God’s Big Story 16: The Return – Nehemiah 1


Nehemiah 1 – Facing Reality

Headings and questions for a sermon by Doug Johnson.

The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault


Hope on the horizon?

1. Facing reality – the situation vv1-4

Legacy of the past

Difficulties of the present


2. Facing reality – the problem vv4-7

An awesome God

A sinful people

3. Facing reality – the only hope vv8-11

The character of God

The purpose and promise of God



Hope is on the horizon



1. What are the signs of God’s faithfulness in this passage and how do they encourage us as Christians today?

2. How do our prayers compare with Nehemiah’s? What lessons can we learn from him?

3. How do the promises of God help us when we pray and when we think about the future?

4. Why is it important to keep the ideas of vv 10 & 11 together?PPP ICON5

God’s Big Story 15 The Prophets: Isaiah 1


A Prophet’s lot is Not a Happy One (Happy One)

In The Pirates of Penzance, the Sergeant sings of the Policeman’s unhappy lot. (The advantage of the internet is that we don’t need to sit through two hours of Gilbert & Sullivan to find out why he’s unhappy: we can simply look it up). The sergeant’s complaint is that when the burglar isn’t burgling, he’s a devoted family man. It’s little pleasure to keep arresting people. So he laments that 

Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty’s to be done:
Ah, take one consideration with another,
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one!

Today we turn to the Prophets in the OT, and we could say that their lot is not a happy one either, because their role is a bit like being the police officers of the covenant. Often people tend to think of the Prophets as astrologers, that is foretellers of the future. In fact they are forthtellers who have a message for their own people and usually for the King. For instance, Isaiah was based in Jerusalem, and he spoke to the southern kingdom of Judah. Other prophets were based elsewhere. God’s message to us comes through the Prophets’ message to their own people. And it’s a message about the covenant. Recall the three benefits to this covenant:

  • A Great People
  • A Place
  • A Blessing

The terms are summarised as ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people.’ We saw a couple of weeks ago that Israel were to rehearse the terms as the blessings on Mount Gerizim and the curses on Mount Ebal (Deut 11:29; Josh 8:33). Because the role of the Prophets was to warn kings & people who were breaking the covenant, the Prophet’s Lot is Not a Happy One (Happy One)!


Chapters 1-5 are a prologue to the rest of Isaiah and give us a good introduction to the message of the Prophets. It’s a vision from God, for the Kings. See Isaiah 1v1

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. (Isaiah 1:1)

And it’s a big vision: it begins in Jerusalem, and ends in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Is 66.22). Chapters 40-66 in particular contains soaring prophecies of God’s greatness, and his glory and his grace. But it’s not an abstract message: it’s a real message given to real people. Let’s follow the outline for this passage:

The Offer (Isaiah 1.18-20)

Last time we saw King David installed as ruler of Israel, a man after God’s own heart. We’re now about 250 years later, and the situation is desperate. God has sent his Covenant Enforcer – the prophet Isaiah – to call King & people to account. We’re not surprised by the warning: we should be surprised by the offer

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  (Isaiah 1:18)

This has been called “deservedly one of the most famous expressions of the grace of God in the Bible.”

  • God will judge sin. He sends his Prophets to warn time and again.
  • Amazingly, there is hope!

It’s news because we persist in believing the opposite. We:

  • Wrongly believe that that God will not judge sin. We may be blind to sin, but God is not. I love watching Police crime dramas. You can often miss blood spots with the naked eye: but with a ‘black light’  (UV source), the blood spots show up clear as day (so it says on TV!). In the same way, we may be blind to sin but God sees it all; and when the Holy Spirit turns on his light, then that sins are like scarlet, as red as crimson (Is 1.18).
    That is good news in a world where there is sin: and injustice; and harm; and pain: Just this week 21,000,000 are now in urgent need of food and aid in Yemen, where a Saudi Arabian-led coalition has been bombing and enforcing a naval blockade for over three months; 1,000 (at least) – Pakistanis killed by a weeklong heat wave in the Karachi district. Many poor families have little option but to be outside in temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius. 63,000 – Asylum-seekers and economic migrants who have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, overtaking Italy (62,000) for the first time, according to the UN. In a deal reached on Thursday night, European states agreed to “voluntarily” relocate 40,000 from the two countries to elsewhere in the EU over the next two years.
  • The role of a Prophet and of a prophetic church today, is to say the same thing: sin matters and God will judge it. It will not be popular!
  • But second, we wrongly believe that there is no hope. That’s not true. Look again at the terms he offers:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  (Isaiah 1:18)

This is a wonderful promise. Notice what Isaiah doesn’t say:

  • “Though you sins are like scarlet, they ought to be white as snow.” That is true but is not good news. All you can do is feel guilty. God says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
  • Neither does God say, “… they might be as white as snow.” depending on how good you are. No, God promises forgiveness with assurance. Through the Gospel, you can know that your sins are forgiven, only when you come to Jesus Christ and trust in him.

The Charge Sheet (Isaiah 1.21-23 & 29-31)

When you’re in trouble it’s important to know why. Like the husband of this witness in a court case:

Barrister: What was the first thing your husband said to you that morning?

Witness: He said, ‘Where am I, Cathy?’

Barrister: And why did that upset you?

Witness: My name is Susan!

The charge sheet for Judah is no less upsetting because they have forgotten that their covenant husband is the Lord:

See how the faithful city has become a harlot!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers!  (Isaiah 1:21)

God’s people were called to be a beacon of God’s love and justice. Orphans and widows should have been safe, but instead they are exploited and ignored.

Before we relax and point the finger at Judah, realise that we are cut from the same cloth: the effect of sin is to take the silver of what God has made (men and women and all our gifts & talents) and replaced them with dross; to take the beauty and creativity of the race (like wine) and diluted the whole as with water.

This is serious: God’s covenant called Israel to be his people, and to bear his name. But they are a travesty of his name, and they are no different to his enemies.

There’s a Personal Warning and a National Warning.

  • A personal warning because sin cuts you and me off from the source of life, God himself. When we turn away from the living God and turn aside to idols, we are like the Oak in verse 30 that has turned away from water: the leaves fade, it turns to dust, and a mere spark is sufficient to burn it up.
  • A National Warning because the life of Israel and Judah is bound up with the covenant. If they turn away from God and so break the covenant, he will eventually turn away from them. If they will not be his people, he will not be there God. He will withdraw the blessings he promised: a People, a Blessing, and a Place.

What will God do?

Redeeming Judgement (Isaiah 1.24-28)

God warns Judah that he will bring judgement. Verse 25 is chilling:

I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.  (Isaiah 1:25)

God will be against them!

What can they do? Clearly God wants them to turn away from their idols and turn back to him. Keep the Covenant! But they don’t. Here’s how the history pans out, despite prophet after prophet:

  • In the north (Israel), there was one bad king after another. They went from bad to worse, and in 722BC, the northern Kingdom was destroyed.
  • In the south (Judah), there were bad kings with occasional good kings. But that was not enough and they were taken into Exile, taken prisoner to Babylon in 587. (That is where Daniel & Ezekiel lived)

God’s people don’t keep the covenant because they cannot keep it. If there is away to God, it will not come through obedience to the law!

If you and I and Israel and Judah are to come to God and to be his people it will not be by works but by grace. It will be by accepting the work that God does. God will save, through Judgement: his judgement is a redeeming judgement.

We have already mentioned silver refining. Silver melts at a relatively low temperature, but it is often impure. If you heat silver, it melts and the dross is burnt off. The crucible puts your silver to the fire in order to purify it.

So God’s judgement on Israel will not destroy but redeem. Isaiah even had a son called ‘A Remnant Will Return’ (Shear-Jashub, Is 7.3). There is hope!

I will restore your judges as in days of old, your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”  (Isaiah 1:26)

The hope will come through a leader. We think of judges as people in wigs. Remember that in the Bible, the Judges are leaders like Othniel, Ehud, Gideon, Samson, and Samuel. God will raise up a leader, a king in fact. That king will win a great victory over evil – by his death and resurrection. You know who the King is if I tell you one of the lines of a famous Christmas Carol: “the hopes and fears of all the years/ Are met in thee tonight” (O Little Town of Bethlehem). Yes, it’s Jesus!

Jesus Christ is also the one person who does keep the covenant. When you become a Christian, God joins you to Christ, you are ‘in Christ, so that we receive the blessings of the Covenant because Jesus has kept it. In Christ, joined to him by the Holy Spirit, we can know the blessing of God saying, “I am your God and you are my people.”

The message of the Prophets is, on the face of it, all about the Exile: they speak before, during, and after it. But that message is part of God’s Big Story, where we see that the Exile is all about Jesus. The Cross of Christ opens the door to God’s vision of Hope:

A Vision of Hope (Isaiah 2.1-5)

Let me read the next few verses:

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In the last days the mountain of the LORD’S temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob.  He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”  The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.  (Isaiah 2:1–5)

Isn’t that a wonderful vision? Think of it this time tomorrow when you’re stuck in a meeting at work, or battling the laundry, or trying very hard not to strangle your customer. A world of true justice, where God’s ruler brings blessing to all!

I long to see that kind of society built. I long for swords to be beaten into ploughshares. One of the stage-sets at the Glastonbury festival is built from recycled military hardware.

 It will only happen through God’s work in Jesus Christ.

We’re going to see next week that some of the Jews did return from Babylon to Jerusalem, under Nehemiah and Ezra. The temple was rebuilt and the city restored. The law was central to Israel’s life once again.

Three horizons

But was this vision realised? Not at all. Was Isaiah lying? Not at all. You see the prophets speak about three things, often at the same time. We call them the three horizons. Like walking in the hills and seeing three summits: confusing until you realise there are three that look like one from where you are standing.

The prophets speak about these three things, often at the same time:

  • Promise to bring Israel back home (and this happened: come back next week). But that is not all
  • Promise of a saviour to rescue from sin. They went into exile because of sin, and will never be safe from exile until sin is dealt with. The saviour is a king called Jesus, and he came to rescue you and me from sin too: we are those (Gentile) peoples who say through Jesus and his Spirit

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob.  He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”    (Isaiah 2:3)

  • Promise of new heavens and a new earth. Where God and his people will dwell together because God has purged sin and the effects of sin from his new creation.

Conclusion & Application

The vision of Isaiah begins in Jerusalem and ends in eternity. What have we seen?

  • God will judge sin; and there is Hope. We too often believe the opposite: that God won’t judge sin and there is no hope. Wrong! God’s Big Story shows that God will judge sin and that there is Hope – and how he deals with evil and injustice. The story of God’s salvation is so much better than anything else: it’s Good News.
  • Isaiah’s vision began in Jerusalem and ends in Eternity. God’s work begins in your life (Wembdon), and also ends in eternity. If you have a personal trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, then you too are swept up in that Grand Story, God’s Big Story of how he redeems the whole world. You are part of something bigger than yourself! Take time to praise God for his grace, and for the scale of his plans.
  • The focus of God’s work is your heart: that is where all problems begin, and where God’s solutions work. It means that every day, and every Sunday service, is a battle for your worship: will you worship the true God, or will you worship idols? Each time you pray, read the Bible, sing God’s praise, have his name on your lips, that is a skirmish in the fight that is …

not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  (Ephesians 6:12)

We do not fight that battle alone: we have God who says

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.  (Isaiah 1:18)

Won’t you praise him with me now? For his deep deep love; and for the Saviour who brings us to God with assurance.



Questions for discussion

  • Why is God’s offer (v18-20) good news?
  • Which aspects of 2.1-4 have already been fulfilled in the New Testament? And which await Jesus’ return in glory?
  • How has this passage changed your attitude: to sin? To God?

God’s Big Story 14: A Song of Trust – Psalm 91


The Hunger Games is a set of three books (Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins. So far two and a half books have been made as films, and the last part is expected soon.

At the heart of the story are the Hunger Games. Each of the twelve Districts ruled by the ruthless but vain Capitol bust each year provide one boy one girl, to compete in the Hunger Games. The twenty-four teenagers are placed in an elaborate area – maybe a forest, maybe a desert. And then they fight to the death, until only one person is left alive. There are apparently natural dangers too – wild animals, flood, earthquake. The last person alive is the Victor.

It’s a terrifying experience, and some of the most tense moments in both the books and the film come during the Games, when the heroine Katniss is in the forest, with death literally on every side. 

When surrounded by this kind of danger, wouldn’t it be good to have safety and security? Wouldn’t it be a blessing to know that verses 5-6 are true?

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  (Psalms 91:5–6)

We don’t face the arrow and pestilence as directly as Katniss did in the fictional world, and King David did when he was on the run from Saul.

Our fears may be different:

  • A broken relationship; the pain is with you at night and when you wake up
  • A conflict or pressure, looming over you, and you don’t know when or whether it will overwhelm you
  • Uncertainty, about your health, your future, something else you really value.

Yes these are real fears for us. What does God want?

A Personal Trust (v1-2)

God wants to be safe, and to know it.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalms 91:1)

The shelter is a place of safety: it’s a refuge from the storm. Todd and Kristen Mallonee, our new Assistant Minister and his wife, are from the Midwest, which is hurricane territory. The houses have a storm shelter, basically a cellar you can hide in during a hurricane: while everything if flying around upstairs, you are safe in the shelter.

How do you find the shelter? The Hunger Games trilogy give one answer. It paints the picture of a world without God, and without hope. The slight glimmer of hope rises in the courage of Katniss.

In the real world, God’s security comes in a very different way: it comes through personal trust in God:

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalms 91:2)

That ties in with what we saw last week, about making the Lord my Shepherd (Ps 23); and the previous week about making God your king (2 Sam 7). The whole Bible is about personal faith of personal commitment, made public in life and in words.

The Wings of Refuge: Security Experienced (v3-8)

The next six verses describe what that security feels like in terms of what God does, what we feel, and what security looks like.

What God does v3-4

There are four pictures of security:

  • Rescued from traps (the fowler’s snare is a trap set to catch birds)
  • Saved from plague (pestilence is disease)
  • Covered with feathers (as mother-bird would protect her chicks by spreading her wing. It’s where we get the expression, ‘taking someone under your wing’)
  • Shielded behind a castle wall or rampart.

What we feel v5-6

You know you’re safe when you don’t fear:

Avon and Somerset Police’s ‘Mission’ is 

Our Mission: To make the communities of Avon and Somerset be safe and feel safe


That’s what God wants for you and your fear:

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  (Psalms 91:5–6)

All these dangers are real: the Psalmist is like Katniss in the Hunger Games, there is death on every side but not fear within because of God’s covering wings.

Notice that God does not promise to spare you these things: he will cover you in them. That is how these things will not touch you.

What security looks like v7-8

So security, being safe, means that the danger remains out there and is prevented from coming within:

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. (Psalms 91:7–8)

Real safety, in God’s hands, means being safe in your heart.

Let’s spell out what that promise is NOT:

  • Safety does not mean bad things will never happen to God’s people. Last week a congregation in Charleston, SC, welcomed a man to their Bible Study. He sat there for an hour, then opened fire, killing the pastor and nine others. He is white, they were african American; he wanted to start a race war. God may not spare his people the danger but he will cover them. Look out for some gacious, dignified and godly responses from those people.
  • Safety does not mean we can be reckless because we are immune. Dangers are real.
  • Safety does not mean we will never be afraid: remember how Joshua and Israel felt on the eve of the conquest? God said,

Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”  (Joshua 1:9)

The danger was real: fear was sensible; but it is not the final word. Joshua’s courage meant he did not let his fear tell him what to do.

If he had let his fear rule his actions, he would not have gone into the Land: he would have disobeyed God. What will you do if you let fear rule your heart?

  • If you fear loneliness at all costs, you will find and marry (or live with) anyone: better that than than singleness.
  • If you fear unemployment you will accept any compromise to keep your job. There is no principle or person that you will defend at the cost of your job.
  • If you fear suffering at all costs you will do anything to avoid it, and ignore the way God can use even that for good.

That’s why God wants you to know safety: so that your fear does not lead you into sin.

Martin Niemöller was a German pastor who served his church during the days of Nazi Germany. His watchword was “we must obey God rather than man” and he would not use his position to support Nazi doctrines. For three years he was watched by the secret police, and eventually in 1937 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement.

Dr. Niemöller’s trial began on February 7, 1938. That morning, a green- uniformed guard escorted the minister from his prison cell and through a series of underground passages toward the courtroom. Niemöller was overcome with terror and loneliness. What would become of him? Of his family? His church? What tortures awaited them all?

The guard’s face was impassive, and he was as silent as stone. But as they exited a tunnel to ascend a final flight of stairs, Niemöller heard a slight whisper. At first he didn’t know where it came from, for the voice was as soft as a sigh. Then he realised that the officer was breathing into his ear the words of Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.”

Niemöller’s fear fell away, and the power of that verse sustained him through his trial and his years in Nazi concentration camps.

The Command of Angels: Security Achieved (v9-16)

God wants you to be safe and feel safe. And you receive it by personal trust in God. The final three verses (we’ll come back to 9-13) explain what it looks like:

3 conditions, 8 promises (vv 14-16)

Three conditions are the mark of a person with a personal faith:

  • Because he loves me: personal faith is a religion of the heart. Do you in your daily prayer with God ask about your heart: pray that God may give you a warm and tender heart: to mourn your sin and rejoice in your saviour. We are meant to feel and to feel rightly about God, and good & evil.
  • ..he acknowledges my name. That is the faith is made public. We have confirmation coming up: whatever way you do it, it is vital to make a public declaration – it’s good for you, and it’s part of making that personal faith real.
  • He will call upon me is what we do when we need help. I think many find this hard: instead they hide when there is danger, they stay away until all is well again. No! It’s in the midst of danger that you call on God, and he is there!

=> When we come to the Lord’s Table, we come with those in mind: because we love him a little and want to love him more: because we profess his name and life by his Word; and because we need his help this and every day.

Eight promises describe God’s work: he promises to rescueprotectanswerbe with him in trouble … deliver him .. honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.

When you trust God, he begins a relationship with you: he is involved in your life in action and in your heart-feelings too. He is with you, and will answer you. Praise God for his promises!

But what if you’re still feeling in danger?

The work of guardian angels? V9-13

You may say, “that’s fine, but I’m still with my threat. Where is God?’

That is why I have left verses 9-13 last:

If you make the Most High your dwelling— even the LORD, who is my refuge— then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent. (Psalms 91:9–13)

Where are God’s guardian angels?

Look at Jesus’ life and you will see. Satan quoted verse 11 to Jesus and invited him to test God’s promise by throwing himself off a high place. Jesus refused.

The angels ministered to Jesus when he was in the garden of Gethsemane. God did not spare Jesus the cross: but he covered him through it.

It is in Jesus that you see God’s commitment to safety come to light: Jesus trusted himself to God, and God covered him.

One of the NT phrases for a person with a personal trust in God is that we are ‘in Christ’. So if God covered Jesus, then he covers us too.

One of the oldest ways to illustrate this is with a Book or a Bible. If this slip of paper is ‘in’ the Bible, then where the Bible goes, the paper goes. And what the Bible survives, the paper survives.

If you are in Christ, then where Christ has gone you go (which is right into the presence of God). And what Christ survives, you too will be covered.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalms 91:1–2)

Application – a moment of prayer

What things are you afraid of? Bring them to mind and put them before the Lord now.

Remember how God shows you his safety: Rescued from traps; Saved from plague; Covered with his feathers; Shielded behind a castle wall or rampart. Promises to rescueprotectanswerbe with him in trouble … deliver him .. honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.

Tell God how you love him, and take shelter under his wings and in his fortress now.

God’s Big Story 13: God’s King 2 Samuel 7.8-16


Headings from Sunday morning’s Sermon by Alwyn Barry



Questions for discussion follow.

Alwyn also mention Clover Todman, whose story is told in his brother Neil’s blog:


  1. How God becomes King (v8-9)

– A gift spurned? (v1-7)

– A gift given! (v8)

-> God my King (v9)


  1. What God our King gives (v10-11)

– People

– Place

– Planted

– Peace

-> At rest!


  1. How God will do it (v12-16)

– Whose lineage is from David (v12)

– Whose throne is established (v12-13)

– Whose reign is eternal (v13)

– Whose father is God (v14)

– Who takes our punishment (v14)

– Who is loved eternally (v15)

-> Jesus, our saviour


Questions to consider:

* Who is on the throne in my life? … Is it Jesus? Really?

* Am I allowing Him to rule? Do I hear His word? Do I walk in His way?

* What does it mean today, tomorrow to have Jesus as my King?

* How might I know and experience the reality of the rest I am to have in Jesus?

* When I face difficulty in life, does that mean I haven’t got that

rest in Jesus? (see also Jn 16:32, 1 Pet 4:12-19)

* How are we encouraged by seeing again God’s incredible plan of

salvation in Jesus? (see also Eph 1:3-23)

God’s Big Story 12: False gods (Judges 2)


Introduction: two obstacles

What are the biggest obstacles to gaining and keeping God’s blessings?

  • Chequered history/‘colourful’ past? Not at all! (Rahab, Zacchaeus)
  • Late starter? No! (Abraham was 75 when God called him, Moses was 80 before he did anything useful).

The hands-down winners for the biggest challenges to inheriting God’s promised blessings are… Unbelief and False gods (idolatry).  At the start of the month we took a good look at unbelief, which was so serious it prevented Israelites from entering the land God had led them towards. Finally with courage and boldness they entered. Now we meet the other ever-present threat, the worship of false gods, or ‘idolatry’ as it’s sometimes called.

Orientation and Timeline


We’re in Israel’s Bronze Age, that is after Abraham and Moses, but before David. But you may ask why we’re looking at a story that happened more than 3,000 years ago? The Bible tells us that these stories were written down for our learning: to help us know how we as people can relate to God. Over that time, technology and science have changed: but God is the same; and the human heart is the same. We’ll see there is a vital difference between them and us, namely that we live after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I hope to show you why that is such very good news.
So let’s learn from Judges. Follow the story. Headings are on the sheet.

A Good Start (v6-9)

We’re working our way through the story of the Bible. It’s one big story that began with a mess and with a message.PPP ICON

  • The mess was what happened to God’s beautiful world when the people turned against God and spoiled the world, spoiled their relationship, and threw away their future.
  • The message [PPP 3] was God’s rescue plan that he told to a man called Abraham. He promised Abraham many children, who would be blessed by knowing God, and have a place to PPP ICON2live. God’s summary of the arrangement (known as a Covenant) is that “I will be your God, and you will be my people”.

Several generations later, Abraham’s descendants are a people, they have God with them, and under the leadership of Joshua they entered the Promised Land. They only entered when they were PPP ICON3willing to trust God, which took courage and strength.

Now they are in, it’s time to settle down and enjoy God’s blessings. They will enjoy God’s blessings by keeping their relationship with the Lord, the God of the Bible. They make a good start:

After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel.  (Judges 2:6–7)

But it did not last:

The Generation that Forgot (v10-15)

But when Joshua’s generation died out, the people forgot about God:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.  (Judges 2:10)

The next generation grew up without knowing God. They were the generation that forgot.

We often joke about forgetting, like this story of three elderly sisters ages 92, 94 and 96, live in a house together. One night the 96-year-old draws a bath. She puts her foot in and pauses. She yells to the other sisters, “Was I getting in or out of the bath?”

The 94-year-old yells back, “I don’t know. I’ll come up and see.”

She starts up the stairs and pauses, “Was I going up the stairs or down?”

The 92-year-old was sitting at the kitchen table having tea listening to her sisters. She shakes her head and says, “I’m sure glad I never get that forgetful, knock on wood…”

She then yells, “I’ll come up and help both of you as soon as I see who’s at the door.”

Forgetting God is a deadly serious condition because of those who forget God turn their backs on him. They forsake him and worship false gods instead. When people stop worshipping the true God, they don’t worship nothing: they always worship something else. G K Chesterton spoke about it like this:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

That is what Israel did:

They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the peoples around them.  (Judges 2:12)

They stopped believing in the God who had rescued them, and believed instead in what was around them.

To be sure the rescue from Egypt, with miracles, was generations earlier: they depended on history passed down to them. But they forgot their history and ignored God. God’s reaction, then, is entirely just and fair. His anger is not a fit of pride: it’s his just, settled response to careless rebellion:

They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.  (Judges 2:12–14)

It’s what happens next that makes the God of the Bible truly amazing. What’s amazing is that God does something next: he bothers to rescue.

The God Who Rescued (v16-18)

Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.  (Judges 2:18)

These Judges were not courtroom judges with wigs and robes: they were heroes and leaders who raised an army. The judges are a mixed lot, including Gideon (who gave his name to the Gideons), and Samson (he of the long hair). Read them! God used them to beat back the enemies and bring back Israel to worship God.

God’s superheroes rescued God’s people – as long as the judge lived.

“But when the Judge died…” (v19-23)

But the rescue only lasted as long as the judge:

But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.  (Judges 2:19)

This cycle is repeated throughout the history of the judges:Judges-cycle

  1. The people rebel against God
  2. God is angry
  3. Oppression by enemies
  4. The people repent
  5. God raises up a chosen judge
  6. Peace
  7. Judge dies

God’s people need a leader, and they need a permanent leader.

Jesus is the Leader-Rescuer

Christians inherit the promises made to OT Israel.

  • Our inheritance, remember, is not the land of Canaan but the Kingdom of God. The barriers are the same: unbelief and false gods.
  • The false gods in our case are not Baal and Asherah (because people around us don’t worship them). The false gods that tempt us are the things that people value when they abandon God.

You see people don’t stop believing in God when they reject the God of the Bible. We turn to things God has made and treat them as if they were gods. The danger is as real for Christians as for those with no religion at all. If you’re not looking to God to provide what you need, where are you looking?

For example, where do we find contentment, joy and peace?

  • Some might say in Money can bring you happiness and contentment. Why then are we one of the richest generations ever, and yet more miserable than ever before? Money makes a good servant (it is in that sense a gift from God) but Money makes a dreadful master (it is a false god if we trust in it).
  • Others might turn to relationships and sex. We are more sex-obsessed than any generation: yet studies show people are having less sex than ever before. We place a higher weight on relationships than ever, and yet the rate of break-ups is growing all the time. Why is that? Marriage is a great gift from God: I look forward to taking some weddings this summer. But if you depend on your marriage or your partner to give you meaning in life, that is a job only God can do. Don’t be surprised if your partner and your marriage collapse under the weight of expectation. Marriage is a good gift, but a false god if you trust in in to do God’s work.

We could list many more, but in each case, the same process is at work: worship that belongs to God is taken from him and given to something he’s made. It’s an insult to God. You are no different to OT Israel bowing before their Baals and Asherahs: and you need help. You are locked into that cycle, unless God does something.

A woman was at work when she received a phone call that her small daughter was very sick with a fever. She left  work and stopped by the pharmacy to get some medication. She got back to her car and found that she had locked her keys in the car. She didn’t know what to do, so she called home and told the baby sitter what had happened.

The baby sitter told her that the fever was getting worse. She said, “You might find a coat hanger and use that to open the door.”

The woman looked around and found an old rusty coat hanger that had been left on the ground, but said to herself, “I don’t know how to use this.”

She bowed her head and asked God to send her help.  Within five minutes an old, beat-up motor motorcycle pulled up with a bearded man who was wearing an old biker skull rag on his head.

The woman thought, “This is what You sent to help me?”  But she was desperate, so she was also very thankful. The man got off of his bike and asked if he could help.

She said, “Yes, my daughter is very sick.  I stopped to get her some medication and I locked my keys in my car.  I must get home to her, please, can you use this hanger to unlock my car?”

He said, “Sure.” He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the car was opened.

She hugged the man and through her tears she said, “Thank you SO much! You are a very nice man.”  

The man replied, “Lady, I am not a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday – for car theft.”

The woman hugged the man again and with sobbing tears cried out loud, “Oh, thank you God! You even sent me a professional!”

We’re locked out of God’s heart by our sin. And he sent a professional, namely his own son, Jesus Christ. He si the Judge-Rescuer who breaks the cycle.

  • When Israel sinned, the punishment fell on them. Jesus never sinned. When he died on the cross, it was because your punishment fell on him. The cycle of sin and false gods stops there with Jesus.
  • When he had paid the price, God raised Jesus to new life, never to die again. Unlike the OT Judges, Jesus completely defeats the enemy. And unlike the OT Judges, will never die.

That is why, when we baptised J____ and G____ we did so in the name of Jesus because he is the only Judge who can rescue them.

Do not forget

Therefore let us never forget Jesus Christ and his rescue. I need to say this because humans are spiritually very forgetful.

It is said that a goldfish has an attention span of only a few second. So with every lap of the bowl, it’s a new experience. Hello: have we met? Swim. Hello: have we met?

Spiritually we are like that. That is why we need to read and understand the Bible every day. Do a bit each day. One of the earliest Christians called Philip saw a man reading on a carriage:

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.  (Acts 8:30–31)

He needed help to understand the Bible. God gives you each other – the Church – to do that.

Our Children also need to learn about Jesus, and then not forget about Jesus. They need to hear the stories and understand them; and grow up to read and understand the Bible every day so that they do not grow up like that generation in Israel who knew “neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.” (Judges 2:10)

Remembering and forgetting is about more than knowing something in your heart: it is about remembering who you are.

The Notebook is a beautiful film about an older lady who suffers from Alzheimers. Each day an elderly volunteer offers to read from a notebook: it’s the diary of a girl. He reads a bit, then asks if it’s OK to return the next day. She agrees, unsure at first, but as the days go on she wants to hear what happens (and so do we)

Day by day the gentleman reads this story of a young woman who falls in love and starts a lifetime’s adventure with her husband.

As he reaches the end of the story, the mist lifts from the woman’s mind and she recognises that this is her story, and that he is no mere volunteer but her husband. “How long do we have” she asks, meaning for how long will she remember who she is and who he is. He replies “last time we had about about five minutes”, and they dance. Alas only a few minutes pass before her eyes cloud over and she finds that she is dancing with a complete stranger.

For a moment, she knew who she was, and how much she was loved by her husband. Knowing God is living your whole life in that moment of knowing who you are, and how much God loves you. Let’s pray daily that God will use the means he has given us – Scripture and the Church family – to keep us constantly in that moment of knowing who and where we are.


Questions for discussion: 

What is the warning for us in Judges 2.10 (see Ps 78.1-4)

How might we forget God? What can we do to prevent it?

How is Jesus better than any of the Judges of ancient Israel?



HT to Mikey’s Funnies for the jokes; and Ashley Null for the Notebook reference, in the context of a lecture on Anglican liturgy! The graphic of the Judges Cycle came from a larger one published by the Good Book Company. You can see the whole thing below, or here

God’s Big Story 11 – The Promised Land: Joshua 1


PPP ICON5Courage

Most of us have something we’re afraid of. Not the exotic phobias we met in last week’s family service, but real, ordinary fears: heights; or needles; or spiders; or crowds. What is your fear?

Now imagine that you have to go into a situation with those: up a tall tower, or having an injection. How will you feel? Afraid! Now imagine someone says, ‘Be strong and courageous’. Will that help? Probably not much, if I’m honest about my fears.

In the Christian life, our struggle is not against flesh and blood: we have reason to fear even greater enemies than our personal phobias. God says to us ‘Be strong and courageous’. I don’t that will help unless we understand what he means, and see what it looks like.

The place to find out is Joshua 1, when Joshua and all God’s people are told to be strong and courageous in the face of a clear and present danger. That story was written for us, for our learning and encouragement.

Follow the Story

‘After the death of Moses’ (v1)

We’re following God’s Big Story. Last time (two weeks ago) we were in Numbers 13-14.  Israel sent spies into the land; they they came back with the grapes on a branch and said the land is good, but it’s filled with giants. They refused to trust God, and that entire generation was condemned to die in the wilderness. The only two men/to go through to the land of milk and honey/were Joshua son of Nun/ and Caleb son of Jephunneh.

Moses is the last one of that whole generation to die: now is the time to cross into the land:

“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites.  (Joshua 1:2)

‘The Land I am about to give you’ (v2-4)

The Land is Canaan, and was not chosen at random. God promised PPP ICON3in Genesis 12 he would give Abraham A people, A blessing, and A land. By now Abraham’s descendants the Israelites are a numerous people, they have the blessing of God’s presence with them, and we’re waiting for the last part: the Land that God promised.

God says he will give the land. We see this in the summary of Joshua’s conquest:

So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions.  Then the land had rest from war.  (Joshua 11:23)

Actually that’s a bit of an exaggeration because the conquest of Canaan is only partially fulfilled, and we’ll see that the promise of land is only partially fulfilled in Canaan. See 13.1

When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the LORD said to him, “You are very old [not very tactful is he!], and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over.  (Joshua 13:1)

‘I will be with you’ (v5)

God gives the land but Israel will have to fight for it. Nevertheless, God is the true warrior because he fights for Israel:

No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.  (Joshua 1:5)

Remember, though, that there are people living in the land who have no intention of giving it up to the Israelites. The people are strong and well-armed. Israel has good reason to be nervous!

‘Be Strong and Courageous’ (v6-9)

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

I must say that the command ‘Do not be afraid’ is one of the least helpful commands I know. If you are afraid, it’s not much help being told not to be. In many ways, fear is an emotion that comes upon you; it’s like surprise. The question is, once you experience the fear, what do you do to it? Do you let it master you and paralyse you? That seems to me to be the sense behind terrified in v9: don’t let your fear paralyse you. Courageous people still know what fear is. General Norman Schwartzkopf echoes the words of many others, soldiers and civilians alike, when he says

True courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that’s what courage is.

Thinking of war reminds me of another period for violent battles (this is a joke): Two Norman soldiers were relaxing after the Battle of Hastings 1066 (Normans defeated the Saxons). 

“What a battle! What a victory! Someday children will read about this battle as a turning point of history…and we were here!” 

“Perhaps,” said the other soldier, “But I think they will be shielded from most of the details.” 

“Why?” the first soldier asked. 

The other soldier shook his head and replied, “Too much Saxon violence.”

Before we see what that looks like in the Christian life, I need quickly to address three questions before we can move on.

Questions we have

Isn’t the Conquest of Canaan wrong?

In order to gain the land of Canaan, Israel needed to destroy the people who already lived there: the Canaanites, Perrizite, Girgashites, Hivites, Jebusites and others.

When you read God’s commands to Israel, it is clear that he wants them capture the land and kill the inhabitants. Doesn’t that seem wrong? How do we approach that as Christians? (See Chris Wright The God I don’t Understand Zondervan 2008, Chapters 3 & 4)

If we’re going to take the Bible seriously, we can’t write these passages off as ‘nasty OT’ because all of it is God’s Word. We can’t pretend that Israel mis-heard God, because his commands are clear, as are his rebukes when they don’t do what he tells them. And we can’t pretend this is a fable: it’s an historical book.

We can’t take away the violence of the conquest. We can put it in perspective.

  • As a battle tactic is was not unusual (it was normal at the time); and it was not permanent: it was only this generation and in the initial conquest of the land that the capture was to be total. Israel’s later battle conduct was much more merciful.
  • God is the ruler of all the nations of the earth. In that context we see that the destruction of Canaan is not genocide but judgement. The problem with Canaan is not their ethnicity but their idolatry and wickedness. We are all sinful and wicked, but sometimes a nation’s wickedness rises so high that it must be dealt with. The wickedness of the Canaanites was brewing even as God promised the land to Abraham, generations earlier:

In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  (Genesis 15:16)

The wickedness of the Amorites (that is those living in Canaan) will reach a point where judgement is mandated. In the conquest of Canaan, Israel acts as the instruments of God’s judgement. Violence is uncomfortable, and our sovereign God uses even that for his good purposes.

The Christian faith centres on a different act of violence: the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Conquest and the Cross are both about God’s judgement on sin. The difference is that at the conquest God poured out his judgement on a wicked society that deserved it. At the cross, he poured the judgement of a wicked humanity on himself in the person of his son – who deserved it not one bit.

How should Christians think about this Promise (of Land)?

A second question is how should Christians think about this promise of land. It’s central to the Old Testament. What does this promise of land mean for us Christians?

You may know that this is a contested question: some Christians feel strongly that the promise of land remains unchanged. I want to consider how the NT picks up the promise. It never speaks of the promise of land, but uses the language of inheritance to speak of the Kingdom of God. Just as OT Israel looked forward to entering the land of Canaan, so now Christian believers of all kinds look forward to entering the Kingdom of God. For example when Paul commends the elders of the Church at Ephesus to God’s keeping he says:

Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.  (Acts 20:32)

Hebrews explains that Jesus brings a new covenant so that we can have an inheritance:

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15)

This means that what we read about the Land in the OT we can apply to the Kingdom of God in the NT.

What does prospering and succeeding (v8) mean for us?

If Israel are faithful in battle and in occupying the land, God promises them prosperity:

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.  (Joshua 1:8)

Within the terms of the Old Covenant, if Israel were faithful they would be wealthy and safe in the land. If they were not, they would be poor and exiled. That’s exactly what happened.

Under the terms of the New Covenant, our inheritance is God’s eternal kingdom. Therefore our eternal wealth and security follow if we are careful to keep the book of the law in our hearts. The story of Israel is that they could not do it, and lost the blessing. The story of Jesus is that he alone could do it and he did. Our wealth and security are guaranteed in Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you,  (1 Peter 1:3–4)

Spiritual prosperity and success come by receiving what Jesus Christ has gained for us in his death and resurrection. It’s not mere material success: it’s far more substantial than that.

Being Strong and Courageous Today

So when do we need to hear God’s promise and command to be Courageous because God is with us? Three areas in NT.

Changing Lives

God wants to bring change to your life and mine. He also has many people in this town who aren’t yet his: family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. How will we, and they, receive the blessings God wants? How will God’s enemies turn their hostility into obedience and willing faith?

God has given us a message about a man who was killed. It’s not much is it? It’s tempting to wonder whether that will make any real difference? There are weeks when I am tempted to be ashamed of this message and long for something, well, stronger. The apostle Paul knew that temptation and he said

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  (Romans 1:16)

The first set of giants we face are the giants of doubting the power of God’s word: in our preaching; in our evangelism; in equipping our children for life; in ordering the life of our church and denomination. It looks so weak!  And in the face of the opposition, it is weak because we are weak! But in evangelism and ministry, just as in Canaan, the strength comes because God is with us:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)

Jesus knows evangelism is hard: it is literally a battle for a person’s soul. We are knocked back, rejected, discouraged, misunderstood – even when we’re being tactful, gentle, truthful, loving. That is a time to be courageous and strong because the Lord your God is with us. Let’s stick to his word because it is a powerful and good word. Be courageous and strong because Jesus Christ is with you.


The second battle is in our own hearts:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,  “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  (Hebrews 13:5)

Verse 5 quotes from Joshua 1. Greed, covetousness, and not trusting God’s goodness are deadly to the heart.

  • When we’re fighting against sin, it’s a mistake to think we can conquer it alone. It’s like we saw in Numbers 14, Israel went alone against the Amorites, and were smashed.
  • When we’re fighting against sin, it is equally a mistake to think we can never defeat it:

 God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”  (Hebrews 13:5–6)

Sin and evil will do anything to stop us entering our inheritance – they are fighting harder than any Canaanite defending his city and homestead. Don’t give up! And when you fight, don’t fight alone! Cry to God and call on him in your struggle.


When Joshua and the Israelites looked into the Land, they saw first the Canaanites whom they had to face. Understandably they were afraid.

Our inheritance is an eternal inheritance. Those who have died in Christ (like dear David Woodman) are rightly described as being called ‘home’. But between here are there stands a great enemy: death itself. Hebrews says we all live as slaves to the fear of death, and that Jesus came to rescue us from the power of death over us

Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  (Hebrews 2:14–15)

By his death (& resurrection come to the seminar) that enemy is defeated. So be courageous and not afraid. What does it look like?

Pilgrim’s progress is an allegory of Christian journeying from the city of destruction to the eternal city. The final barrier is a strong river, which stands for death:

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.” [a reference to a Psalm]

…Christian is afraid and sees his spiritual enemies.

Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole. With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again, and He tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.” Then they all went they along together toward the gate.

If we trust in him, he will bring us into our inheritance. He will, as that great Welsh hymn has it, ‘Land me safe on Canaan’s side’.


Be courageous and strong, even when the enemy is strong and your heart is weak. Be bold because the Lord your God is with you:

  • We trust God’s word to be the power of God for the salvation of all who believe: courage means sticking to what God has said.
  • We trust God’s promise and his Spirit to fight with us and for us against sin, whether it’s obvious sins like sex, money and power; or more subtle attacks such as undermining our contentment.
  • We trust Jesus’ death to have defeated the power of death to make us afraid, and to keep us from entering our home.


Questions for Home Groups

When are you most in need of courage, as a Christian?

When will God’s promise to be with us be most helpful? See Matthew 28.16-20; and Hebrews 13.5

God’s big Story 10: Unbelief – Numbers 13 & 14

Introduction: so near and yet so far

Last weekend was the London Marathon. Thousands of runners took part, and for them it as the culmination of months of training. Everyone who finished is, in my book, a winner. And that’s the point: to finish. Older members may remember one occasion on which the front-runner failed to finish: in 1954 Jim Peters was leading the race when, in sight of the finishing line, he collapsed and was unable to finish. Why is this so often cited? Because we feel the pathos of it: so near, and yet he did not finish. All those miles, and then he failed when he was so close.

We need to take something like that sense of disappointment with us into today’s passage.


We meet the people of Israel in the wilderness. God has brought them so far. They are God’s people knowing the blessing of God’s presence. But as yet they have not entered the land that God promised. And now in Numbers 13 they stand on the edge of the land ready to go in.They have come so far.

Tragically, they will not go in because of unbelief. That whole generation (with two noble exceptions) perished. God’s promises are inherited by faith, and those who refuse to believe will not inherit God’s promises. That was true for them, and it is true for us now. The tragedy of losing out through unbelief makes Jim Peters’ collapse pale into insignificance.

Let’s follow the story through these two chapters. (Need Bibles open pp. 149-150)

A. Grapes, Grasshoppers, and Giants (Numbers 13.1-14.4)

Reconnaissance 13.1-24

‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. Twelve spies, one from each tribe, are sent out from Israel. They are to find out all about the land (v17-20). They returned with news and fruit, including  a cluster of grapes carried over a pole (an indication of how large it was). Even now, the logo for the Israeli Tourist Board has two men carrying a bunch of grapes.

Reckoning 13.25-33 (or Report0

There is good news and bad news:

“We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak [that is, giants] there.  (Numbers 13:27–28)

Despite Caleb’s Minority Report, they conclude:

“We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” (Numbers 13:31)


“We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33)

Rebellion 14.1-4

Unbelief takes hold and spreads, and in the night there is a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The people don’t want to enter God’s promise. Instead they say:

“We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  (Numbers 14:4)

Here is the tragedy of unbelief. God brought them to the edge of the land he promised to give them, and they turned back because they refused to believe he could do it. ‘The Giants are too big, Let’s go back to Egypt’

=> The Nature of Unbelief

This shows us the nature of unbelief. Unbelief is a refusal to trust God’s promise. Let’s note a few things about unbelief.

Unbelief does not take account of the evidence (or distorts reality)

The evidence is that God has a good track record. He had promised Abraham three things (Gen 12.1-3):

  • A People
  • A Blessing
  • A Place

PPP ICON3People: By now, Abraham’s descendants were numerous (some 600,000 strong), and free.

Blessing: God is with his people through the pillar of cloud and fire that leads them; in the Tabernacle that dwells literally in their midst; and by his mighty deeds, where he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and brought them across the Red Sea.

Place: God kept every single promised he had made, and had defeated strong enemies before. But faced with the reality of taking on Canaan and the Canaanites, it seems to much: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33) God says ‘Go’, and the people say ‘No’.

Unbelief only makes sense when God’s people aren’t seeing straight. That’s when they think they are grasshoppers. It’s the same for us: it makes sense when we’re not seeing straight and forget who our God really is and what is has done. That’s when we think we are grasshoppers

Unbelief is not the same as doubt

Unbelief questions the goodness and the power of God. Israel thought they would be better off as slaves in Egypt than as God’s free people (denying the goodness of God); and they also denied the power of God that he could defeat the giants in the land.

Doubt questions the logic of God. We don’t understand why God acts as he does, but we trust him anyway. Many believers in the Bible and today have these sorts of questions: there is much we don’t understand about God’s ways, and he can use those questions to deepen our faith. Doubt says, ‘I don’t understand why, but I will still trust you’.

For example, the Nepal Earthquake can trigger both unbelief and doubt. Unbelief says, ‘I refuse to trust in a god who allows earthquakes.’ Doubt says, ‘I don’t understand why one of the earth’s poorest nations should be the one to suffer an earthquake: I will wrestle with it while I trust God.’

In the Bible, Thomas refused to believe until Jesus graciously showed himnself. Job and Jeremiah doubted because they wrestled with God’s logic but never with his goodness or power.

Doubt is not the same as unbelief.

Unbelief is about God’s Universal, Scriptural Promises.

Israel’s promise of Land was woven into the covenant with Abraham. To refuse God at this point is to refuse him at the whole covenant. It’s a central promise.

Under the new Covenant, God offers us new life and a new land – the promised new creation. Life in Jesus and life in eternity are central to life in Jesus. To refuse God at this point is to refuse the whole covenant. Salvation is a central promise.

The promise of salvation is something we either have or we don’t. We are either saved or we’re not. Some of you may be feeling your way towards a clear enough understanding, but all of us need to cross that line of trusting our whole life to Jesus Christ.

I often use a rescue analogy: when rescued by helicopter, you are either in the harness, or not.

The Giants in this story stand for those things that prevent us from finding salvation in Christ. Each of us also has subjective, specific hopes: good things we are praying for which have not been promised in the same way:

  • the conversion of a loved one;
  • the success of a transaction or a deal; for an opportunity to open;
  • for funding for a Parish Centre; for finding people with the gifts to help our ministry.

These are all good things, but none rank alongside the central promise of Salvation in Christ. God does not promise we will have these things. We should pray for these things, and ask God to bring them about: we should be obedient to God in the way we go about them (we can’t lie or cheat). But they aren’t the giants that this passage is talking about.

Unbelief is where God presents a way, and we say, ‘That’s too hard: we can’t do it!’ let me give some examples.

  • Becoming a Christian/being forgiven. We are forgiven and adopted by faith in Jesus’ death on our behalf. And that means trust in Christ alone. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” But that’s too hard! You say, “My sins are much more serious than you realise. At least make me do something to make up for them.” or “My life is better than you think; I want God to take account of all the good I have done in my life.” God has presented a way (faith in Christ alone) and if you refuse then that is unbelief. Religion that marries God’s grace to human effort breeds unbelief. We can only become a Christian in the way God has said. By faith in Christ, and by faith alone. Anything else is unbelief.
  • Living as a Christian. God presents a way to live his way in the strength of the Holy Spirit. That means honesty, love, purity in a world that is dishonest, selfish and sex-mad. We say, ‘It’s too hard!’. Ed Shaw, who spoke here last year, finds this with people he talks to about how to live for God. They say ‘It’s too hard’, in other words, ‘It’s not plausible (or sensible) to live like this.’ He has just written a book called ‘The Plausibility Problem’ (IVP 2015) because when people looks at how God wants us to live (and the focus of his book is on sexual purity), they say, ‘It’s too hard. We can’t do it.’ That is unbelief because God’s way is plausible and his Spirit is powerful enough to help us to do it. We cannot do it alone: but if God has promised to bring you this way, he will do it.

The nature of unbelief is refusing to accept God’s central promises because it’s too hard. What happens to the Israelites?

B. Death in the Desert (Numbers 14.5-45)

Pleading with the People 14.5-10a

Moses and Joshua the leaders, and Joshua and Caleb the faithful spies plead with the people to remember that the Lord is with them (v7-9). The people refuse: their rebellion is against God’s promises.

Pleading with the Lord 14.10b-19

The glory of the Lord appeared, and says he will wipe out the (rebellious) people and start again with just Moses. Moses counters by appealing to God’s reputation among the nations (v 15–16): What will they think if you wipe them out? Show your power by bringing them through.  So Moses pleads for mercy:

In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.  (Numbers 14:19)

Notice that it’s not the first time Israel have been rebellious. Alert Bible readers may remember the same happened with the Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32. (God says they did it ten times, see Num 14.22)

Pardon and punishment 14.20-38

And God graciously forgives. But there are consequences:

So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.  (Numbers 14:28–30)

That whole generation who saw the Exodus but refused to trust God for the Land, perished in the desert. Handy jingle: Only two men went through to the land of milk and honey: Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh!

A Really Stupid Thing To Do 14.39-45

The final part of the story can only be described as a Really Stupid Thing to Do. Having refused to go forward with God, they decide to try it without him. Moses explains why it’s a bad idea:

Do not go up, because the LORD is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, (Numbers 14:42)

Unsurprisingly they are roundly defeated, and they change nothing. So what are the consequences of their unbelief?

=> The Consequences of Unbelief

The consequence of unbelief is missing out on God’s promise.

God’s promise is to give his blessings to those who trust him. It has to be that way because if it depends on our work, we will mess it up. In the Gospel, God does all the work through Jesus Christ, and all we need to do is to receive it by faith. So in salvation we really only have one job: to believe God.

I don’t know if you have come across the meme ‘One Job’. The idea is that someone was given just one job, and they even messed that up. Here is one example: a Star Wars T-Shirt with a Star Trek spaceship!

God gives us just one job: to trust him. Let me repeat again: it has to be that way because if it depends on us, we will mess it up in the end. That is the wonderful news tat Jesus Christ offers: he has done it all, and offers a free gift to you and to me. We can only accept it by faith: there is no other way. We have One Job – to trust him – because that’s the reality.

The consequence of faith is life, and the consequence of unbelief is missing out on God’s promises.

  • It was true for the Exodus generation: they did not believe and they did not enter the land. God’s promise remained and the next generation entered. But they perished, all of them except for Caleb and Joshua.
  • It is true for us. God’s offer of life comes by faith. Jesus put it like this:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (John 3:36)

The consequence of not believing God’s offer of salvation in Jesus is to miss out on salvation. The Gospel is “the  power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”  (Romans 1:16). And the consequence of consistently rejecting God’s way of life is also serious: those who live this way “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).
So what’s the remedy?

C. Do Not Harden Your Hearts (Hebrews 3.7-19)

The writer to the Hebrews picks up the warning from Israel’s history and applies to Christians today. His warning is that unbelief is serious. He’s writing to Christians who are drifting away from Christ and refusing to believe God’s promises. Their One Job was to trust Jesus Christ, but they seem to be trading it for something else that looks more religious. So he warns them that trading Christ for anything else is unbelief:

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did.  (Hebrews 3:7–9)

In Hebrews, every day is Today because Today is the day we decide either to trust God or to move away from him (hardening your hearts, v8). How can we remedy the danger of unbelief?

=> The Remedy for Unbelief

The remedy for unbelief is to keep Christ before you. This passage in Hebrews is framed by two that speak of Christ: Hebrews 3.1-6 explains how he is superior to all others; 4.14-16 that he is the Great High Priest who can help us.

Two commands:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  (Hebrews 3:12–13)

First, watch your heart. That is a daily task for every Christian. Every set back, every slight, every disappointment, every success, every blessing, all of these can be an opportunity to harden your heart and to forget God.

Israel’s rebellion against Moses did not come from nowhere: they had a track record of grumbling, and indeed they continued. God’s Holy Spirit makes us more like Jesus and less like grumbling if we cooperate with him. We need to watch our hearts.

Notice it’s something we do together. The whole church has a stake in helping one another. So our corporate meetings must work to keep us from unbelieving hearts by focussing on Christ; and our love for one another too.

Second, encourage each other daily. Remember how Israel’s enemies seemed so big, and how easily they forgot God’s promises and power? Encouraging each other daily means keeping God’s promises and his power to keep before us always.

It’s daily: that means bringing God into our day, every day. Usually best to read the Bible and pray. Can also mark places and consciously pray: school gates, or office coffee machine, and mealtimes.

It’s corporate: that is why you need to come to church regularly and frequently. If not daily, at least weekly. For your sake and for others!

Jim Peters revisited. 

The Christian life is a marathon. We reach the end through the simple means we use to get going: through faith. We have One Job – to Trust God. If we do not do that one thing, unbelief will rob us of the prize.

We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.  (Hebrews 3:14)


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