The Safest Place in All the World to Be

The Safest Place in All the World to Be

Matthew 4:18-25

James C. Denison

A “conundrum” is an intricate and difficult problem. For instance, what 11-letter word is pronounced incorrectly by more than 99 percent of Ivy League graduates? “Incorrectly.” Care to try again? I’m sitting at a table. Ten flies are on the table. With one swat, I kill three flies. How many flies are left on the table? The three dead ones–the other seven already flew away. Now aren’t you glad you came to church today?

We’ve been studying biblical images of the church, the world’s only hope. Last week we learned that we are the only salt and light of our decaying, dark world. Today we learn that we are called to be “fishers of men” in that world. I’m interested in what Jesus calls us to do. But I’m even more interested in the fact that he calls us to do it, that great theological conundrum of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

If he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why does he need to call these men? Why cannot he order them to follow him? Do they have freedom to decide whether or not to follow him? If they can refuse his will for their lives, how is he the Sovereign Lord of the universe?

Does everything happen in life the way God intends for it to? “Everything happens for a reason,” we’re told. “It all works out for the best,” we hear. Is that true? Did God intend for Hurricane Dean to decimate the Yucatan peninsula and the eastern coast of Mexico this week? Did he intend Michael Vick and his accomplices to torture and execute dogs in Virginia? Is the ongoing war in Iraq part of his plan and will? More than 3,700 of our troops have died there. More than 655,000 people, most of them Iraqis, have perished in this conflict.

Will God’s will be done in the upcoming presidential election? Will his will be done for your children away at college or at home in school? With your health and finances and marriage and family? Is the will of God always fulfilled, for Peter and Andrew and you and me? The question is crucial for our lives today, as we’ll soon see.

Hear his call

Our text begins: “Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee” (v. 18). “Walking” in the Greek syntax expresses contemporaneous and continuous action–he was constantly walking around beside the Sea of Galilee, as though he was looking for something or someone.

The Sea of Galilee is a small lake, roughly 13 miles long by six miles at its widest part. It was and is one of the most beautiful bodies of water on earth. But it was one of the least likely places for a rabbi to find new students. Those who lived and worked in this hill country were far from the training schools with their famous rabbis down south in Jerusalem.

These men were no less intelligent than those in the rabbinic schools. But they clearly had chosen lives of labor and business, not academics. MIT doesn’t usually recruit doctoral candidates from the ranchers out in the Davis Mountains. That’s not what ranchers are interested in doing.

Nonetheless, Jesus walked up to “two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.” They were working at the time, “casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.” They were using the “amphiblaistron,” a net thrown from a boat or shore. It was nine feet across, weighted with lead around its circumference. It sank into the sea, then was drawn up with fish inside. This was hard manual labor–nothing automated or technological about it.

Going on a little farther, he saw James and his brother John “in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.” They were mending them, washing them, setting them out to dry for the next day’s work.

Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me.” His words meant “become my students” or “enroll in my school.” In Jesus’ day, students chose their rabbi. A rabbi never went soliciting students. But Jesus called these men specifically to follow him. He did the same with James and John. And all four agreed.

Understand why he calls

The Bible says that “by Jesus all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). He made the Sea of Galilee, and the fish swimming in it, and the men who were fishing for them.

One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). If he is indeed the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, why did he need to walk the beaches of the Sea of Galilee looking for these men, then call them to follow him and wait while they decided?

If he is truly the Lord of all that is, how can anything happen contrary to his will? But if everything happens according to his will, does this mean that God wanted a hurricane to decimate Mexico and the economy to become a roller coaster and average incomes to fall each of the last five years in America?

By definition, God must either cause or permit all that happens, or he is not God. His perfect or permissive will must be done. Nothing about Hurricane Dean surprised God this week. The fact that you’ve come worship this morning was not news to him. He created time and transcends it, so he knew before time began that you and I would have this conversation today.

In the world he created, everything happened as he intended it to happen.

Adam and Eve could walk in the Garden of Eden with no fear of predators or disaster or disease. When there’s a new heaven and a new earth, that will happen again: “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

But in the meantime, you and I live in a world decimated by sin. This is not the way God intended his creation to work. One day “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). But until that day comes, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (v. 22). In this fallen world we must deal with hurricanes and diseases and disasters.

God permits the world to operate according to laws he set in place. That’s why we have gravity, so you can sit in your pew rather than floating around the sanctuary as if you were in outer space. But in this fallen world, that same law of gravity causes bridges in Minnesota to collapse. God must permit the abuses of his natural order, or there would be no natural order. He could abolish gravity so that planes wouldn’t crash, but then they could never land. Life as we know it could not exist.

The good news is that his holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. He wants to redeem the hurricane in Mexico as those devastated turn to him in faith. He redeems disease and death as we turn to him for strength.

I spoke recently with the Methodist bishop of Louisiana. He told me that God has used Katrina to bring revival and renewal to the churches of the Gulf Coast, as they have stepped forward to be the hands and feet of Jesus to so many suffering people.

So God permits natural disaster in a fallen world. What about human disaster? What about Michael Vick’s dogfighting guilt and terrorists attacking our troops and plotting against our nation? Does God cause the decisions we make? If not, how can he be the Sovereign Lord of humanity?

Some say that all events and all decisions are predetermined by God, that we really have no free will at all. I suppose it was foreordained that I said the last sentence, and the next. Of course, 2 Peter 3:9 seems clear: God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

1 Timothy 2:4 adds that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” But theologians who deny human freedom say these verses apply only to the “elect,” those chosen by God for salvation. But nothing in the texts indicates that.

This is a very complicated theological subject, a debate which has raged for centuries. To me the answer is simple: God has chosen to limit himself at the point of human freedom. He created us to worship him; worship requires a choice; so he has given us freedom of choice. He has determined to honor that choice, even when it is not his perfect will for us. It is no denial of his sovereignty to say that he has chosen sovereignly to honor the freedom he has given to us.

He chose Peter and Andrew, James and John to be his disciples and eventually his witnesses. They chose to accept his call. However, he also called the rich young ruler to “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). But the man “became very sad, for he was a man of great wealth” (v. 23). When Jesus entered the Holy City on Palm Sunday, the Bible says that “as he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it” (Luke 19:41) because it had refused his message and ministry.

God calls us all to be “fishers of men,” to use our influence to bring all we know to know Jesus. To pray for the lost by name; to be sure they know that we follow Jesus; to speak a spiritual word to them; to invite them to church; to share our faith story. As we saw last week, we are God’s only salt and light in our decaying and dark world. We are the world’s only hope.

But we have a choice in the matter. We can choose to make fishing for men the purpose of our lives, or not. We can choose to surrender each day to the Spirit, to begin the morning by meeting God in his word and prayer, to find and use our spiritual gifts in his service, to live every day for Jesus as our Lord. We can follow him, or not. He has given that choice to us all.

Why choose for him? You’ve heard all the reasons, all the famous scriptures and statements which answer the question. Follow him because the omniscient God of the universe knows the future better than we know the present, and has a “good pleasing, and perfect” will for our lives (Romans 12:2). He has plans to prosper us and not harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

The safest place in all the world to be is the center of God’s will. He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose. They’re truisms because they’re true. Because Peter and Andrew, James and John followed Jesus, we’re still talking about them and celebrating their faith 20 centuries later. We can’t say that about anyone else fishing in the Sea of Galilee that day.

They teach us that following the purpose and call of God is the best, smartest, wisest way to live every single day.


Last weekend, Janet and I left our youngest son at college and started back to Dallas. Driving along, we began to look back over 27 years of marriage. I’m 49 years old, and I’m finally starting to realize that it’s really true, that following Jesus is the best way to live every day.

I have enough life experience to remember the times I have refused the will of God and paid the price in personal frustration, grief, and insignificance. I can look back on those times when Janet and I stepped out by faith into the call of God and have been blessed beyond measure as a result.

Now Jesus has come to our Sea of Galilee. He has found us in our boat, preparing our nets for tomorrow’s work. He wants us to follow him–to surrender to his will and leadership with every day, to belong fully and only to him. In turn, he wants to use us to influence our community and world for his Father. Those moments in life come when we either say “yes” to the call of God, or we stay in our boat and miss all he plans for us.

Today is one such day for you. Will you follow him out of this boat, to go where the fish are? Will you fish for men? Or must he call another?

What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

What Happens to Those Who Never Hear?

Matthew 5:13-16

James C. Denison

A friend recently sent me an essay titled “Ode to Plurals.” It goes like this.

We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes; but the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes. One fowl is a goose, and two are called geese, yet the plural of moose should never be meese.

If I speak of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet? If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth, why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth? We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren.

There is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger, and neither apple nor pine in pineapple. Boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig. And if teachers taught, why didn’t preachers praught?

We recite at a play and play at a recital. We ship by truck but send cargo by ship. We have noses that run and feet that smell. We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway. Your house burns up as it burns down; you fill in a form by filling it out; an alarm goes off by going on. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? And if Father is Pop, how come Mother’s not Mop?  

You probably hadn’t asked yourself any of those questions before today (and you probably won’t ever again). Here’s another question you may not have come to church wondering, since it doesn’t apply to you. But it is crucial to more than two billion people on our planet: what happens to those who never hear the gospel? How can God be fair in sending them to hell for rejecting a message they never heard? But if they can go to heaven without trusting in Christ, how can God be fair in sending Christians to sacrifice their time and even their lives to tell them?

All through our summer series we’ve been calling the church “the world’s only hope.” Today we find out why. And why the answer is the key to living with purpose, redeeming your days, and leaving a legacy that matters.

Wrong answers

More than two billion people on planet Earth have never heard the gospel. To them, the syllables “Jesus Christ” are like “mumblephump” to you–sounds with no significance. There are a billion more unevangelized people in the world today than there were a hundred years ago. Eighty percent of the Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus in the world have never met a Christian, much less heard the gospel. What happens to them?

Let’s begin with the wrong answers to our question. “Universalism” is the very popular idea that a loving God wouldn’t let anyone go to hell. “Christian universalism” says that Jesus’ death paid for all our sins, so everyone goes to heaven.

Except that the Bible says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). And Jesus was explicit: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16, 18).

“Middle knowledge” is the idea that God knows what we would do if we had a chance to hear the gospel. It is clear that God knows the future better than we know the present. But if he knows what the unevangelized would do if they heard the gospel, why tell them?

Natural revelation is the assertion that God judges us according to the light that we have. If that’s true, why give people any more light? Some say that if a person responds to the light he has, God will see to it that he receives the light of the gospel. If that’s true, why do I need to go?

“Determinism” is the claim that God chooses who will be saved and who will be lost, and makes sure that the “elect” hear the gospel. But what of the biblical promise that God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9)? Or the assertion that God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4)?

Jesus’ answer

So, what is the answer to the problem of the unevangelized? You are. “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13); “you are the light of the world” (v. 14). “You” is plural–all of you, not just those who went to a seminar. “Are”–present tense, right now. “The”–the only salt and the only light in all the world.

Salt was the one way people in Jesus’ day could preserve their food. During their frequent crop failures and droughts, salt was crucial to life. The “lamp” to which he refers (v. 15) was a small clay oil lamp with a floating wick. It was their only means of lighting a dark room. Nothing could take the place of his salt and lamps in their world. Nor in ours.

That’s why Jesus called us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)–because those who do not believe in him are condemned (John 3:18). The only way to be in the “lamb’s book of life” is to trust in the Lamb, Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life–no one comes to the Father except by trusting in him (John 14:6).

But what happens to those we don’t tell? The Bible doesn’t really say, because we’re supposed to tell everyone.

Supernatural evangelism is one option. As God revealed himself to the prophets through dreams and visions; as he revealed his plans for Christ’s birth to Joseph and Mary through dreams and visions; as he revealed himself supernaturally to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road and to John on Patmos; so he might reveal the gospel supernaturally to those the church does not reach. For instance, thousands of Muslims are reporting visions and dreams in which Jesus appears to them and calls them to himself. Nothing in Scripture says that God cannot do this.

Some theologians believe in after-death evangelism, whereby God gives those who die without hearing the gospel a second chance. This is a controversial idea, one I’m not comfortable adopting, but some very conservative scholars are.

I can find no indication in Scripture that a person can go to hell except for rejecting Jesus. Hell was created for the devil and his angels after their rebellion (Matthew 25:41). It would be unfair for God to send a person to hell for refusing an invitation he never received. At the same time, it would be unfair for God to send us sacrificially to give that invitation if it’s unnecessary.

I’ve wrestled with this problem all summer. It’s been the longest chapter of a book I’m finishing this month–69 pages in the first draft. As best I can tell, the only logical answer is that God somehow gets the message to those we do not. We find examples of such supernatural revelation all through Scripture, and not a single verse which tells us that God is not still revealing himself today.

Does that fact make me any less responsible for evangelizing those I can reach? No more than the fact that there are thousands of missionaries around the world sharing Christ with people I cannot reach. Having God as a missions partner is a privilege, not a problem. It is my responsibility to reach all I can. I’ll trust the rest to God. Rather than speculating about the unevangelized, I’m called to tell them. So are you.

How to use your influence

When we answer God’s call to be his salt and light for a decaying and dark world, we fulfill the highest and most joyful privilege in life. Nothing you and I do today will matter eternally but this. Spreading the gospel of Jesus, sharing his love with people who will spend eternity in hell unless they trust in him, knowing that God used us for his eternal glory–this is the greatest calling in life. How do we do this well?

First, connect with Christ. Only God can create spiritual salt and light. Jesus called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12). The Bible says that he is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9).

We get our influence from him. We cannot convict of a sin or save a soul or change a life. Human words cannot transform human hearts. We are to reflect Jesus’ light; to share Jesus’ preserving and purifying salt with the world.

So we stay close to our Source. We begin the day by submitting it to the Holy Spirit, by meeting God in prayer and Scripture. We walk with him through the day, praying about our problems and opportunities. And we stay with his people. These are collective images–not a single grain of salt; not a single lamp but a city on a hill. As we cooperate with Christ, he uses us to reach the world he died to save.

Second, care about the lost. Salt is no good in the saltshaker. In fact, that’s how it became corrupted in Jesus’ day. They didn’t have pure sodium chloride. What they had came from the marshes around the Dead Sea. Left unused in a container, it would decompose and be good for nothing. What can you use salt to do if it doesn’t taste salty?

Light is no good under a basket. Having a flashlight is not much use if you never turn it on.

Do you care about those you know who do not know Jesus? They will spend eternity separated from him in hell, unless they accept the forgiveness and grace he alone can give them. When was the last time you asked God to use you to help someone know him personally?

Last, communicate God’s love. Compassion is not much good without action. Make sure that people know you follow Jesus. Your good life is not enough. They need to know that you follow Jesus, or your example will not lead them to him.

Put a Bible on your desk where people coming into your office can see it. Wear something which shows that you are a Christian. Since I’ve been wearing a cross ring, I’ve been more conscious of my witness to everyone who sees it. Sign “God bless you” on your restaurant bill. Tell hurting colleagues or neighbors that you’re praying for them.

And look for chances to explain the gospel to them. Forward an evangelistic website. Get a gospel tract to give them. Invite them to worship or a special event here. Tell them how you met the Lord. Ask God to help you connect with those you can influence, and know that he will.


Being called salt and light is the greatest compliment Jesus ever paid his people. We are indeed the world’s only hope. Not in ourselves, but in the story we have to tell. If you’ll connect every morning with Jesus, you’ll care for the lost as he does. You’ll ask him to help you communicate God’s love with them, and he will. And your decision to answer this call will be eternally significant and joyful, for you and all those God touches through you.

Last week I saw evidence of the eternal legacy left by those who choose to be salt and light in their decaying, dark world.

In the late 19th century, Rev. W. D. Bloys made his way to the Davis Mountains of West Texas, coming as a Presbyterian missionary to that tough and violent part of the Old West. This small, frail man rode from ranch to ranch, sharing Christ and winning the people to Christ. He brought a portable Communion kit with him to use in sharing the Lord’s Supper and worship. He won hundreds across that difficult land to Jesus. But none of them could go to a Sunday worship service. It was a day’s ride to the nearest town, and they couldn’t leave their ranches.

So in 1890, Dr. Bloys began what he called Campmeeting. He called the ranchers from all over the region to come together in a beautiful area called Skillman Grove. The second week in August, they came. They brought shovels and pickaxes to dig for water. They shot antelope to have food. They camped in tents and in the open air. They began Tuesday night and met through Sunday, four times every day for worship.

Dr. Bloys preached all four services, every day. For many of those cowboys, this was their only worship service of the entire year. When the Campmeeting grew too large for him to preach alone, he began inviting other ministers to preach as well–Baptist, Disciples of Christ, and Methodist.

Dr. Bloys died in 1917, and the Campmeeting soon took his name. George Truett was the Baptist preacher for a time. Last Sunday, the Bloys Campmeeting concluded its 118th meeting. I’ve been the Baptist preacher the last two years, and have three more years to go.

On Saturday night we honored the person who had been to the most Campmeetings–a woman named Tommy who was attending her 95th. More than a dozen other Campmeetings have begun all over the West, each following Dr. Bloys’ model. We will not know this side of eternity the significance of one small man’s decision to be salt and light in his world. He was slight of stature but great of faith. So can we be.

Who was Brother Bloys to you? Who will be grateful that you were Brother Bloys to them?

Why Do Bad Things Happen to God’s People?

Why Do Bad Things Happen to God’s People?

1 Peter 1:1-2

James C. Denison

A friend sent me some questions I could not answer. Let’s see how you do:

The first couple to be shown in bed together on prime time television? Fred and Wilma Flintstone.

Coca-Cola was originally what color? Green.

The state with the highest percentage of people who walk to work? Alaska.

The percentage of Africa that is wilderness? 28%. The percentage of America that is wilderness? 38%.

The cost of raising a medium-sized dog to the age of eleven? $6,400.

What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common? They were invented by women.

If such trivia represents one end of the relevance spectrum, our question today represents the other. You’ve heard the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? Our question is even tougher: Why do bad things happen to God’s people?

This summer we’ve learned that we are God’s saints, his new creation, the temple of his Holy Spirit. We are branches of his vine, his building, his bride, his body, citizens of his Kingdom, the very people of God. Why, then, are our lives so often so hard?

Being a Christian does not immunize us from a single problem the rest of the world experiences. We get cancer and heart disease just like the rest of the population; the divorce rate is apparently the same for Christians as for the rest of society; our sons and daughters fight and die in Iraq; we lose our jobs and parents and children just like everyone else. If the God of the universe is our Father, why does he treat his children this way?

Where is our question especially pertinent for you this morning? How has stress or struggle or suffering found you today? Why?

Know who you are

Let’s start with the good news. Our text tells us exactly who we are, no matter where we are. It describes in very specific ways precisely how God sees us. No matter how lonely we feel, or abandoned we seem, we’re not. God + 1 = majority, always. Here’s why.

We are “God’s elect,” “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”

“Elect” translates the Greek word for “chosen, selected.” It was used to describe fruit chosen because it was especially ripe, or clothes chosen because they were especially well-tailored. Once this word applied only to Israel, as the “chosen people of God.” But now it applies to us–all of us.

You read it last week: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

This happened by “the foreknowledge of God the Father.” God knew before time began that he would choose us, that he would want a personal, intimate, eternal relationship with every one of us. He wants such a relationship with every person he made, for he is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy. 2:4).

When we accept his invitation to personal relationship with him, we “elect” the One who “elects” us. We join his chosen people from across all the nations and all the centuries. We become part of God’s people forever. This is our identity.

Here is the power to be who we are: “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”

The Spirit saved you when he convicted you of your sins and led you to faith in Christ. He is saving you now, “sanctifying” you–making you more and more God’s saint, his holy one. He will save you for eternity.

To partner with the Spirit, we surrender to him every day. We begin the morning by yielding it to his Lordship. We ask his guidance before our decisions, his forgiveness when we sin, his power to defeat temptation, his help for our problems. When we walk in the Spirit, we are sanctified by the Spirit.

Now we discover the purpose for which we are chosen and sanctified: “in obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”

To obey and to serve him. As Moses sprinkled blood on the altar of sacrifice, so we are to sprinkle the “blood of Christ” wherever we go. We exist to make disciples of all nations, to be the salt and light of Christ, his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

The church is the only hope of the world. As we obey Jesus and share his saving love with our dying world, we fulfill a purpose more significant than any other. Bodies may be healed, but they will one day die. Finances will belong to someone else or be lost. Cars will rust. Clothes will wear out. Houses will be torn down. Nothing we do in time will count for eternity, except what we do to obey Jesus and share his love with all we can. This is the reason we are here, the purpose of our lives. It is the highest purpose in all of human history.

Know where you are

So you are not what you do, or what you own, or how many friends you have. You are the chosen, sanctified, serving child of God. If all this is so, why do bad things happen to God’s people? If we are chosen, sanctified, and called, why is life so often so hard? The answer lies not in who we are, but in where we are.

We are “strangers in the world.” “Strangers” translates the Greek word for “sojourners,” temporary residents, not permanent settlers in the land. We are immigrants in this world, just here for a while, only passing through.

All the while, we are expected to remember our true home.

We are “scattered”–the word translates diaspora, the official word for the dispersal of the Jewish people across the Gentile world. At various times in their history, many in Israel left Palestine to take up residency abroad. Some were forced out by persecution; others left in search of jobs and prosperity. But they always considered Israel their nation, the Jews their people, the Holy Land their home.

They would return to Jerusalem each year for Passover and Pentecost, which is why so many from these very regions were there when the Spirit fell at Pentecost and the Church was born. Many of Peter’s readers were likely converted during that Pentecost miracle, and have now returned to their homes. He is their pastor; the Jerusalem church is their home church; he is writing to his people as they are away.

Like the Jews scattered around the world, they are strangers where they live, scattered in the world. They are to remember their true home: in heaven with their Lord.

The reason why bad things happen to God’s people is simple: we’re not home yet. We’re scattered strangers. This world is not our home.

When Ryan and Craig head out to college in two weeks, they won’t be home any longer. Janet can’t make sure they’re eating well, or doing their homework; she can’t clean up their dorm room or wash their clothes (not that she’ll miss that part so much). It’s not her fault if their rooms look as bad as mine looked in college, or if they get by on cold pizza and stale French fries. They’re not home.

Why will we allow them to go off and live in places where we can’t take care of them? Because that is what’s best for them. That’s how they’ll grow, and learn, and mature. They’ll learn things they could not learn at home, and grow in ways they could not if they lived with us. And that’s best for the places they will go–the friends they’ll make, the people they’ll help, the vocations they’ll eventually serve.

We could keep them safe and well-fed at home, but that’s not what’s best for them or the world they are called to serve.


So, why did God allow his elect, sanctified, serving people to be scattered strangers across Asia Minor? Because they could take the gospel wherever they went, building the Kingdom across the world.

Why has God allowed you to be where you are today? His holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. Know that you are in your circumstances this morning because they are the best place for you to serve your Lord and build his Kingdom. When that changes, when you’re no longer where you can be sanctified and serve most fully, you’ll be the first to know.

In the meanwhile, ask him how he intends to redeem your work and your world today. Know that you are his child, elect and chosen.

How can this hard place help the Spirit sanctify you? What can you learn which will grow your faith and build your character? God never wastes a hurt. He works through all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). How could he redeem your scattered life by helping you be more like Jesus?

How can this hard time help you obey Jesus and share his love with your world? How can you help someone who is hurting as you are? Who will see your faith under trial and be drawn to God? Remember that this world is not your home. Ask God to redeem the place and pain where you are living today, and know that he will. Every time.

Last month it was my privilege to spend the week at Thee Camp with Pike and our youth ministry. We arrived on Sunday and returned on Friday. We had rain nearly every night and mud nearly every day. But we also had powerful worship and practical Bible studies. And one of the most anointed speakers I’ve ever heard.

Afshin Ziafat was born in Houston, my hometown. When he was two, his family returned to their native Iran, but left four years later when the Iranian Revolution began. He grew up in an extremely religious Muslim home. As a senior in high school, he read the Bible and came to faith in Christ. His father disowned him; their relationship has been strained ever since.

God has called Afshin to preach in churches, conferences, and camps across the nation and around the world. He is helping get thousands of Bibles back into Iran, and training pastors there for the revival we all pray is coming to that land. If I could interview Afshin this morning and ask him if God has redeemed his sufferings for a greater good, my friend would immediately agree.

I saw proof of it all week long, as a large number of students came to faith in Jesus for the first time, and dozens made significant new commitments to Christ. The final proof came Thursday evening, as I was invited to pray with the senior men. There were 22 of them, led by Alan Daniels all week. We were planning to pray for 15 or 20 minutes, as it was already 11:30 p.m. We prayed for two hours.

I heard these young men pour out their hearts to God, dedicate themselves to his call on their lives as they go to college, intercede for their families and lost friends, and yield themselves completely to the Spirit. My son was one of them.

I will forever be grateful to God for using an Iranian Muslim who is now a Spirit-led preacher to touch my son and my life and my family. All that it has cost him to be a stranger scattered in the world, God has more than redeemed. As he will with me. As he will with you.

Where is the hard place you need to put in the hand of God today?