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) [FIXED!]

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.

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

  1. I am unable to download the MP3. When I click on the link, a message comes up that says, “File Deleted From Server.” Is there another way to download it? I was looking forward to hearing it.

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  2. I didn’t try to listen to the sermon, but based on the synopsis here it sounds like a good one. I love the idea of the shepherd going after the one sheep who is always wandering off and getting himself into trouble.

    I don’t know if it is just the company I keep, but most of my friends and I can relate to being the one picked on and excluded growing up. Not many people I encounter describe being the popular kid. Maybe loneliness and feeling left out is the real normal.

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  3. One of the best testimonies of grace (God showing undeserved favor to someone completely undeserving) I have heard in the last ten years is from one of the top African evangelists, Stephen Lungu.

    Short synopsis: abandoned by his mother, rejected by his extended family, living a life of abject poverty, Zimbabwean Stephen Lungu turned his life to terror and to crime, including forming the fearsome gang, “The Black Shadows.” They were known for raping, killing, boozing, etc. and Stephen himself had taken lives. In planning to fire bomb an evangelistic tent meeting and kill all survivors, Stephen was curious enough to venture inside to see what was going on …

    Audio here: http://media.parkstreet.org/audio/2008-11-02-am.mp3 (Park Street Church, Boston, MA; Nov. 2 2008 [Bicentennial Evangelistic Series])

    The best transcription/reduction with appropriate details I have found here (dated 2007): https://www.gordonmoyes.com/2007/06/25/convert-the-bomb-throwers/

    (copy-pasted and enlarged for your readers)

    Stephen Lungu (b. 1942) began life as the oldest son of a teenage mother, who was married off to a much older man by her parents while living in a black township near Salisbury, Zimbabwe. The marriage was violent and after many attempts, Stephen’s mother eventually took the children and ran away from his father. Worse was to come. Stephen was three years old when his mother abandoned him as well. She had taken Stephen and his younger brother and sister to the local market, where she told Stephen to watch them while she went to the toilet. She did not return. The children went to an orphanage before being reluctantly taken in by their aunts, who made no secret of their fury at being lumbered with them. Times were tough and they had their own children to feed. Why should they look after their sister’s children if she wouldn’t?

    Years later Stephen’s father returned and took the boys to Malawi where he had re-married. Stephen’s new step-mother hated him. At age 10, he crossed two countries on his own to run back to his aunt in Zimbabwe. His aunt responded by beating him and forcing him to sleep in the chicken coop.

    By the age of 11 Stephen decided to run away from her, preferring life on the streets. He slept under a bridge with other homeless fellows. He searched for food in the garbage bins of rich white suburbs, competing for scraps with animals on the streets. Once, when the bins were empty and he was hungry, he went back to his aunt’s to beg. By co-incidence, his mother was there, looking comfortable and well-fed. In a rage of rejection, Stephen threw his knife at her and ran into the forest.

    Depression set in, and a few days later he knotted a rope and attempted suicide. He failed, but the resulting two weeks in hospital were the best he had ever been treated in his life. Stephen planned to commit crime so he could be locked up, and have others feed and clothe him in prison till he died. Then life wouldn’t be so difficult, so he thought.

    Stephen was by now 14 years old, with no friends and no conceivable future. He formed ‘The Black Shadows’, a gang of other homeless boys who would rob and stab men, and rape women. He was ripe for the picking and, very soon, a group of Communist terrorists took him under its wing. Stephen hated his family, the Government of Zimbabwe and God. He blamed his parents for having brought him into the world, the Government for allowing inequality between his kind and the whites, and God for abandoning him.

    Those ill feelings brewed in him throughout his younger years. Eventually he became quite active as a Marxist terrorist against the Government of what was then Southern Rhodesia. Eventually he became a gang leader, wreaking havoc on many fellow citizens. He was very useful with AK-47s and other types of guns. [He even noted his first stabbing in his book with some detail.] He considered that the law was beneath him. He had no compunction in stealing, killing or destroying to get anything that pleased him. Nothing brought him more joy than hurting or killing people who believed in God.

    During one particular incident, he and a gang were armed with home-made bombs and intended to blow up a bank. On the way they came upon a large gospel tent meeting attended by thousands of people. He and his fellow gang members thought it a perfect opportunity to rid the world of a group of no-good Christians. Rather than blow up an unfeeling concrete bank they thought they would make their point by killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of white people. They planned to throw their petrol bombs inside the tent and shoot or stab anyone who tried to escape. [He recalled that this would make quite a name for them; it would be glorious!]

    “Quickly I worked out a simple plan and divided my twelve friends into pairs. I would get them to surround the tent. No one would suspect the lads wandering about at the entrance.” Stephen writes in his autobiography ‘Out of the Black Shadows’. “At 7pm I will whistle and everybody throw their bombs and stones into the tent entrance. I want everyone inside that tent to die”. [Stephen was curious what was going on inside that tent.]

    However, God had different plans. As it was still five minutes to seven, Stephen thought he would go in and listen to the preacher he was about to kill. During that time, a beautiful South African girl stood to give her testimony. She got Stephen’s attention. “Never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought good-looking women had anything to do with Christianity. Surely old grannies or ugly girls with flat noses were Christians”. She talked about Jesus and how his love transformed everything. “It was so obviously real that it moved me deeply, and I yearned for it” Stephen recalls. The initial five minutes drew out.

    The evangelist stood and stared for a while before thundering “Romans 6:23 says “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. And 2 Corinthians 8:9 says “ For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty may become rich.”

    He then stood silent, staring at the crowd for several minutes. He then burst into tears, saying that he was crying because the Holy Spirit had told him that many people there tonight may die without Christ. He then went on to talk about sin, and pointed his finger at the crowd. Stephen felt that finger aiming right at him, so he began to duck in his seat. He pulled his knife on the gang member next to him, saying “How dare you tell this man my sins?”. The gang member pulled his knife, exclaiming “why did you tell him my sins?”.

    The preacher then talked about Jesus, who had been poor and powerless, and from an oppressed race, like us. He ’d had no money or home, and nobody really understood him. But he had tremendous power, knew the secret of life and healed the sick. He was murdered by those he came to save, and because of his death, he made peace with God for us.

    This Jesus was a man Stephen could identify with. Uninvited and sobbing uncontrollably, he walked to the front and grabbed hold of the preacher’s feet. The preacher continued to preach, undistracted. However, at the close of the meeting, stones and petrol bombs started a panic as the tent was set on fire. Another gang had attacked the tent Stephen had planned to!

    The crowd inside fled into a riot outside, and many did die. This included three members of Stephen’s gang; one was the very man Stephen had sat next to and threatened. Inside the tent was an oasis of calm. The preacher started talking to the young man still grabbing his feet. Stephen poured out his life story, asking if this Jesus could forgive all that. Again the preacher cried, then shared a story. Years earlier, a fourteen year old girl had become pregnant, and the father abandoned her. Nine months later, the girl gave birth. Two weeks later she took the baby and stuffed it in the toilet. A lady heard the cries and saved him. That child became the preacher. He shared Psalm 27:10 “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up”. These were words that changed Stephen’s life.

    Stephen was convicted of his sins and was gloriously converted at the very meeting he planned to bomb. He found salvation and peace in Christ Jesus, and a passion was instilled in him to bring hope to others like him who had no hope. He started the very next day. Waking underneath the bridge, he thought he would confess his sins to the police, and accept whatever punishment was coming. He shared his testimony on the bus on the way, and led a small group of passengers to Christ on the footpath. Three of these became life-long ministers! At the police station, his confession brought further amazement, and hours of questioning. Finally one officer said “Well Stephen, if your Jesus has forgiven you, we forgive you also”. The police commissioner even gave him money for a Bible!

    In 1965 Stephen began to share his amazing testimony and preach the Word of God with the Dorothea Mission throughout Africa. He was taken in hand by a Presbyterian Protestant missionary and became ‘civilised’. [This was his mentor.]

    It was unknown to me when I introduced Stephen in the Parliamentary Theatrette but I knew the man who cared for him for several years. Patrick Johnstone taught him the basics of the Christian faith, how to speak English, and how to read and write. He brought Stephen up in his family. Eventually Stephen married a faithful and loving wife, Rachel, with whom he had children.

    In 1982 Stephen met Michael Cassidy, another friend of mine, who founded African Enterprise to bring the Gospel in word and deed to many nations in Africa. Michael and the prayer ministry he founded were largely responsible for the peaceful transition of government in South Africa.

    Stephen was invited to join African Enterprise in Zimbabwe, and eventually became team leader. Following the retirement of his mentor, Michael Cassidy, today Stephen serves as the international team leader of African Enterprise. He travels the world preaching, literally, to millions of people a year about racial reconciliation, forgiveness and God’s amazing grace.

    Last month I had the joy of hosting Pastor Stephen Lungu from African Enterprise when he spoke at one of my monthly ‘Christian Focus on Society’ meetings held in the New South Wales Parliamentary Theatrette. Stephen is one of the most influential evangelists in the world today. He speaks to thousands of people across the globe on a regular basis. I use this forum to briefly shed some light on some of his struggles and magnificent victories, and to pay homage to this great man of God.

    Stephen’s visit was organised through Michael Woodall, Australian director of African Enterprise. Michael is also Chief Operating Officer of African Enterprises world-wide. African Enterprise in Australia aims to spread the word of the good work being done across nine countries, promote volunteerism and raise funds. Michael had this to say about his times with Stephen.

    “Travelling with Stephen is an uplifting experience. Whenever he preaches he throws out a challenge to his listeners to turn around and follow Jesus. He warms to young people and they respond. He has a great compassion for those whose lives have gone adrift or who are in prison and goes out of his way to minister to them. Inmates can identify with a former gang leader”.

    “In this recent trip Stephen has spoken to many churches in Sydney, Newcastle and Melbourne. Among his themes was the need for inner healing from past hurts, which only Christ can bring. There were special meetings in schools and at parliament in both NSW and Canberra. It has been a very full program, which would have made many another person wilt, but Stephen has not only taken it in his stride but thrived on it. There is a buzz of excitement whenever he speaks and as a result of his visit there are more than forty people who have made first time commitments and many more times that who have recommitted their lives to Christ or who have brought their hurt and pain before the Lord.”

    More information on Stephen, Michael and this remarkable organisation can be found at http://www.africanenterprise.com.au.

    There are three more stories that need to be told that exhibit the faithful grace of God so evident in Stephen’s life. In Salisbury, Zimbabewe in 1976, Stephen had finished the last of six open-air meetings for the day, and gave one last invitation for people to come for prayer. A thin elderly lady smelling of alcohol came forward, and an exhausted Stephen came to pray for her. She jumped up and down, claiming she was healed and all her pain was gone. Then she accepted Christ. Then she told Stephen that she was her mother!

    It had been twenty years since he had thrown the knife at her, and now the Lord had them both together again. In 1989, Stephen was also re-united with his father, who also accepted the Lord. He lived with Stephen and his wife Rachel until his death in 1997, aged 104.

    It was on one preaching visit to South Africa in 1992 that Stephen met two excited elderly ladies. As he gave his testimony of his conversion in Zimbabwe, their excitement distracted the meeting, and Stephen left the pulpit to see what the fuss was. They showed him a page in their Bible with a date and a simple prayer written thirty years earlier. It said “14 May 1962. Lord Jesus, will you save one gang leader tonight?” From their homes in South Africa, they had been praying for Dorothea Mission’s meetings in Highfield, Zimbabwe, and Stephen was their answer. May 14 was the exact day of his conversion.

    (You can find the extended story in Lungu’s book “Out of the Black Shadows” — preview available on Google Books: https://www.google.com/search?tbm=bks&q=out+of+the+black+shadows )

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