Even if Not, No Matter What - Part 8
Series: My Preaching Bucket List
August 26, 2018
Today we wrap up one of the most talked about and maybe a bit controversial series I’ve preached here.
We began in Acts 12, where a burning question hid in plain sight.
Acts 12:1–5 (ESV) — 1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
When trouble came, God’s people prayed, and they prayed earnestly. They got down on their knees pleading for God to intervene.
God answered their prayers in a a big way. Peter was miraculously delivered. But the big question hiding there was…
Why Peter and not James?
We have to assume God’s people prayed for James too. Like Peter, James was an original disciple, and like Peter he was one of the three disciples closest to Jesus! But he was allowed to die at the hands of a cruel and sinful king and Peter wasn’t. If you examine the text, the disciples didn’t miss a beat. It was as if they were okay with it.
We call Hebrews 11 the faith hall of fame, and it is (not in your notes)…
Hebrews 11 (ESV) — 1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. 4 By faith Abel … 5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death… 7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark … 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. …11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. … 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” … 23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. … 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. …For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Notice how the writer of Hebrews doesn’t miss a beat talking about the faith hall of fame heroes who saw God perform the miraculous in the same breath as those who ended up suffering and in pain.
When we think about it, we realize stuff like this happens in the lives of Christians all the time.
For every believer able to say God protected them, there’s another able to say he didn’t. For every Christian able to say God healed them, there’s another able to say he didn’t. For every person able to say, “God answered my prayer,” there’s another able to say he didn’t.
Unlike the early church, we miss a beat, we get out of tune, we may even give up when we have a James kind of answer to our prayers instead of a Peter.
So back to our question: Why Peter and not James?
To help answer that, we went to a famous story in the OT. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were Jewish nobles serving in the court of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, as part of the Israelites’ exile.
The king had a huge idol fashioned and commanded every one to bow down to it when they heard the music, or else.
This was a deal-breaker for our three men. Jews, the ones who worship the one true God, don’t do that. Their defiance landed them before the King himself. He gave an ultimatum: worship the idol or die.
Daniel 3:16–18 (NIV) — 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
They did not see God as a genie in a bottle you rubbed every time you needed a miracle. They allowed for God to just be God; they allowed the LORD, in his sovereignty and providence, to let them perish if he so chose.
This was NOT a lack of faith, but an abundance in understanding of who God is and how he works.
I believe that same understanding was in the prayer meetings the early church had for Peter and James. And in the mind of the writer of Hebrews.
They believed even if not, no matter what, God is God.
They believed God is SOVEREIGN and he works PROVIDENTIALLY in all things to accomplish his will.
God’s sovereignty is the key to understanding why Peter and not James, and the key to coming to terms with so much hard stuff in God’s Word.
When we go looking for God’s sovereignty in the Bible, we find it everywhere…
Isaiah 46:5, 8–11 (ESV) — 5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? … 8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
A pastor/theologian, working from this text and many more in both the Old and New Testaments, explains God’s sovereignty this way:
“God has the rightful authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to bring about everything that he intends to happen. And therefore, everything he intends to come about does come about. Which means, God plans and governs all things.
When he says, “I will accomplish all my purpose,” he means, “Nothing happens except what is my purpose.” … nothing has ever happened, or will ever happen, that God did not purpose to happen. Or to put it positively: Everything that happened or will happen is purposed by God to happen.”
We saw how God is sovereign over random things, daily things, powerful things, life and death things, bad things, evil things, and ultimately sovereign over all things.
Which took us to a familiar verse…
Romans 8:28 (ESV) — 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
The all things there are good and bad things, even evil things. Christians aren’t promised protection from the bad or evil things, just that God, in his sovereignty, will make them all work together for good.
There’s more to this verse…
Romans 8:28–30 (ESV) — 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Paul revealed another thing God is sovereign over: salvation. You see, that’s what prompted everything Paul wrote in the chapter following, chapter 9. God was sovereign in choosing Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then the nation of Israel, and Gentiles, and all of us who come to him. That choosing wasn’t based on anyone’s merit.
Which takes us to…
Ephesians 1:3–4 (ESV) — 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.
Verse 4 is hard to miss. God “chose” us in Christ before the world ever existed (past tense).
Wait, wait, wait. I thought I chose him! What about that hymn? I have decided, to follow Jesus…
You did, but if we are understanding God’s sovereignty right, he decided to choose you first.
Listen to what Jesus taught…
John 6:44 (ESV) — 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
Who’s taking the initiative here? God.
This was the hardest part of it all.
I’ll admit, there are a diversity of views on how to interpret God’s sovereignty over salvation. And those who understand it to mean we chose God because he chose us also understand how difficult it is to grasp in light of free will and personal responsibility. And those who don’t see it like this have to admit if God is sovereign over all things, then somehow that includes our salvation.
In the end, we have to let God be God, and be satisfied with not being fully satisfied with our answers. As I said before when you wrestle with the Bible’s teachings on this matter, you have only two choices: suffer insanity or surrender.
Before we go crazy, let’s bring this to an end for now. And let’s do that by going back to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We left them standing at the foot of the fiery furnace, defying the king’s order to worship the idol…
Daniel 3:19–30 (ESV) — 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with fury, and the expression of his face was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He ordered the furnace heated seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he ordered some of the mighty men of his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their cloaks, their tunics, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the burning fiery furnace. 22 Because the king’s order was urgent and the furnace overheated, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” 26 Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the door of the burning fiery furnace; he declared, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. 27 And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. 28 Nebuchadnezzar answered and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” 30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the province of Babylon.
I want you to understand two things here.
1. God, in his sovereignty, did not deliver them out of the fire. HE DELIVERED THEM RIGHT INTO THE MIDDLE OF IT. And that is scary. Ask Job.
2. That same sovereign God, who was busy turning the hearts of kings and holding the fabric of the universe together, was right there in the middle of it with them.
That makes their deliverance irrelevant. Even if not no matter what, God is God. And God is with us.
Here’s what’s so hard about that in everyday life: Even if not = what if’s. And what ifs are scary. And they are even scarier when we realize God in his sovereignty has the right to and may very well let us suffer them.
But he promises to work them together for good. And He promises to give us his very presence in the midst of them.
Hebrews 13:5 (ESV) — 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Matthew 28:20 (ESV) — 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Conclusion: Vaneetha Rendall Risner suffered terrible health problems, the loss of a child, and the abandoning of a husband. As a result, she struggled with the fear of “What if’s.” In her book, The Scars that have Shaped Me, she writes…
[God’s presence overwhelmed me as I knelt in the semi-darkness and relinquished my expectations. He reminded me that I have something far better than a reassurance that my dreaded what-ifs won’t happen. I have the assurance that even if they do happen, God will be there in the midst of them. He will carry me. He will comfort me. He will tenderly care for me. God doesn’t promise me a trouble-free life. But he does promise that he will be there in the midst of my sorrows.
In the Bible, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not guaranteed deliverance. Just before Nebuchadnezzar delivered them to the fire, they offered some of the most courageous words ever spoken. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it... But even if he does not, we want you to know ...that we will not serve your gods” (Dan. 3:17–18 NIV).
Even if the worst happens, God’s grace is sufficient. Those three young men faced the fire without fear because they knew that no matter the outcome, it would ultimately be for their good and God’s glory. They did not ask what if the worst happened. They were satisfied knowing that even if the worst happened, God would take care of them.
Even if. Those two simple words can take the fear out of life. Replacing “what if ” with “even if ” in our mental vocabulary is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God. We see that even if the very worst happens, God will carry us. He will still be good. And he will never leave us.]
Habakkuk 3:17–18 (GNB) — 17 Even though the fig trees have no fruit and no grapes grow on the vines, even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no corn, even though the sheep all die and the cattle stalls are empty, 18 I will still be joyful and glad, because the Lord God is my saviour.
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