Bible study: what does the Christian concept of “grace” mean?

A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep who had no hope
A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep, who had no hope

My friend Wessel sent me this sermon a few days ago because I was looking for a good sermon on grace. Some of my friends pitched in with sermons, but this one from a South African church was BY FAR the best. I’ve listened to it 3 times already. The speaker sounds exactly like one of best friends from university, Andrew, who is from South Africa.

I’m testing out a new file download service, so I hope this works… here is the MP3 file. (7 megabytes, 30 minutes)

Let me know if you can’t download that.

The text of the sermon is Genesis 48:1-20:

1 Some time later Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him.

When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.

Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me

and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’

“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine.

Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers.

As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).

When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, “Who are these?”

“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph said to his father.

Then Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”

10 Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.

11 Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.”

12 Then Joseph removed them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground.

13 And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him.

14 But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger,and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.

15 Then he blessed Joseph and said,

“May the God before whom my fathers
    Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
    all my life to this day,

16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
    —may he bless these boys.
May they be called by my name
    and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
and may they increase greatly
    on the earth.”

17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head.

18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”

19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

20 He blessed them that day and said,

“In your[c] name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
    ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”

So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

So, in this story, God continues his tradition of choosing the lowly people in the world instead of the people who are seen as “better”. God does this in many cases, because he has a big heart for people who are born in a bad position. Normally in the world, people always choose what they think is best for them. They choose the prettiest girl. They choose the most tallest man. Those who need a little extra help or care are passed over. God sometimes does the complete opposite of this. Instead of choosing the obvious “best person”, he chooses a much lower person, and he lifts them up to do great things.

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,

29 so that no one may boast before him.

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

The speaker in the sermon explains the idea of grace by talking about sheep and shepherds. He explains that unlike clever homing pigeons, sheep are prone to wandering off and they aren’t able to find their way home. Sometimes, they get lost, and sometimes they even wander into danger. A bad shepherd would just say that he only wanted to have the best sheep – the smartest ones or the richest ones or the best looking ones or the most popular ones. But a good shepherd is sorry for the sheep that needs the most help, and is the most lost, and in the most danger. God is like a good shepherd. God sends his Son to die to atone for the sins of the bad sheep in this world, even when they didn’t deserve it. (John 3:16-17) That’s grace. But he also arranges the world in a way that bad sheep have an opportunity to reach out and find him. (Acts 17:24-27) That’s grace, too.

In my own life, I have often found myself being excluded or discounted by people, usually because of my skin color or because of my early childhood poverty or because I just struggle to understand what I’m expected to say and to do. But a funny thing often happens. Right when I am feeling the worst about being excluded, God comes along and gives me something special to do, that makes me forget about being excluded. And that’s been my experience of grace, ever since I was little and even to this day. The honor of being allowed to participate in God’s plan makes me forget what it feels like to be excluded. The very best things I’ve achieved in my life are the times where God showed me someone who started out life in a terrible situation (usually because of the selfish decisions of their irresponsible parents) and then I participated in God’s plan to lead them out of the mess they started out from.

I think one of the biggest reasons why some Christians stick with Christianity through thick and thin is that they have this experience of grace. This experience of grace means that no matter what, that sheep is going to loyal to that shepherd who chose him when he was at his lowest and most vulnerable. The first part of the choosing is obviously Jesus dying on the cross to atone for your rebellion. But after that, God carefully reveals himself to the sheep. And then there is the guidance that helps the sheep to avoid destroying himself with sin. If the sheep makes mistakes, the good shepherd has already laid down his life to pay for them. This is a lot of effort being put into this rescue operation. It’s difficult for people who have never experienced grace to realize how real and life-transforming it is. For those who have not experienced it, I really recommend that you pray to God, in the name of Jesus, and ask him to give you grace.

There are still things in my life where God has decided that he is not going to fix it. And, strangely enough, that doesn’t make me disloyal to him at all. Why not? Well, you have to read the Bible and understand that Jesus was not spared from suffering or death in his loyal obedience to God. He wasn’t given everything he wanted to feel happy all the time. When you understand that this is the character of your shepherd, then it’s much easier for you to put up with the things you lack, too.

3 thoughts on “Bible study: what does the Christian concept of “grace” mean?”

  1. Grace becomes the mechanism that keeps us sinners from giving up.

    When we give in to a sin we can move on and strive to do better in the future.

    It is not a license to sin as those that dislike security of the believer state, but freedom from the damnation of hell and worry that if we sin and die that moment that we will miss out on being with God

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s