Dr. John D. Hannah
12/5/79 DTS Chapel
"Comfort in Troubled Times"
Why don't we begin by reflecting upon prayer before we reflect the Word: we appreciate, our Father, thy mercies to us and we can say with the writer of Thy word, that great is Thy faithfulness, and that new every morning is Thy good hand upon us. And now Father as we come to Thy word, we do not come to it as a mere book, but with the understanding that that book is the Word of God, that it is the mind and the will of God communicated to us in ways and means that our minds are capable of understanding. And for that reason we ask for understanding, and a heart that wants to believe and there upon act, for Jesus' sake. [Amen.]
Ann Landers, the famous newspaper counselor, receives apparently some ten thousand letters every month. Nearly all those letters come from people that are in trouble. They once asked Ann what is the reoccurring theme of all the letters that she receives, and she said that the dominating theme in the correspondence that she receives, and I so eagerly await to read each evening, is the theme of fear. And she says this: "People are afraid of losing their health, their wealth, their loved ones. People are afraid of life itself."
I read the report recently of an internist who was speaking at a roundtable session concerning chronically ill patients. It was his estimation that 90% of the chronically ill are not ill because of a cough, or chest pains, or hyper acidity, but it's fear. And it was his estimation that 90% of the chronically ill are ill for psychosomatic reasons.
To bring it perhaps down to where you can relate to it, one day at Southern Methodist University, not long ago, I observed a sign in the midst of final exams. And that sign was etched somewhat nervously upon the blackboard by a fleeting student, and the sign said this, during the final exams last semester, "We have nothing to fear but F itself."
Part of being human is our own sense of inadequacy. You have it, and I have it. And we express our fears through various operandi. We hedge our fears and our wonders in our unbelief. We wonder if God really is a God of care and comfort who both uniquely understands our particular circumstances, and then is uniquely capable of bringing a word of peace and comfort to our hearts. We concern ourselves for our families, and the exigencies that are common to everyone of us, who are living in a family environment, our wife, our children. We are concerned about our academics, so whether you sit on one side of the lectern and we stand upon the other, all of us fear, that at times we will not do as we should, we will not labor in the study as we ought. And we wonder sometimes for the blessing of God. We wonder in the midst of the rush of worry, if God can speak peace and comfort and tranquility to our heart.
As I listen to the introduction, I heard the theme of fear, and unrest, and uncertainty. As a student of history, I have always found that I do not quite know its meaning, but I have always understood that difficulty of circumstance is relative to the amount of talk about the advents of Jesus Christ. The more we are in turmoil, the more we tend to think about such gracious doctrines as the advent of our Lord.
The disciples are perhaps classic illustrations of fears and frustrations, as recorded in John chapter 18. The setting for this little passage, as you know, is what has been described by the writer in John chapters 13 through 17, which we commonly call the Upper Room Discourse, if there was ever an occasion for the disciples to be frustrated and fearful, it was that night. The writer of Matthew's gospel tells us that the disciples were frustrated and prostrated in fear. Our Lord told them certain eschatalogical benefits that would be theirs, both near and far. He told them in the Upper Room Discourse that he was going away, and that he would send the Spirit of God to be their helper. And the event of that evening came crashing down upon them. He told them that he was coming again. And that where he would be, there they would be also. And yet when he discontinued his gracious words,
and walked out into that dark night, dark and crisp, cool, the disciples were afraid and frustrated as the last few hours of our Lord's earthly life was coming to a conclusion. They were afraid. They were fearful. And the Lord attempted to comfort them with words and to calm their fears.
And what our Lord does in the little passage that is before us, verses 1 to 11 of John 18, is that he turns from words, even prayer, and he turns to action to demonstrate to those frustrated fearful anxious disciples that He was a God of compassion and care. For if this little passage teaches me anything, it teaches me that our Lord Jesus Christ is a God of infinite compassion, selflessness, and altruism. For if there were ever a time that our Lord should be caring about himself, it was in the last night, the night of his arrest, when he was to be carried off to his captives.
And yet as I search through this passage, the reoccurring theme is the majesty and graciousness and the wonder of God, and his compassion for his disciples. I really think that we ofttimes neglect the gospels, thinking that the meaning of the gospel is inherent only in the historical narrative, and that if we understand the basic historical facts that are being portrayed on the page, that we have understood the gospel. Yet it is my growing conclusion that that historical narrative is only vehicle, wherein the writers of the gospel stories have couched deep religious truths that the church needed in the ongoing of the gospel message. If only you obtain from this story [is] the arrest of Christ and the rashness of Peter, you have missed its point. The point of verses 1 to 11, I think, is simply this, that in the midst of chaos, the God of love comes to His children with love and compassion and protection. It seems that the reoccurring motif is not the fact that our Lord is going to be arrested, in fact, he allows himself to be arrested. But the motif of the story is that in his arrest, he is attempting to assure and insure the protection and the comfort and the care of his distraught loved ones. And that is the message that the Spirit of God wants to convey to the first century church, and to convey to the twentieth century church. We have a God, who in the midst of your chaos and mine, who is a God of love. Who comes to us for our protection and for our safekeeping. He is deeply interested and born up with our sorrows and anxieties and frustrations.
Look at the story: the setting is in verse 1. The betrayal is in verses 2 and 3. An inquiry in verse 4. Then Peter's very precipitous reaction in verse 10. The setting: when Jesus has spoken these words, and I take it particularly the prayer that he has uttered in John 17, but you can lengthen that to the entire Upper Room Discourse. They are now preparing to leave the Upper Room. And Jesus has been giving them words of comfort, and yet those words of comfort seemingly have not broken through the hard encrustment of their fears. And now Jesus is going to turn from words to works, and demonstrate that compassion. And when Jesus has spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the ravine of the Kitram, he went east of the city of Jerusalem, over the winter brook that flowed in the winter time. And John does not tell us, but Matthew will allude to, that he went to the Mount of Olives. And on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, there was a garden, that apparently was not there when John is doing the writing, but there was an orchard there--John uses the word orchard, Matthew uses the word garden--but apparently there was a garden there. And our Lord retired with his disciples into the garden. Notice verse 1: into which he himself entered and his disciples. He went there because he had an appointment. This text will tell us that Jesus knew all things that were going to happen to him, and yet he left the Upper Room, took his disciples, the eleven of them, for Judas had already departed, and went across the winter brook of the Kitram into a garden, there to meet his accusers.
The betrayal in verse 2. And what I want to show you in this text is the majesty and the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Events are not sneaking up on him, but the event that is foremost in his mind in the midst of coming crisis is what is going to happen to the eleven. Now Judas also who was about to betray him, knew the place, apparently they had retired there very often, and Jesus may have very well have resided in a small lean-to or home-type situation in the garden, and Judas knew it. Judas knew exactly where Jesus would be, that evening, because the text says, verse 2, Jesus often met there with his disciples. And this trusted intimate associate would know the habit patterns of our Lord Jesus. Judas then, having received the Roman cohort and the officers of the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there. It's an interesting story, full of irony, full of amazement.
A Roman cohort was a military elitist detachment of about 600 troops. Normally a cohort would be that large, but John is not saying that it was that large. It could be that it was a mandible which was 200 troops. But certainly in Acts 23:23, the group that arrested Paul had sought his protection was numbered 480. So it is possible that John meant to say that there were 600 elitist Roman troops that came across the valley into this little garden. But at any rate, no matter how you interpret the phrase in light of history, apparently a large group of elitist Roman soldiers. Herod had rebuilt the Antonia, and during the festive week of Passover, the Roman soldiers would lodge in the Antonia fearing an insurrection. It was a very tense week. And so a large group of Roman soldiers, elite Roman soldiers.
And officers of the chief priests. They're distinguished from the Pharisees because I think John is trying to say they are largely Sadducees. But also, officers, temple guards came as well, chief priests and Pharisees, and they came there, and they came loaded, prepared to arrest one man. Now in the Roman mind, this one man is a political usurper who is going to attempt to topple the entire empire, so it's not a ludicrous action. Now they think he is there, but his friends are too, and this may touch off a rebellion that they need to squelch quickly. So over that little valley they come. A large body, pheasant military geniuses at the height of Roman greatness. And they came with, notice: lanterns, and torches, weapons. They came apparently thinking that in that crisp cool moonlit night, that that man would try to hide, and they would have to catch him in the shadows. And they came with their weapons, a large Greek word that means probably swords, broad swords, cudgels, and clubs.
And they came to get that one person, Jesus knows it, the text says it. But what is on Jesus' mind is not his circumstances. But it's [on] his beloved ones. What's going to happen to those frail believers, if I'm taken? That's the question. Notice, Jesus therefore knowing all these things that were coming upon him went forth. Now if this were me, I would retreat into a dark shadow and say, "Oh God, have mercy on my soul." But why does Jesus go forth? The point is not the humorousness of the imagery. But why does Jesus go forth, to meet that large body of Roman soldiers, and temple guards, and the Pharisees? And I think the answer is that he wanted to draw attention to himself. And then drawing attention to himself, he wanted the attention of the men that he loved.
Notice, and Jesus went forth and said to them, "Whom are you seeking?" Now Jesus knows who they're seeking. Jesus is not asking for fundamental information. He is declaring to them that he is the one that they are seeking. Don't confuse me with anybody. So that they might know that he is there, he says the only question that can communicate to their minds, and that is, you're coming with torches and lamps to find the light of the world, and here I am. Who are you seeking? And they have no perception of him beyond his humanity, and they simply say, Jesus the Nazarene. And he said to them, "I am." A word of deity. They're seeking a man. He says I am, the eternally existent one is right here. And what do they do? With an expression of his deity, they tumbled back to the ground. Can you imagine a Roman soldier writing home, and saying, I went over the Kitram today to get this soughtafter, and we all fell down. Now there are some old commentators who would say that they fell down and were gagging for breath, and Jesus let them up, but that's not the point. The point is that whatever group of elitist soldiers there were, and I'm certain that they knew what they were doing, that with the words of the expression of our Lord's sovereign deity, they lurched back and fall to the ground. It's not a case of one guy, when Jesus coming out of the shadow, he says "gasp!", and he falls over like a domino, and the other 600 follow. Strauss had that remarkable interpretation, but I think that it's beyond the context of the passage. But our Lord simply displays in a word the magnificence of his deity: he is sovereign, he is God, and they fall down. And then they all get back up again.
Then he says a remarkable question, notice, when therefore he said, "I am," they drew back and fell to the ground. And therefore he asked them, apparently they got back up, verse 7, whom do you seek? What a crazy question. He's already asked them, they've already said, they've got themselves off the ground, but what he is really doing is getting their attention, and he now has it. Now why is he going through all this maze to get their attention? He could have said, "I'm it, I'm it, take me away," but he wants to protect something that he dearly loves. And he wants the church to know that he loves it as his body. Notice, verse 7, and therefore he asked them, "Whom do you seek?" And they said, "Jesus the Nazarene." And Jesus answered for the third time, "I am". Jesus answered, "I told you I am," and notice verse 8, and "if therefore you seek me..." Now they're seeking him, and he has made himself abundantly plain to them. He said "I am" three times, he said "Whom do you seek", he's knocked them on the ground, he's let them stand back up, a remarkable event, and then when he has their attention deeply, he says, "If therefore you seek me, let these go their way." You know, Jesus knew that if those eleven men were incarcerated, they are frail, they would fade, and they would become shipwreck. It's the consensus of commentators that our Lord realizes how frail they are. And if you read the account with Peter in the same context, you'll understand what he was doing. To be arrested by these soldiers would be too much for their tender faith. And what Jesus is saying to you and I, and to his church, is that Jesus understands the frailty of our faith. And he will not tempt us above that which we are capable of bearing and enduring.
And in that night when he had more to concern himself with than with the disciples, all of this stuff takes place, that he might protect them. Notice verse 9, that the word might be fulfilled which he spake. When did he speak it? He spoke it in the prayer, so he's putting into life the words he just said, John 17:12. Of those whom thou hast given me, I lost not one. I protect my children. I don't bend them to the point of breaking so that they break. I stretch them, and he's stretching you. But he's stretching you in the arms of omnipotent deity. He cares. If there is any word in this passage is that God cares for you. Not one of us will be lost. Not one of us will be shipwreck. Not one of us will end our lives in discouragement. These men died later, they were beaten by the Sanhedrins later, but they couldn't take it now, so Jesus didn't let them get beaten.
Then Peter in his rashness jumps forward, and almost upsets them entire kilter of events. Simon Peter having a sword, a dagger, not a bread stick. There's no interpretation that could lead to a butter knife. Same words occur in Matthew 26, it means a dagger. Peter had a dagger. And he drew it, and apparently in his fit of emotion to protect the Lord, he just aims for the closest thing, and the closest thing to him apparently is the high priest's servant. And in his wild vertical swing, he severs the ear of a servant. Now what's that doing to the context. Right now, the soldiers are beginning to get upset, with the eleven. And John knows the name of that servant is Malchus, because John knows the high priest. John is going to go to the high priest's home and get entrance into the context. So he knows this man and he knows the high priest. And Jesus therefore said to Peter, put the sword into the sheath. You know what Jesus does, Matthew tells us, Jesus picks up that ear, and sticks it back on the servant. Why? Because he doesn't want any precipitous event to upset the protection of the eleven. In the midst of turmoil of the garden experience, our Lord displays his concern and compassion for his own. He confronts an army intent upon his demise, and yet not for his own interests, but for those of the beloved, he handles a tense situation by healing a servant to preserve the safety of the disciples. What our Lord is trying to teach his chosen ones, in the midst of disorder and chaos, the love of God protects and safeguards us in the will of God. He spreads, over you and I, a blanket of tender mercy, of care and concern and love.
Have you ever as a child, I used to take a penny on a bright day, and hold it over my eyes, have you ever done that? And if you take a penny and you put it over your eyeball real close, the sun disappears. And I think that we do that with our anxious cares. We hold them up so in front of our eyes, that we obscure an omniscient compassionate wonderful God. Our Lord is full of compassion, and he wants to prove himself to you as a wise majestic savior. In the midst of the chaos, the love of God protects and safeguards each of us in the will of God. He stills our mobbish fears and he heals our brokenness.
On June 25, 1865, a young Englishman, on the beach at Brighton, was wrestling in spiritual crisis with God. He had been to China, he had come home sick and paralyzed. Finally, on that beach, this truth came home to him, and he says in his journal, that it finally dawned upon him, thusly, that if we are obeying the Lord, the responsibility for our well being rests upon Him, and not upon ourselves. That's fundamental to understand, that God is more concerned about you, and about how you feel, and about how you prosper, and where you prosper, than you are yourself. Because He is omnipotent wisdom. That man was James Hudson Taylor, and when that truth dawned upon him, he founded the China Inland Mission. In the midst of our chaos, the God of love seeks to be your protection and your safety in the will of God. There is nothing of selfishness in that garden. All those little stories to get attention was to get attention on himself, and off the eleven. Our God is a God of love. Won't you believe it? I really think that we think that our sin is greater than the love of God. Forever purge that from your mind.
Let's pray. We give you praise, our Father, for thy greatness and thy mercies, and pray oh God, that you might be in reality, our comfort, our safeguard, our mercy seat, our wisdom, our strength. For we give you praise for Jesus' sake, Amen.