Mark 6:6-13 “Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions, ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.’ They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”
When the Lord Jesus returned to speak for the second time at his home assembly in Nazareth he and his ministry was comprehensively ostracised, so much so that even he was amazed at the congregation’s lack of faith. So what was his reaction? “Then Jesus sulked?” No. “Then Jesus decided he’d go back to being a carpenter”? No. “Then Jesus entered a great depression which lasted six months, and he never really got over it”? Not at all. This is what we read, “He was amazed at their lack of faith. Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (v.6). Their opposition did not prevent him continuing his ministry. Some Christians think that pastors of Wales need to be cheered up and a man should be engaged full time going round the parsonages helping them. What an odd picture it paints of preachers today. One imagines them sitting in their parlours, listening to a hi-fi and Travis is singing that anthem to self-pity, “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” These are the soldiers of Jesus Christ who have been told to endure hardness. These are the men to whom Christ says, “Blessed are you when men despise you.” To these people all the promises of God apply of strength and grace and comfort and peace. Let me ask, “Does your family stand by you? Your parents?” Jesus’ family didn’t stand by him, but he continued preaching. Does your wife support you? The Lord Jesus didn’t have a wife, and was usually very alone, but he continued to teach the word of God. He walked away from this local rejection and got on with teaching the word of God everywhere else in Galilee.
This was his third preaching tour. You notice that it was not enough for Christ to be a silent loving witness showing by the integrity of his daily life that he knew God. That godly walk is indispensable, of course. A century ago there was a Marathi Indian poet called Narayan Vaman Tilak, who on a certain occasion was travelling by train in India. He happened to sit opposite an English Christian who treated him with interest and respect. It was a long train journey and when they affectionately parted the Christian gave Tilak a New Testament. “Read it,” he said, “and in two years you will become a Christian.” That is a fascinating and bold statement to make, but if you think of it there are few people who have read the Bible openly and seriously for two years, asking God to help them understand what they are reading, who have remained unbelievers. So Tilak began to read the New Testament and the book gripped him. “I could not tear myself away from those burning words of love and truth.” Two years to the day from meeting that kindly Christian on the train, Tilak was baptized in Bombay. I say that it is indispensable that we live credible godly lives before our neighbours, but more was needed to make Tilak a Christian than the kindness of his travelling companion. He needed the word of God to explain the grace of this believer.
It was not enough for Jesus to live silently for over 25 years in Nazareth and to grow in favour with all the people there. The people of that village needed a clear and precise window into the person of Christ, who he was, and why he came into the world. Without that illumination they lacked understanding, and without the word of God they wouldn’t have discerning commitment. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. So we are told that “Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (v.6), but now his ministry develops and it spreads in a very significant way. One day Christ called the twelve to him. “What does he want to see us for?” they might have asked one another. The time had come for them to be given new responsibilities. They were going to become preachers: “he sent them out two by two” (v.7). The Lord had called them, first four fishermen, then Levi the tax collector, then the other seven. He had designated them to become ‘fishers of men’; he had been teaching them for months, and now he judged them ready to be commissioned. Much about these young men was immature and imperfect. They were untried men with a limited grasp of who Christ was, and a poor understanding of themselves. They’d never preached a sermon, but the spread of the gospel doesn’t depend on the perfection or the merit of the preachers but on the call of Christ, and obedience to that call and the equipping of Christ. Think how God could use a grumbling disobedient man like Jonah. Through his messages the city of Nineveh was changed, because Jonah told the people the words the Lord gave him. Of course disciples mustn’t teach error, and the more truth and godliness they have the better, but there is one thing that is paramount and it is this: what Christ says, they must say. When he says, Stop, then they must stop; when he tells them to do something they must do it, and they continually look to him that his promises be fulfilled as they serve him each day. Trust Jesus, and obey, for there’s no other way.
Now these instructions of the Lord Jesus are fascinating because they tell us in some detail how he sent the Twelve, what they were to take, how they were to act in the different villages, how they were to handle rejection, and what the theme of their preaching should be. How much of this is relevant to the church today!
1. HOW THEY WERE TO GO.
According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus there were 204 towns and villages in Galilee. As the Lord sent his disciples out in pairs, then six pairs of disciples visiting each town for about a week would mean that this outreach was to last about nine months. It was to be an immensely successful mission. We know that because many of the people they spoke to welcomed the message and began to follow the disciples all the way back to Christ. We are told, “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going . . . they did not even have a chance to eat” (vv.30 & 31). The Twelve had no time to themselves. Peter, for example, wouldn’t have been able to spend time with his young wife because the crowds were pressing in on them wanting to hear more They couldn’t even sit down and have a meal together. They had attracted five thousand men to Jesus (v.44). When the Twelve sailed across the Sea of Galilee to get away from the crowds for a time they were completely unsuccessful. The men hurried around the lake, and they were waiting for them when the boat grounded on the shore. That was the impact of the ministry of these twelve men in nine months on the people of 204 communities. So let’s see how Jesus sent them. Two things initially stand out:
i] Christ sent them out two by two. That was universal practise. To bear trustworthy witness two people must confirm the truth (Deut. 27:6). They were telling people that the one John the Baptist had spoken about had arrived, Jesus of Nazareth. He could heal the sick; there was no one he had failed to restore to health. Both the preachers speaking to the people in a village solemnly informed them of the truth of this. Two witnesses stood before them. They could give names, places, dates, diseases, facts and figures. Christianity is grounded in history. They could answer questions about all of this with one heart and voice. They proceeded to tell the people the great teaching of Jesus Christ, and then they urged their hearers to change their lives. Two men standing erect in a community, not shifty unreliable men with tall tales, and empty promises there for the money they could get, but clean-living men speaking as witnesses before God of the truth of what was being said.
The Lord Jesus sent them out in pairs as being of mutual encouragement and support to one another. It is a fact that it is easier to speak boldly if there is another Christian listening. There is a sense of accountability with a friend standing by. There is less danger of toning down your message out of fear, but telling it as it is. Some people from the town occasionally ask me if I’ll take a funeral service of a friend of theirs whom I don’t know. How much easier it is if one of you is also present and I can speak with you as my witness. You say, “But Jesus Christ is there with you, and you shouldn’t need anyone else.” But we are weak men, and we are told here that Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, and we are also told that John the Baptist did the same (Lk. 7:18) and so did the early church in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were able to sing together in the black dungeon in Philippi. If our Saviour – God’s great Evangelist from heaven – chose twelve to be with him and three to be at his side in the neediest times then all those engaged in mission should have men with them. So Christ sent them in twos. Also this:
ii] Christ gave them authority over evil spirits. He gave them authority; they had none in themselves. Our only authority is the authority of the one who sends us. Then he gave them authority over evil spirits. There can be no doubt that such spirits exist and were particularly active during our Lord’s earthly ministry. The Lord’s ministry was never word only; it was always word and act, because God’s divine kingdom was breaking in. If there is a truth that Mark constantly returns to in his narrative of the life of Christ it is that our Lord’s miracles confirmed his credentials for his claims to be the Judge of the whole world, to be the resurrection and the life, to have existed before Abraham, to be the way and the truth and the life, to be one with his Father, and so on. His miracles were signs that attested the truth of Jesus’ words. This authority Jesus now gives to the Twelve (v.7). As never before nor since that period when the Lord Jesus walked this earth, evil spirits possessed many men and women, opposing Christ and his work.
So you see the scene as it’s being built up here? The disciples entered a village in twos, and preached to the community, and then some men or women became particularly agitated, shrieking out, foaming at the mouth, or some deeply troubled people were brought to them whose lives were being ruined by the works of the devil. The disciples, with the authority of the Lord Christ, were enabled to deliver them from these demonic influences so that they stood before their parents or husbands or wives in peace. Such exorcisms made a great impact on the entire village. More than that, other sick people were brought to them and then the two preachers would anoint them with oil and we are old that there were many who were healed (v.13). You can see how this would silence the voice of the sceptics, and all would pay attention to the teaching of the Twelve.
Now let me say very earnestly to you that gospel preachers today lack nothing of the authority of those disciples. There is a miraculous confirmation given to me every time I speak to you, and that is the presence in our midst of a Word that comes from another world. It is a God-breathed book, so that it is exactly what God intended Moses, the prophets and the apostles to write. Its words are Spirit and they are truth and they are life. This word will last longer than the universe; it is set in the heavens and copies of it are in the hands and hearts of all God’s people. I am talking about the Bible, which is the word of God, and it will confirm that what I am saying to you is true. You can check today whether what I’m preaching is true. I appeal to this miraculous book. Take it! Read it! See for yourself whether my message is found in the Bible. Think of that Indian poet Tilak, and how he read the New Testament for a couple of years with growing conviction and love, persuaded that this was God’s own message to the world. The Twelve did not have a scrap of New Testament writing to deliver to the villages of Galilee. There were no Gideon New Testaments such as those you may distribute freely. How impoverished they were. The New Testament wasn’t to be completed for at least another forty years, but in the meantime God confirmed the truth of the apostolic preaching by these apostolic signs, the casting out of demons and healing the sick by anointing them with oil. So how were they to go? In twos, with authority over evil spirits and sickness.
2. WHAT WERE THEY TO TAKE?
“These were his instructions: ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic'” (v.8). They were not angels and so they needed clothes, sandals, and a staff as a walking stick and a protection against wild animals, but they were to take no change of clothes, no food for the journey, no knapsack, and no money. It is like someone laying out on the bed everything he might need for a trip, but then leaving it all there and going away with his coat and toothbrush.
I think I must take a three minute excursus at this point. Bear with me. There are interesting apparent discrepancies in the synoptic gospels in their accounts of these words of Jesus to his disciples. We once had a Greek husband and wife who worshipped with us for three years. One Sunday after the service she came to me and asked me why did Mark’s record say that the disciples were permitted to take sandals and a staff while in Matthew’s gospel he tells them not to take shoes nor a staff (Matt. 10:10). I hadn’t been preaching on these verses that Sunday, but apparently she’d been engaged in a conversation with another Greek student who’d used this particular difference in the gospel accounts as the reason why she didn’t believe the Bible could be infallible. I appreciated that question very much. So rarely are people interested in the Scriptures. That awareness of the difference between Matthew and Mark is nothing new. People have examined the Bible as no other book for almost 2000 years. Encouraging doubt in the truth of all Scripture because of difficulties with one passage or another is part of the campaign being constantly waged against the church by the enemy of our souls. From the very beginning our first parents were asked by the serpent, “Did God say this?” People believe there are special difficulties with the opening chapters of Genesis, or with Noah’s flood, or with the axe-head that floated, or with women’s head-coverings. From one verse they are tempted to make the deduction that the Bible is full of errors, and not authoritative, and that evangelical Christians are ignoring these things, and they don’t truly believe the Bible or obey it for all that they say about Scripture infallibility. We are not ignorant of Satan’s devices.
How glad I am when people come to me with their questions about the Bible, for what it tells me about them. It also encourages me to think, and look at the passage, and offer them a reply in a few days. There are differences between errors and difficulties. Such references to a staff and to footwear are trivial differences between Matthew and Mark and Luke aren’t they? To reject the Lord Jesus’ own attitude to a wholly reliable Bible because of something as slight as that seems to me to be straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. If you checked the various reports on the Hutton inquiry in the columns of the Guardian and the Telegraph and the Sun newspapers in the last two weeks they would all select different things that the witnesses said, all of which would be true, yet which might at times seem to contradict other reports. Matthew, Mark and Luke emphasise certain truths in their tiny summaries of Jesus’ commissioning the Twelve. Mark sums up Jesus’ whole address to them in 64 words; there is more in Matthew. What Mark says is true, but details are omitted. The differences don’t affect the basic thrust of the passage to the slightest degree. Surely we won’t reject the whole for such a difficulty? Is a scientific theory to be rejected because at a given stage it fails to explain certain comparatively unimportant details? Am I to disbelieve in the existence and value of the sun because there are spots upon it? No, that is false reasoning. That is to introduce confusion. The Bible is a whole and its authority is complete. But having accepted it all I will still have certain residual difficulties, problems and questions. It is surely nothing less that tragic that a woman should stumble at details like this about sandals and a staff, and because she is unhappy says, ‘I cannot recognise the authority of the Scriptures at all.’
One suggestion concerning the reason for the difference is that in Matthew Jesus is forbidding ‘shoes’ (which cover the whole foot) while in Mark ‘sandals’ are permitted. They are two different words in the two gospels. In Matthew Jesus tells them not to procure a staff for the journey but go just as they were, but if some of them already used a staff from Mark we learn that they could take that with them. That is one of the suggested reasons for the slight differences between the gospels. Some years ago one of you kindly gave me a useful old book which is always being reprinted, John Haley’s “Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible”. It deals fairly with matters like our Greek friend’s question. Now to return to the passage.
What is the purpose of the Lord’s meticulous instructions? There are a number of strands to Jesus’ teaching. For example, there is the fact that the four items required of the Twelve – cloak, belt, sandals and staff – are identical to the belongings that God tells the Israelites to take on their flight from Egypt. Do you understand that Christ is impressing on his disciples the urgency of their mission, that they are living in days when the axe is being laid to the root of the tree of Israel, and the old covenant people’s days are numbered. Jerusalem is going to be a place to escape from. Israel’s days are numbered, so, lads, work while it is day! The night comes when no man can work. In the work of the kingdom of God live as free from encumbrances as Israel did when she set off on her journey from Egypt to Canaan. You are a sojourner and a pilgrim, Jesus is saying. These were dangerous times, as Mark is going to show us, because he goes on in the very next section to deal with the murder of John the Baptist for preaching this message of the coming kingdom. So there is a sense of coming judgment and escape – travel lightly!
Then there could be another strand to the limited equipment they could wear, the fact that “when a man entered the Temple courts, he had to put off his staff, shoes, and money girdle. That is, all ordinary things were to be set aside. It may well be that Jesus was also thinking of this, and that he meant his men to see that the humble homes they would enter were every bit as sacred as the Temple courts” (Ken Hughes, “Mark, Volume One”, p.135, Crossway, 1989). There is a little foretaste of the priesthood of all believers here, and the ending of geographical holy places. They presented their bodies as living sacrifices to God as their spiritual worship. This mission of theirs was as holy in the sight of God, and increasingly in their own eyes, as entering the courts of the Temple.
“Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see;
And what to do in everything,
To do it as for Thee.” (George Herbert: 1593-1632)
Again, these disciples were being taught from the very beginning of their ministries that the Lord who commands will also provide. Depending on the one who sends us, we will lack nothing essential to our mission. We will be fully equipped for our vocations. We all need to learn that lesson constantly, and as we mature God has his ways of testing us, and letting us experience this great reality for ourselves. These twelve young men all lived in Galilee; they were all about a day or two’s walking distance from their homes, so they had that security at the back of their minds. If things went terribly wrong they could always go home. Peter’s wife would cook him a meal as soon as she saw him coming through the door, but they never needed to go home. This first mission for Jesus was a gentle introduction to a future life of far greater rigour and suffering, preaching the gospel all over Israel and around the eastern Mediterranean, looking to the Lord to provide for them there day by day. Like Gideon’s men reduced to a final few hundred who trusted in God the Twelve had to go forth depending on the Lord. You don’t seek your own advancement through Christian work. That’s what the prosperity hucksters parading their flashy suits do. The birds of the air live in the confidence that the Creator will supply their needs. These young men were not to think in terms of an elaborate support system, with the structures preachers see today as necessary, family health care, and pension schemes, air travel taken care of, and provisions for every eventuality guaranteed. With all that in place what need do men have to serve God in faith? But if preachers are not trusting in the Lord to provide for them what credibility do they have in telling a congregation, “Just trust in him! That’s all you have to do, and he will save you and keep you and supply all your need richly in Christ Jesus.”
So in a very simple way our Lord is encouraging his people to think in terms of the simplicity of the way the gospel is to be spread. Next year is the centenary of the 1904 revival in Wales, and already one para-church group has booked the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for a celebration, with media people and loadsamusic. That kind of triumphalism will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – to stage some hyper-meetings. Our Lord’s approach is so different, isn’t it? It was not the march of a million men on Jerusalem and then next year ten million going to Rome to see the Emperor. It was twelve men going out in six pairs and depending on God to provide for them. I was speaking to a Nigerian missionary and he told me of how he had noticed the encroachment of the Muslim teachers coming down from the north of Nigeria into the south with a little bag on their backs and nothing else. They go to the markets and sit down in the line of stalls, and put their open Koran in front of them and wait for hours until someone asked them questions, and then they would talk to anyone about the message of Mohammed until no one wanted to talk any more. The Muslims were doing that free of any encumbrances, and not asking the people for any money, while increasingly the Christian church in Nigeria was preaching the heretical ‘prosperity gospel’ that God wants everyone to have a Mercedes. This preacher told me how he coveted that Islamic simplicity as having something of the New Testament’s radical discipleship about it, and he compared it to the elaborate ways American missionaries were supported. He was an American. He was saying to me that the church needs to learn the lesson of living in dependence of God’s provision. I realise that men going to the third world from the West are going to need some layers of support. The challenge is arranging that and living simply
3. HOW WERE THEY TO ACT?
“Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them” (v.v. 10&11). There are two contrasting situations described in these words. The first is a village where the two Christians are welcomed. There they are to stay in the same house during their time there. No one is ever tempted to move to a poorer dwelling, so if the disciples moved after a few days it would inevitably be to a richer home. Then they would be saying by that action that material things meant much to them. That move from one home to another would have undermined their message, and they would also have been dishonouring their host. They were not there on a social visit, staying one night with one family and then the next with another, and so on. They were in that village to serve the King of kings; they were not there on holiday. There were times when they might come apart to a quiet spot with the Lord Jesus and rest, but this mission was not one of those times. “Don’t give people the opportunity to talk about you and your taste in homes and food – which you will if you move from place to place. Your whole life is to reflect Me and My message that people need to repent. These are serious days and this is a serious mission. Let your lifestyle reflect your deepest convictions.”
The other contrasting situation is of a village where the two men are overwhelmingly rejected. “You and your preaching are not welcome here,” they’d be told, “we will not listen to you. Take you anointing oil and your exorcisms and desist in your activities here!” What was to be their response? They were not to be overwhelmed with guilt, and break down and cry, and say to one another that is was all their fault, that if only they had been more loving men, and better preachers, and had performed even more healings and exorcisms there would have been a revival in the village. That was not to be their response. They were to shake the dust off their feet as they left town. That was neither pique nor petulance. What was that gesture saying? “We won’t be contaminated by your unbelief. You have heard the gospel and dismissed it. Many others have never heard it. We’ll go immediately to them. There’s no time to waste. You’ve missed your chance. We’re off and we won’t be back.”
We see examples of this throughout the Bible. There was a time in Old Testament history at the division of the nation when Jeroboam became king of Israel. He didn’t want the Jews of his new northern kingdom to be going down to the feasts in the Temple in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah, so he rejected the Temple and the priests who served there. He substituted his own clergy, and he built in the north two temples with goat and calf idols. What did the Lord’s priests and Levites do? They brushed the dust off their feet and they moved to the southern kingdom of Judah. “The priests and Levites from all of their districts throughout Israel sided with him [Rehoboam king of Judah]. The Levites even abandoned their pasturelands and property, and came to Judah and Jerusalem because Jeroboam and his sons had rejected them as priests of the Lord. And he [Jeroboam] appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made. Those from every tribe of Israel who set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel, followed the Levites to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to the Lord the God of their fathers. They strengthened the kingdom of Judah and supported Rehoboam son of Solomon three years, walking in the ways of David and Solomon during this time” (2 Chrons. 11:13-17). Here were the godly in the whole northern nation who walked! They quite Israel and moved to worship in Israel. There is the increasingly well-known incident which took place in the Anglican synod in Vancouver earlier this year when that Bishop announced that he would bless same sex ‘marriages.’ The evangelicals led by Dr J.I.Packer protested but when the synod determined to support their bishop J.I.Packer ‘walked’, as he said. That is he and his supporters walked out of that gathering. They ‘shook the dust off their feet’ repudiating that ungodly decision.
There was no way that the people of God could continue to worship together under those circumstances. The Jehovahists in the northern kingdom didn’t say, “This just shows the wonderful diversity of religions in the world. Another religion! Hooray! We don’t want to be narrow-minded and say that there is only one truth and one way to God.” Not at all. When people began to make sacrifice to golden calves and goats they brushed the dust off their feet and quit. They headed for the place where Jehovah’s name was honoured.
The same thing happens in the New Testament when Paul and Barnabas – two men working together – take the gospel to Pisidian Antioch. The speak in the synagogue and many Jews are persuaded and follow them, but then others were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. We read this, “Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles'” (Acts 13:46). The apostles were shaking the dust off their feet and moving on. Did these men turn away from a church? Did they separate from a Christian congregation? No, they separated from an unbelieving body of people who refused to trust in Jesus Christ. There are many others who’d listen and to them they’d go. We have no obligation to try to go on speaking to those who despise our message and don’t want to hear us. Of course love constrains us to talk to our loved ones whenever we can. What wisdom we need. It is a fearful thing when a community, or a nation, or even a continent is die-hard in its resistance to Jesus Christ. What hope can there be for such a civilisation? Pray that it might not become like that in Europe, but there is every evidence that that is the way we are going.
4. WHAT WERE THEY TO PREACH?
What was the message that the six pairs of men all received from the Lord Christ, the message they were given authority to preach from village to village? It was not a series of lessons in basic Christianity. It was not seminars, and study groups that these men set up. We are told, “They went out and preached that people should repent” (v.12). Imagine it, that the Son of God came all the way from heaven, and he brought the very words that God gave him to teach the world, and what was this divine and heavenly message? “You must all repent!” There is nothing particularly profound about a message like that. Everyone can understand what repentance means. The two disciples went into a village and they spoke to its inhabitants about the King having come from heaven, Jesus the Messiah, and that they both were his servants, and he had sent them to speak to this village. The King was telling all the people of Galilee that Almighty God was angry with the way they were living their lives. His wrath was hanging over them and was about to burst. They didn’t love him and they didn’t even love one another. They were liars, and cheats, and child-abusers, and womanisers, and thieves, and idlers, and drunkards, and proud, and cruel men and women. They must repent; they had to repent, and repent now. It was not that they had to understand what repentance was, but they had to put into practice repentance there and then, that is, they had to turn from their sins. There had to be a profound and life-changing turnaround, if it were genuine, in God-given repentance. It would mean not just their heads turning in a different direction, but their bodies and their feet, so that from now on their whole personalities would be going in a new way.
Think of the orchestra sitting in their places and then the conductor comes on stage to the applause of the audience. He first faces them and bows to acknowledge their greeting. There before him is the world, all his adoring fans, but he can’t remain like that, gazing at them in some public display of mutual infatuation. He has to turn around 180 degrees. He has to turn his back on them and face the music! That is God’s command to Galilee sinners. Turn from your sin and unbelief. Face your God and you will discover the music of the spheres of grace. God has loved the world and given his only begotten Son:
“To us a Child of Hope is born, to us a Son is given;
Him shall the tribes of earth obey, Him all the hosts of heaven.
His name shall be the Prince of peace, for evermore adored;
The Wonderful, the Counsellor, the great and mighty Lord.” (John Morison, 1750 – 98)
There was a sarcastically toned article in the Times yesterday about President Bush. It was referring to the well-known fact that he had had a problem with alcohol abuse as a younger man, but that then he took the Christian faith seriously and it had changed him. The reporter said, “Voters have been left in no doubt as to his new beliefs.” Was that a good thing? I would think that it’s a very good thing to be saved from being a drunk – and every family member who lives with a drunk would agree. Would it have been good for Paul Gascoigne and George Best to have been saved from alcohol? Think of the prodigious talent of those two soccer players and the way their lives and health and savings and marriages have been ruined by that drug. Ask their former wives. This is the language of the Times yesterday: “Bush dropped the bottle and embraced the Bible.” Good! That is repentance. That is what you have to do. Shed your sins and embrace the Word made flesh. “Turn your back on your sins,” said the disciples, “and turn to the Messiah-sending God.” That is what they said. “Preach repentance!” Jesus had told them, and so they did.
You understand that repentance is much more than saying, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done.” The word ‘repentance’ doesn’t mean ‘feel remorse.’ It basically means a change of mind. In other words, now you’re thinking about sin in a very different way than you used to. You no longer find sin irresistible. You no longer protest, “But it’s beautiful.” Not any longer, because you’ve had a radical change of heart about it. It is like people in Iraq learning the truth about Saddam Hussein. Once he was their great leader; his statues were everywhere. But now they have seen the torture cells, and the cruelty, and the mass graves, and the thousands who have simply disappeared, and the chemical warfare on the Kurds, and the utterly unrestrained and vulgar excesses of his palace wealth – while they’ve been living in poverty. They look at Saddam Hussein now for what he is; their eyes have been opened and now they hate all he has done and all he stands for. That is what gospel repentance is like, now when you look at your own sins, you hate them. Now I see myself as God sees me and I don’t have an excuse. That is repentance.
This July I was in the Founders’ Conference in Alabama for the third time, and once again I met a great evangelist from the South called R.F.Gates, and he told this story. He had gone to preach in a little country church in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and there he had met an old deacon who went back to the days of horses and carts, and he told R.F.Gates about his conversion. The story went like this:
“You know, when I married my wife I told her that I wasn’t a child of God. But she was, and she prayed for me and started imploring me to go to church with her until I finally started attending. We had an old backwoods preacher that didn’t have a very good education. He used words like “aint” and misused other words, but he could preach, even with bad English. He just laid it on the line. I got so disturbed one day I kind of shook a little bit and I thought maybe it’s time for me to join the church so I went up after the service and I said, “Brother Dave, I want to talk to you.” It seemed to me like that man stood there for fifteen minutes without answering and then he looked me in the eye and said, “No, I don’t think you’re ready yet.”
“Why that just made me so mad. I waited about three more weeks and it seemed to me like every Sunday that preacher threw that old finger out and pointed at my heart and said, ‘Thou art the man.’ After about four or five more weeks I walked up the second time (this time a little more humbled) and said, ‘Brother Dave, I am concerned a bit about my soul.’ That dear brother looked at me again and he shook his head east and west and said, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to wait a little longer.’ Now this time I was a little peaked but I wasn’t mad. I got back in my chair and thought, ‘Well, that’s a funny preacher that doesn’t want anybody to join his church.'”
R.F.Gates said, “Bless God, that man had a preacher who knew the grace of God. He wasn’t scared that that fellow was going to get run over by a wild horse before he got saved. He believed God in His grace could do it. The old deacon continued with his story:”
“I sat through that another two months and the next time I came I took that preacher by his shoulders and said, ‘You’re going to talk to me now!'” R.F.Gates interrupted him and asked, “Do you know what he was doing for you?” The deacon said, “I didn’t know at the time but I know now.” He said that that preacher replied like this, “‘Well, I’ll tell you what. Now that the service is over why don’t I take your family and head home in my wagon and you take your wagon by yourself down that road and you think about what I’ve been saying?’ “I got in that old cart”, he said, “and I started heading for home. Every time those wheels turned it seemed as if they said to me, ‘Thou art undone, thou art undone.’ I got within a hundred yards of home and pulled that old team of horses by the side of that dirt road and under an old tree I cried out, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” He repented from his heart. Then the man said, “I got those horses and you should have seen how fast I went the last one hundred yards. I ran into my house and the first person who met me was the preacher. He took me by the hand and he smiled and he said simply, ‘Brother, doesn’t it feel better now?'”
R. F. Gates said that that old country preacher knew exactly what he was doing. “He was stepping out of God’s way for Jesus Christ to give this man true gospel repentance. You won’t get as many ‘converts’ that way, but when you get one, he or she will be a real convert and not just a number. That man is a deacon today and I guess he hasn’t missed ten worship services since the Lord saved him. I saw that man on his knees weeping for the souls of men, and for forty years he has walked with King Jesus.”
I have told you today what Christ told the 12 disciples, God commands every one of you to repent for your own sins. ‘Turn or burn!’ You’ve got to change your mind about your life, and about God, and about how it is between you and God. You must repent. “It’s too hard,” you say. “I’m too old” you . “I’m not strong enough,” you say. I tell you that Christ will give you that repentance, and you have to cry mightily to God that he will give you that gift. You know we won’t be happy with mere remorse and a temporary change of life. I am looking for a profound change of attitude. The twelve couldn’t save sinners; they didn’t have that ability, and neither can I – sinners are saved only by grace. But I can live simply, and trust in God’s provision. If the years go by and you scorn my Saviour then I will brush the dust off my feet and testify against you on the day of judgment. But God will give some of your true repentance, because his word will not return to him void, and then I’ll see the great change. I’ve watched God call other Lazaruses out of their tombs.
31 August 2004 GEOFF THOMAS