God’s Peace in Our Pain

Topical Scripture: Matthew 8:1-17

It has been a stressful week in the news, to say the least.

I flew back from Israel last Saturday night, the day after a US drone killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. We were all a bit relieved when we landed safely in the US. Airstrikes against our troops on Tuesday were followed by news of the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 tragedy. No one knows what comes next in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the wildfires in Australia has killed more than a billion animals and destroyed an area more than eight times larger than the region that burned in California in 2018. A million people are without power in Puerto Rico after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the country on Tuesday. Thousands of people slept outside their homes due to concerns that further tremors could cause other buildings to collapse.

And, of course, Harry and Meghan are stepping down from their role as “senior” royal family. One headline said, “First Brexit, now Megxit.”

When war threatens and airplanes are shot down and fires rage and the earth quakes, it’s normal to wonder where God is. Or why we should trust him with our problems and pain.

What do you wish God would do in your life today? This morning, we’ll meet three people whose stories can be our stories. The choice is ours.

Three wrong answers

Where is God when life hurts? In our text we find three wrong answers to our question, followed by three right answers.

One: Limit God’s power. The first character in today’s story is a leper. There were several skin diseases classified as “leprosy” in the ancient world. The most common was Hansen’s disease, a disorder that affects the skin and nervous system. Over time the person loses the ability to feel his fingers or toes. He wears them off, bloodies them, infects them, and they rot and die.

The disease was incurable until the late 1940s and was an impossible disease to treat in the first century. At least, for everyone but Jesus. He touched this untouchable man and healed him. If he could heal leprosy, he can heal any disease, any body, any problem. The wrong answer is to limit God’s power.

Two: Limit God’s love. Our second character in the story is an even more unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. He was a Gentile, considered by the Jews to exist only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was a “centurion,” a Roman military officer in charge of one hundred soldiers. Part of the force occupying and enslaving their land. Part of the army which forced them to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome and subjected them to pagan, idolatrous oppression.

Imagine an impoverished Jewish rabbi helping a Gestapo officer, and you’ll have the picture. But Jesus answered his prayer and heals his servant, to the shock of the incredulous crowd of hostile Jews. The wrong answer is to limit God’s love.

Three: Blame the person who suffers. Now a third person enters the story. Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot get out of bed. But Jesus heals her so fully that her strength is instantly restored and she makes them all a meal.

There is no indication of any sin on her part, anything wrong that she has done. We live in a fallen world, where disease and disaster are inevitable. Some suffering is our fault, as with an alcoholic with liver disease. But the wrong answer is always to assume that the person who suffers is at fault. We often make their pain worse.

Three right approaches

What are we to do when it doesn’t seem that God has answered the prayer we prayed, that he didn’t heal when we asked his help, when our leprosy did not get better, the servant did not recover, the mother-in-law died?

One: Judge the dark by the light. The leper and the centurion both called Jesus “Lord,” as they should. The word translates kurios and was used of Caesar, kings, owners, those in control. Jesus is Lord. And he didn’t change when my father died, or my high school friend committed suicide, or my hero in seminary was fired. He is still on his throne. He is still Lord.

What do we know about God? He is love; he is the creator of the universe; he does not want any of us to perish; he gave his Son to die for us. Remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.

Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in North Korea?

Remember his grace in your life and judge the dark by the light. I’ll never forget a seminary student of mine named Walter. The year his wife and several children died, his pastor called every day to say, “Walter, God is still on his throne.” Then Walter told our class, “God is still on his throne.” Judge the dark by the light.

Two: Understand that his ways are higher than ours. The leper has it right: “If you will, you can make me clean.” But God’s will and ways are not always clear to us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

At the time, Joseph didn’t understand why he was enslaved in Egypt. Moses didn’t understand why he had to spend forty years in the desert. Joshua didn’t understand the flooded Jordan River and fortified city of Jericho. Daniel didn’t understand the lion’s den, or Paul his thorn in the flesh, or John his Patmos prison. But we do.

Three: Trust God to give you what you ask or something better. Here we come to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. When we prayed for something God did not grant, we can know that it was best that he acted as he did. Even when we do not understand why. The person did not get well. The house burned down; the divorce became final; the car wreck happened. And we do not understand why God did not grant us our prayer.

Dr. E. K. Bailey was the Senior Pastor of Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas and one of the finest ministers of the gospel I have ever known. Our friendship was priceless to my soul. Several times, God healed my dear friend of cancer. Then he did not. I still don’t understand why.

I must assume that it was not best for him to be healed. Dr. Bailey is with the Father in glory, in a paradise we cannot begin to imagine. One second on the other side of death, he was glad he was in heaven. In the providence of God, his contribution to God’s kingdom on earth must have been completed, his reward prepared, his eternity made ready. Even though I don’t understand it or like it.

That’s the faith assumption I must make when God does not grant what I ask: he is doing something even better. Though my finite, fallen mind cannot begin to imagine how that could be so, I must trust his love and compassion enough to accept it by faith.

Not until I became a father did I understand some of the things my father said and did. Not until we are in glory will we understand completely our Father’s will and ways (1 Corinthians 13:12). When we cannot see his hand, we can trust his heart.


Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle—he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.

In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?

Jesus is Still the Great Physician

Topical Scripture: John 5:19

The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, continues to dominate the news. The death toll stands at fifty-six this morning, with confirmed cases now in Washington State, California, and Chicago. Sixty-three Americans are being monitored for the illness. Chinese officials have enacted travel restrictions affecting nearly sixty million people, roughly the population of California and Texas, combined.

You may not be worried about the Wuhan virus, but there is something in your life that you wish God would change, or heal, or remove. I have prayed for years for God to heal my back, for instance, but so far, he has not done so.

How do we trust God when his timing is not ours?

As we continue watching Jesus change lives through his unique power and love, today we’ll meet someone who was sick for thirty-eight years before he was healed by our Lord. We’ll learn from him to trust the timing of God even when his timing makes no sense to us.

It’s been well said: God is seldom on time, but he is never late.

Seek his help

Our story begins: “After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 5:1). What follows is a miracle story found nowhere else in Scripture.

Jesus had to go “up,” because Jerusalem sits atop a plateau whose sides must be scaled by pilgrims coming to the Holy City. He came for a “feast of the Jews,” but which one? The options are Purim in March, Passover in April, Pentecost in May, Tabernacles in October, and Dedication in December. This episode likely occurred during the springtime, as the lame were lying outside in the weather and Jesus referred to the time of harvest earlier (John 4:35). Thus Purim and Passover are the best guesses.

Verse 2 continues the narrative: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.” John used the present tense, “there is in Jerusalem . . .,” even though he wrote these words long after the Roman destruction of the city in AD 70. He wanted us to experience the reality of this miracle as if it occurred in our time, for it still can.

The Sheep Gate was one of the entrances through the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt by Eliashib the High Priest and his fellow priests during the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:1), more than four hundred years earlier. It was likely the entrance through which sheep and lambs were brought from the neighboring fields to the Temple for sacrifice. Through this gate the Lamb of God came to heal a crippled man, as one day he would die for the spiritual healing of our crippled world.

Here lay a “pool” (this word is found only here in the New Testament). It was surrounded by “five roofed colonnades.” These colonnades were covered porches called stoa where people gathered (the “Stoics” are named for the fact that they began by meeting on porches like these). The pool in question was trapezoidal in form, 165–220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades on four sides of this partition, and one on it. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pools.

The Crusaders built a church near this pool, with a crypt framed like the five porches and an opening in the floor which descended to the water. This structure is known as the Church of St. Anne; it stands today on the northwest corner of Jerusalem near the gate by the sheep market. I’ve visited it many times over the years. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy.” Jesus fulfilled its name this day.

Beside this pool “lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (v. 3). Why were they there?

Verse 7 supplies the answer: “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” There is a subterranean spring beneath the pool which bubbles up occasionally, stirring its waters. The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed.

We meet the suffering man Jesus came to heal in verse 5: “One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” The length of his incapacity proves the fact that it was medically incurable. Jesus did not provide him a medical solution but a miraculous healing.

So, “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’” (v. 6). The crippled man could not come to Jesus physically and did not know to ask Jesus to come to him. So Jesus met him at the point of his great need.

But first he asked what seems to us a strange question: “Do you want to be healed?” What crippled person wouldn’t want to be healed?

However, this man had been in this condition for “a long time.” He has spent his adult life and perhaps longer in this condition. He may have become accustomed to living on the donations of others. He may not want to return to the responsibility of an earned income and work to perform.

Jesus will only work in our lives with our permission. He always limits himself to our free will.

Where do you need his healing, helping touch today? Jesus knows your pain. In fact, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Jesus is calling to us in our suffering, for he shares it with us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). He promised that he would never leave or forsake us (Matthew 28:20). He hurts as we hurt and calls to us in the pain of our lives.

But some of us feel that we are beyond his help, that our sins have exempted us from his grace. The world would have said the same of this invalid.

In Jesus’ day, popular theology taught that physical illness was proof of spiritual judgment. A person with a physical birth defect, as may have been the case with this man, was under the justice and judgment of God (cf. the disciples’ question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2). And those who experienced suffering for other reasons were judged to be sinners as well.

No self-respecting rabbi would have stopped for this man, but Jesus did. Perhaps you think no one cares about you or your pain today. If we knew your secrets, we would reject you; if the world knew your problems, it would turn on you. But not Jesus. He initiated this miracle, as he will yours. He went to this man, as he will come to you. He stands ready to meet us where we need him most.

Scripture says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). To feel the touch of Jesus, seek his help.

Trust his heart

The invalid replied to Jesus’ question, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me” (v. 7). He wanted to be well but could not accomplish this on his own.

Notice how little he asked of Jesus. He believed that he would be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the spring stirred its waters. And so, he wanted the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, simply to carry him a few feet into the water. Jesus stood ready to heal his body, and the man instead asked him to help him get wet.

Are we so different? Do you come to worship to hear a “good sermon” and music, or to meet the Lord of the universe? Am I speaking these words to give you my wisdom or God’s? To explain the text or lead you to the One who inspired it and wants to repeat its miraculous power in our lives today?

We might object that the crippled man didn’t know who Jesus really was. True, and this ignorance is his defense. But we have no such argument. When we give our need to Jesus, we must trust his heart and expect his best. For that is what he waits to give to us.

Our Lord said to the invalid, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (v. 8). He called the man to do something he had not done for thirty-eight years. He did not carry the man to the water—he healed him so he could walk there himself. He did not offer him a temporary cure or help for the symptoms of his disease—he worked a miracle which would banish this disease from his life forever. He told him to pick up his “mat,” the light pallet on which he had begged for so long.

And he told the invalid to “walk.” He has not moved the muscles of his legs for thirty-eight years. Even if a physician were to cure the cause of his paralysis, perhaps a rupture in the spine or nerves, his muscles would be so atrophied that years of physical rehabilitation would be required by him. But not by Jesus. He did for the man far more than the man asked of him.

Now the divine-human partnership emerges. Jesus healed the man, but the invalid had to get up with the power given him by God. Jesus restored his body but told him to carry his own mat. Jesus cured his limbs but required the man to use them himself. And when he did, “At once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (v. 9).

When we trust our problem into Jesus’ hands, we must always expect the best from him. He will always do as we ask, or something better. We often misunderstand his ways and feel that he will not hear or help us. But he is giving us what is best for us, whether we know it at the moment or not.

Many years ago, I was using a razor blade to scrape paint from a window one Saturday morning when one of our small boys happened by. Attracted by the shiny “toy” in my hand, he wanted to play with it and was not happy that I wouldn’t give him what he asked. But of course, no amount of begging or anger would have persuaded me to give him what he wanted.

When we stand with our Father in glory, we’ll see how many times he met our needs and answered our prayers with what we asked. And how often he gave us even more.

Where do you need his touch? Seek his help, then trust his heart.

Wait for his best

Let’s consider one last fact. This man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, likely lying beside this pool for all this time. Jesus had been coming to Jerusalem since he was twelve and was now in his early thirties. Thus, there had been two decades when the Son of God probably passed by this man in his infirmity.

Why did Jesus wait so long to heal this man? Why now?

Here we learn that God’s timing is seldom our own. He tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). We see the parade through a hole in the fence; he sees it from the grandstand. He has a plan we cannot fathom which is relevant to the entire universe for all of eternity. And he works this plan in ways that are best, though we seldom understand that fact at the time.

When Joseph was languishing in Potiphar’s prison, he could not know that God was orchestrating events that would bring him into Pharaoh’s palace. When Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, he could not know that God would send an earthquake that would lead to the jailer’s conversion. When John was exiled on Patmos, he could not know that the risen Christ would meet him there and give him the Revelation.

Where does it seem to you that Jesus is passing you by? That he knows your need but has not met it? That his timing is not yours?

The simple fact of Scripture and providence is that God does what we ask or whatever is best. And when his timing is not ours, there are reasons we cannot understand but can trust.


What infirmity has found you? Would you seek Jesus’ help, trust his heart, and wait on his timing?

Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of his generation, but he was no stranger to pain. He battled a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease as well as rheumatism and neuritis. And he suffered from depression for many years.

Here was his response: “All our infirmities, whatever they are, are just opportunities for God to display his gracious work in us.”

It’s been stated, “The sun never quits shining. Sometimes, clouds just get in the way.”

What clouds would you trust to the Son today?

The Formula for Eternal Significance

Topical Scripture: Luke 19:1–10

It’s been a confusing week in the news.

Prince Harry and Meghan have been negotiating with the Queen of England to resolve their status as members of the royal family but not. They will give up their royal titles and duties and repay the funds used to refurbish their UK home, but they can maintain their private patronages and associations.

President Trump signed an historic trade agreement with China on Wednesday, then the Senate ratified his revised North American trade agreement on Thursday; in between the two events, the House delivered formal impeachment articles against him.

The manager and general manager of the Houston Astros have been penalized for their role in the sign-stealing scandal, but the team retained its World Series title. The manager of the Boston Red Sox was fired for his role in the same scandal, but his team retained its World Series title. Now the Los Angeles City Council will vote on a resolution urging baseball to award both championships to the Dodgers, who lost to the two teams.

We live in a confusing, performance-driven culture based on grades. Jesus offers us a simplified, purpose-driven life based on grace.

This season, as we walk from Christmas to Easter, we’re focusing on the uniqueness of Jesus. Last week we discussed the uniqueness of his power. If he could heal a leper with just a touch and a centurion’s servant with just a word, his power is greater than our needs, whatever they might be.

Today we’ll focus on the uniqueness of his grace. Despite what the world thinks of us, despite what we have won and what we have lost, Jesus focuses not on what we have done or what we have but on what he can do with us. No matter your past burdens or your present problems, God has a future in mind for you that is greater than your greatest dream.

We’ll meet a man whose story proves that fact, then we’ll decide whether to make his story our own.

“He was a chief tax collector”

Our text begins: “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:1–2a). His name means “pure one,” which was tragically ironic until Jesus made it true.

What did our Lord see in this man?

It was certainly not what he had done: “He was a chief tax collector” (v. 2b). In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were the most hated people in any town, for two reasons.

First, they were traitors. They were Jews collecting money for the hated Romans. If you’re a Jew living in Poland when the Nazis capture your town and the next week your neighbor comes knocking, collecting taxes for the new government, you’d be no more outraged than the people of Jericho were with Zacchaeus.

Second, they were corrupt. Rome charged a certain amount per person in taxes, then allowed the tax collectors to take anything above that they wanted for themselves. Zacchaeus could stop you on the road and charge you tax for the road. He could tax you for your cart and each wheel on it, for the animal drawing the cart, and for the bags it carried. And Roman soldiers stood guard to protect him and enforce his greed.

As a result, people like Zacchaeus were the social lepers of their day. They were grouped with murderers and robbers in the mind of the public. They were barred from the Jewish synagogue. A Roman writer says with amazement that he once saw a monument to an honest tax collector.

Yet, Jesus chose him.

It was not for what he had, either. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “was rich” (v. 2c). He had grown wealthy through his corruption. In fact, some scholars believe that he was likely the wealthiest man in his city of one hundred thousand people. Given its size and location, this was one of the greatest taxation centers in the entire region of the Empire.

This is how we know he was abusing the system. If he had merely collected what Rome asked, he would have been provided for, but he would not have become rich. His extreme wealth shows the level of his corruption at the sacrifice of his fellow Jews.

Later on, Zacchaeus gives half of his belongings to the poor and has enough left over to repay the people of Jericho four times what he had taken from them. He was extraordinarily rich.

But Jesus didn’t choose him for his wealth.

“I must stay at your house today”

Our Lord focused not on what Zacchaeus had done or what he had, but on what he could be.

The story continues: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature” (v. 3). He was so hated by the people that they would not let him through. And he was so short that he could not see over them.

So “he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (v. 4). This is a wide-open tree with a short trunk and low branches. It is easily climbed. It would become associated with Zacchaeus from his day to ours.

What came next must have shocked Zacchaeus as much as it did the rest of the crowd: “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today'” (v. 5).

Note three facts.

First, Jesus “looked up.” In such a crowd, others would have been looking down and around, but Jesus “looked up.” He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go out looking for the one.

Is he looking up at you today?

Second, he called Zacchaeus by name. We have no evidence that the two had ever met. But just as God called Moses by name at the burning bush, and Samuel by name as a boy, and Saul by name on the road to Damascus, he calls this notorious sinner by name.

Did you know that he knows your name?

Third, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. In fact, he says, he “must” stay at his house that day. He did not wait for Zacchaeus to come to him—he came to this man. To this notorious, hated man, Public Enemy #1 in his city. Imagine the most ungodly, hated, despised person in your town, then imagine Jesus inviting himself over.

Does he want to go to your home today?

“Today salvation has come to this house”

Zacchaeus did not wait: “He hurried and came down and received him joyfully” (v. 6). Unsurprisingly, when the crowd saw this, “they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner'” (v. 7).

Now watch what happens: “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor” (v. 8a). He calls Jesus his “Lord,” his Master. Then he proves his witness by his works, giving half of what he has to the poor in his city. This is present tense, indicating an action he is performing right now, perhaps through his servants.

Even more astoundingly, he adds, “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8b). Jewish law required that a man caught stealing return what he stole four- or five-fold (Exodus 22:1). But, if the thief admitted his crime voluntarily, he was required only to return what he had stolen plus one-fifth (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7).

Zacchaeus gave back far more than he was required to give. But he has experienced the uniqueness of Jesus’ grace, and he must give grace to others in response.

Jesus responded: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vv. 9–10). Now he calls us to give the world what he has given to us.


Jesus is looking at you now and calling your name. He wants to come home with you and make your home his own.

If he could forgive Zacchaeus, he can forgive you. If he could use Zacchaeus, he can use you. What the crowd says about you doesn’t matter. What the Christ says about you is the truth.

Our problem is that we measure ourselves by what we think we can do for Jesus. And we all know our failures, our faults, our frailties. We all know how little we can actually do for the God of the universe.

The question is not, what can you do for Jesus? The question is, what can Jesus do with you?

Is Jesus in charge of every dimension of your life? Is he in charge of the money you keep as well as the money you spend and donate? Is he in charge of your time in private as well as public? Is he in charge of your marriage and family, every moment of the day? Is he in charge of your weaknesses as well as your strengths?

He can do so much more with us than we can do for him. To limit to our finite capacities the One who stilled the storm, healed the leper, and raised the dead, is the sin of self-reliance. To be used by the Son of God to change our Jericho is the result of self-surrender.

Whatever it takes, whatever he asks, whatever the cost—that’s the formula for eternal significance.

Tony Evans is right: “God will meet you where you are in order to take you where he wants you to go.”

Is Jesus calling your name today?