled, scattered; Peter even denied Him. Talk about the flock falling apart…, being discouraged, despondent….
But, Jesus had said at the same time as He foretold the scattering: "after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee" (vs 32). "I will go before you," He said. That’s leadership, beloved, that’s the role of the Shepherd! He would be struck, killed, and the sheep scattered, and yet Jesus speaks of further shepherding, speaks of going before His sheep, speaks of the sheep being gathered around Him again: "I will go before you." Do you hear the prophecy of the resurrection there, congregation? And do you hear in those words the nature of Jesus’ work after His resurrection? The Good Shepherd He would be again, caring for His flock!
That’s what happened. Mt 28:16: "the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them." On the day of Jesus’ arrest the disciples had been scattered, scattered because their Shepherd was struck. But God brought Jesus up from the dead, and see, Jesus does the work of a Shepherd and gathers His disciples again (cf Mt 28:7,10). He gathers the scattered together in Galilee, and the Great Shepherd encourages His sheep with His statement that "all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth." They receive the mandate to make disciples of all nations, and Jesus assures them that "I am with you always." Shepherd: He gathers, He encourages, He strengthens, and He remains with His flock forever. Truly, Shepherd He is!
In the course of time He ascended into heaven, but obviously remained the Great Shepherd of the sheep. The disciples, in obedience to Jesus’ command in Mt 28, sought on Pentecost Day to "make disciples of all the nations." "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia" heard the disciples’ preaching, and many came to faith. The Great Shepherd gathered into one flock the sheep which the Father had given Him (John 10:16), and they had a unity and harmony together that was the envy of the streets of Jerusalem (Acts 2:47). Talk about the work of the Great Shepherd! His resurrection: what blessing for the church!
The author of the letter to the Hebrews prays for weary Hebrews, requests God to fix up, mend, the broken, discouraged brethren. On what grounds can he pray for this? The basis for his prayer, congregation, is His awareness of Jesus’ identity. The God of peace has brought up from the dead the very Jesus who laid down His life for the sheep. Yes, this Jesus is the Shepherd who had power both to lay it down for the advantage of His sheep, and had power to take it again for the advantage of His sheep. This is the Shepherd who cared for His scattered, despondent disciples so very much that after His resurrection He gathered them in Galilee and there equipped and mandated them to preach to all nations. With what confidence can one lay the concerns of weary and discouraged brethren before such a Shepherd! Given Who He is, a prayer for the weary must meet with a response!
It’s our last point:
3. The result of the prayer.
No, the author of Hebrews does not relate to us how specifically the Great Shepherd of the sheep answered his petition. We receive no report concerning how these Hebrew Christians were faring a year later, five years later.
Yet we may speak of the result of the apostle’s prayer. For notice what the apostle says at the end of his prayer in vs 21. He prays that "the God of peace … make you complete, fix you up" –how?- "through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever." The Christ, the Great Shepherd who must do the mending, must receive "glory forever and ever." The apostle knows it: glory belongs to this Christ! Did the angels on Christmas Day not sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…?" (Luke 2:14). This Great Shepherd is God, to Him belongs all glory forever, and if He would leave His sheep-amongst-the-Hebrews in the lurch He certainly would not be glorious! Here is one with a better reputation that Moses ever had, one who certainly will Shepherd His flock all the time, despite circumstances, simply because all glory belongs to Him always. He has not redeemed a people in order to desert them when the going gets tough! He redeemed them to bring peace to them; and so peace, harmony, prosperity must come.
That, beloved, is the conviction of the author of this prayer, and that is why I dare to speak of the result of his prayer. The desired result must come, simply because of Jesus’ identity as the Great Shepherd. The God of peace who raised such a Shepherd from the dead will invariably preserve the Hebrew Christians, even if they feel O so weary and discouraged and downhearted now.
Here, then, is glorious comfort for us. There is so very much in this congregation for which to be deeply thankful. But we have not yet reached the goal of perfection. The brokenness we see can be so wearisome, and the efforts expended to make us the unblemished and spotless bride Christ wants us to be so tiring. Here, though, is the glorious gospel of Easter: the God of peace has raised up that Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Shepherd who on Easter gathered the sheep scattered on Good Friday. With such a Shepherd as our Shepherd still, we can with confidence pray as the author of Hebrews did, and be assured that this Shepherd –He’s ascended!- will intercede with "the God of peace" to fix up what needs to be repaired in this congregation of His.
How He shall do it? When He shall do it? We don’t need answers to that today.
To Him belongs the glory forever and ever, and that’s why His reputation at the
Great Shepherd will endure forever. That’s enough. Amen.