“God’s Great Promise” — John Ortberg
In baseball, when the guy who throws out the first pitch is also the guy who throws out the last pitch, it’s called a complete game. One pitcher from beginning to end. And nowadays, it hardly ever happens. A lot of you know about this. Through the first decade of this century, the record for the most consecutive complete games by any one pitcher is only four. Roy Halladay and a couple of other guys have done that, but only four games in a row through the whole decade has any one pitcher been able to throw.
Now, a hundred years ago is a different story. First decade of the 1900’s…if you don’t mind doing this, turn to the person next to you and take a guess. What do you think was the record? What the most number of consecutive complete games thrown in the first 10 years of the 1900’s? Okay? Turn to the person next to you. Just guess a number. Huh? What do you think?
Alright. Correct answer…again, first decade of the twenty-first century, four complete games, most anybody has thrown in a row. First 10 years of the 1900’s, a guy nobody here will ever have heard of, a pitcher named Jack Taylor threw 187 consecutive complete games.
In that day, when a manager handed a ball to the pitcher, the expectation was, “You start the game; you finish the game.” We live in a different day. We pay pitchers $20 million dollars a year, but we don’t expect any of them to finish! Finishing is so rare in baseball that they’ve come up with a new statistic. Now, if a pitcher goes six innings…not nine, not eight, not even seven, just six innings…gives up three earned runs or less, he gets credit for something called a quality start. Isn’t that wonderful? You don’t have to finish. Just give us a quality start, and then we’ll bring in a relief pitcher from the bullpen to relieve you so that you don’t have to finish.
The church where I used to serve in the Chicago area, the area where the teachers sat, for some reason it was called the bullpen. And I always wondered if a sermon was going badly, if somebody was going to come up sometime and say, “You know, I’m sorry. You just don’t have it today, so we’re going to bring in a relief pitcher to finish the message.” Sometimes, it sounded like a real good idea.
Or there might be other areas of life where that’d be a good thing to have. In your marriage, you’re having an argument. It’s just not going well. Your wife says to you, “I’m going to bring in the relief husband. He’ll just take care of the rest of the day.”
Of course, life doesn’t actually work that way. Life is not about quality starts. It’s about finishing well. Did you ever start something and quit, look back on it and wish you’d finished? Start working on a degree, but education is hard, so you bail out. Or take music lessons or learn how to dance or develop in some way, but it’s difficult, so you quit.
Or you volunteer someplace or you begin a new job, but it’s challenging. You’re swimming upstream, and so you decide to stop. You resolve to do something, get your body in shape, stick to a budget, but it’s hard, and it’s easier to just, you know, give up. Or you have a friendship and things get bumpy. You get married, things get difficult, and you bail. You look back on it, you think…Man, I wish I’d handled it differently.
There is good news. We are starting a series. It’s called…What’s So Great About the Gospel? And every week, we’re going to look at one great thought from each chapter in this little book of Philippians. And we’re going be encouraged by…What’s so great?
Scotty Scruggs and I were just thinking about that as a core concept. What’s so great…What is it that is so life-giving, energizing, wonderful about the good news God has given to us in Jesus? And today, it’s one single thought. And whatever else happens, when we all walk out of here, this thought is going to be cemented in our brains.
And it’s this. In the first chapter of Philippians…and I hope through this month, you’ll be reading through this little book on a regular basis. But at the beginning, Paul says to this little church he’s convinced, he’s persuaded of this, “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.”
And we’re all going to carry that with us, so let’s say that together out loud, and think about it as we say it. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.” And I want to spend what is left of this message going through that one statement. And it’s a real simple structure. We’re going to go through it phrase by phrase so that when we leave, we’re going to know one thing that is great about the gospel.
And I think the most important word in this sentence is the first word. Paul does not say, “I am convinced that you who started a good work in you will be faithful to complete it,” because you didn’t start anything.
Now, to the church at Philippi who got this letter, this is real clear. Paul never planned on going to Philippi. As you know, Jesus lived in Palestine in the Holy Land, and Paul began preaching there. And then he was in Asia Minor, and he was planning on going to a couple of different places in Asia, and he was blocked. His way was thwarted. It was quite mysterious. This story is in Acts 16.
And that had to be frustrating. Paul is a man of great drive, and he couldn’t go do what he wanted to do where he wanted to do it. And then at night, he has a vision of a man in Macedonia saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” The man is begging. And so Paul goes. H went to the city of Philippi, which is in Macedonia. Now, that is a strange place to go.
We’re told that on the Sabbath, Paul and his companions go to the river, and they’re looking for a place of prayer. Apparently, there were not even enough Jewish men in Philippi to constitute a synagogue. It took 10 of them. It was a very unlikely place to go, but God said, “Go.” That is why they went.
Paul begins to preach out in the open. And there is a woman named Lydia. She is a businesswoman. She is a Gentile. She is a Greek. Notice what it says in the book of Acts, “The Lord opened her heart.” Not she opened her heart, the Lord opened her heart. The Lord blocked Paul’s travel, the Lord called Paul some place, the Lord opens the heart of this Greek woman named Lydia to respond to Paul’s message. She is the first convert.
She says to Paul, “If you believe I’ve become a follower of Jesus, then you come to my household, and you stay there.” And they do. And this is the beginning of the church. Now, here is the rest of the story. Philippi is the first place where the gospel is preached in the whole continent of Europe. The name of Jesus had not yet been spoken. The good news of Jesus had not yet been proclaimed.
You think of the impact of Christianity on Europe for 2,000 years, and it starts with this man named Paul and this woman named Lydia who begins a church. No human being white-boarded that. Nobody planned it. Who did it? God did it. God was up to something in them, and God is up to something in you.
“He,” Paul begins. You did not start yourself. You did not make your body. You did not design your genes. You did not create your gifts. You did not convict yourself of sin. You did not draw you to God. “He.” What’s great about the gospel is…if you give your life to God, God is pitching.
What does He have? He has power. How much power? Read the Bible. He has enough power to create everything that exists, and you think about that. He has enough power to part the Red Sea so people can walk on dry land. He has enough power to bring water out of a rock so people can drink. He has enough power to turn water into wine so they can celebrate a wedding. He has enough power to calm the water when there is a storm. He has enough power to walk on the water when He wants to get to the boat. He has all the power that is needed.
He has enough power to change the heart of a Pharaoh. He has enough power to change the mind of a Nebuchadnezzar, to heal the skin of a leper, to close the mouth of Zachariah for nine months. He has enough power to deliver Israel from Egypt, to deliver David from Goliath, to deliver Elijah from Jezebel, to deliver Esther from Haman, to deliver three men from a fiery furnace, to deliver Daniel from a lion’s den, to deliver a little Baby in a manger from Herod.
He has enough power to honor His covenant, love His enemies, keep His promises. In Jesus, He had enough power to come all the way down to earth and take on a little body like yours and mind. And when they tried to kill Jesus, He had enough power to roll away the stone and raise Jesus from the grave. How much power does God have? God has all the power you need!
Now, this is another kind of church here. I would expect somebody to say amen! But, you know, at least smile and look happy, would you! Who is pitching? God is pitching. What does He have? He has power. How much power? All the power you need. Power to change your heart, power to resist temptation, power to speak the truth, power to love a difficult person, power to change a racist, power to endure suffering, power to just plain not give up.
Paul does not start, “You.” Paul starts, “He…”
And then the next phrase, “He who began.” Let’s say that one together, “He who began.” Paul doesn’t say, “He who finished already.” Paul doesn’t say, “He who worked fast because we get impatient.” Paul says, “He who began.”
What does that mean? That means you ain’t finished yet. That means you are a work in progress. That means you’re going to have problems. That means you do not get to know the end of the story yet. That means your heart is going to get broken. That means your world is going to get shattered. That means you will get things wrong. That means you will have to be patient. That means you will have to endure failure. That means you’ll have to wait.
That is hard because we do not like to wait. More than any people in the history of the world, we are not good waiters. We are in a hurry. We are in a horn-honking, microwaving, FedEx-ing, fast food eating, express-lane shopping hurry. The internet has sped up our lives exponentially, but now you just watch people get frustrated because it takes so many seconds for that little computer to boot up, and it drives them crazy.
The shortest unit of time, one researcher writes now, is what is called the honkosecond. You know what a honkosecond is? Honkosecond is that unit of time in between when the traffic light turns to green in front of you and the car behind you begins to honk. It’s a honkosecond, the shortest unit of time.
A woman’s car stalls in traffic. She doesn’t know what is going on. The driver behind her immediately lays on the horn. She walks back to his car, and says sweetly, “I don’t know what the matter is with my car, but if you’ll go look under my hood, I’ll stay here and honk your horn for you.”
We don’t like to wait. We do not like to wait. But there is something going on when He begins something. Isaiah says, “But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength.” If I can wait on God, which means if I can wait with patience, which means if I can wait and keep hoping, which means if I can wait and not give into despair, which means if I can wait and not give into sin, which means if I can wait and keep being faithful to God, if I can wait and bring joy to people around me, then God is doing something good inside me.
Because here is the secret of waiting…this is from a guy named Ben Patterson. I love this…when you’re waiting, who you become while you’re waiting is as important as what you’re waiting for. Who you become while you’re waiting matters as much as what you’re waiting for because when God is pitching, waiting time is never wasted time. “He who began a good work.”
Now, what’s so great about the gospel is…all God ever does is good work. The only kind of work God ever works is good work. This hearkens way back to creation. When God’s work there in Genesis, the second chapter, it says, “On the sixth day God finished all His work.”
But then the little adjective that is always used to describe what God is doing when it’s created. “And God spoke”…you know this…”And God spoke, and it was so, and God saw that it was good.” It’s good work. It’s all He does.
There is a verse in the book of Habakkuk. Some of us were at the leadership summit a week and a half ago, and Bill Hybels, in one of his talks, spoke about this verse, which is actually a prayer. “LORD,” the prophet says, “I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known.”
The prophet is saying, “God, I know You’ve done great things, and I’m so glad You did. I’ve heard about Your deeds. I’m so grateful You showed up in the past. I’m so glad You created the heavens and the earth. I’m so grateful You saved humanity from the flood. I’m so thankful You began a nation called Israel, that You gave Torah on Mount Sinai, that You raised up a David and Elijah and a Ruth. But now, God, would You renew those works in our day? Now, God, in our time, would You make them known now?”
This is what we ache for: for marriages to be restored, for lives to get put back together, for poverty to be eradicated, for age to be removed from the face of the earth, for justice to roll like waters, for sex trafficking to end, for the San Francisco bay area to become a beacon of moral beauty…wouldn’t that be a fabulous thing?…for Silicon Valley to be a synonym of generosity, for humility to reign in board rooms, in corporate power structures, for a humble love of truth to prevail in Stanford studies and classrooms, for the ability to live with a grateful heart in the middle of all this insane consumption, for the ability to speak only truth in the midst of all this hype and deception, for the ability to trust God without worrying in the middle of such an anxious world, for a community of Jesus’ followers to be so filled with love and joy and servant hood that you can’t keep people away, you can’t keep them outside.
God has done it before. Can He not do it again? Who here will pray, “Lord, I’ve heard of Your fame. I stand in awe of Your deeds. Renew them in our day. O God, in our time, make them known”? “He who began a good work.”
And then the next phrase, “He who began a good work in you.” Let’s repeat that one. “He who began a good work in you.” And now it gets personal, see. Now, this is not just the God who did good works in nature, or the good works through Israel, or good works in Jesus, or in Paul, or in the Philippians. God began a good work one day in you. God did this.
Now, this is real important because in any significant area of your life, it’s just a matter of time sooner or later before you run up against human inadequacy. And the more important the task is, the sooner you’ll run into it, and the more painful it will be.
A guy by the name of Charlie Shedd, a Christian writer and speaker, said one time, “Before we had kids, I used to travel across the country, before we had kids, teaching a lecture that I called The Ten Commandments for Raising Perfect Children.” After he and Martha had their first child, he changed it Ten Hints for Parents. After their second child, he relabeled the lecture A Few Tentative Suggestions for Fellow Strugglers. He said after the arrival of their third child, he gave up speaking on the topic altogether.
If you ever feel inadequate, there is a real important reason why. You know what it is? You’re inadequate. So am I. It’s kind of a funny thing. I arrived at a point in my life, and I don’t need to go into details about this, but I live with a greater sense of my inadequacy than I ever have. But see, my inadequacy is not the main thing about me. My adequacy is not the main thing about me. He has begun a good work in me. He has. God has begun a good work in me. That is what’s so great about the gospel.
Do you hear this? God has begun a good work in you…in you…in you. The redemption of your character, the forgiveness of your sin, the activation of your spiritual gifts, the growth of the Fruit of the Spirit, the beginnings of love, joy, peace, and patience, the development of courage, a passion to be a part of His redemption in the world, the fulfillment of your purpose, He has begun a good work in you.
What’s so great about the gospel is…if you’re a follower of Jesus, if you have received the gospel, if you have invited Him to be your Forgiver and your Leader and your Companion and your Friend, God has already begun a great work in you. No matter how inadequate you think you are, how much you have fouled up, He’s already done it.
And what’s really great about the gospel now is…if you have never responded to Him before, God can begin a good work in you right this second right where you are. Well, all you have to do is turn to Him in your heart right now, and you can do it and say, “God, God, You made me. I know I’m so inadequate when it comes to my temptations and my struggles with other people and who You made me to be. Would You forgive me through who Jesus is and what He did and what He taught? And could You be now my Companion, my Friend, my Leader, my Guide? Could the forgiveness released through His crucifixion pay for my sin penalty? Could the hope released in His resurrection become my hope?” And then, God begins a good work in you right now.
It is what’s so great about the gospel. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” Will be faithful to complete it. Now, let’s say it that far together. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”
The old, old, old song I grew up with, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father! There is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassion they fail not.”
You know, in the Old Testament days when people would come to know God, they never got tired of praising His faithfulness. When Moses was giving his final words to Israel, this is what he wanted them to remember, “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God”…He is the faithful God… “keeping his covenant of love”…His promise of sacrificial, self-giving love…”to a thousand generations.”
This is what the psalmist wrote, Psalm 33. Let’s read these words together. “For the Word of the LORD is right and true;”…now, think about this…”He is faithful in all He does.” And that little word all, that is the mind bender. He is faithful. He can’t do anything else. I’m not that way. We’re not that way.
There has been circulating lately a piece called the Six Phases of a Project. This is human condition. Six phases when anybody, or a company or something, enters in like getting a project done. Phase number one, enthusiasm. Number two, disillusionment. The third phase is panic. And then, search for the guilty. Punishment for the innocent. Praise and honors for those not involved.
Don’t like write that down. That is not recommended. That is just the way things run in this world. That is the human condition. We start stuff, and we don’t finish. We begin, and we get discouraged. We launch, and we procrastinate.
I read this years ago in the LA Times. I don’t know if it’s true or apocryphal, but it was in the LA Times. A man visits his boyhood home, hadn’t been there for 20 years. Going through the attic, and he finds an old jacket of his. He puts it on, reaches in the pocket, and he pulls out like a receipt, a stub, for a pair of shoes he had taken in to get repaired 20 years ago and never picked up.
And on kind of a whim, he goes looking, and it turns out the old shoe repair place is still there. And so, just as kind of a joke, he soberly hands his receipt to the clerk, and the clerk goes back behind the back room, and then comes back out and says, “They’ll be ready next Tuesday.” It’s just the way that things run in our lives.
Now, what would you think if God approached the project of humanity that way; enthusiasm, disillusionment, panic, search for the guilty…? But He doesn’t. He is the faithful God. He is faithful in all He does. And see, our confidence, your confidence when you walk out of this room today, when you walk through the rest of this week, it’s not in your adequacy, it’s not in your faithfulness. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”
A friend of mine named Gerry Hawthorne wrote the classic commentary on Philippians. He was a teacher of mine in college. A remarkable life. He is in his eighties now. I wish you all knew his story and what God has done in and through him.
This is what he wrote many, many years ago, “When God is involved, whatever He begins, already has the end in sight.” When God is involved, whatever He begins, already has the end in sight. Your life, your future. He is faithful.
One of the staggering statements about this comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul. He is writing to young Timothy. And there are four statements, and three of them, there is like a condition then a consequence, just what you would expect. And then comes the breath taker. “If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him. If we disown Him, He will also disown us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.” That is our God.
“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it”…and then the final line…”on the day of Christ Jesus.” On the day of Christ Jesus. So now, that’s the whole deal. Let’s say it together from the beginning. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.”
And one of the most staggering dimensions of this thought comes when Paul lays out where the finish line is. Now, you know, perseverance, endurance, don’t give up, that was a prized commodity in the ancient world. The Stoics exalted that maybe more than any other characteristic. Any Greek philosopher, any Roman thinker of that day, would have said, “You keep persisting right up to the finish line.”
And of course, the finish line would be the day you die, right until your life comes to its end, right to your last breath, right to the final beat of your heart. Paul does not say that. “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it”…not on the day you die, not on the day you have run your race, not on the day you have finished your fight…He “will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.” When is that? That is the day when Jesus will return. That is the day when Jesus comes back, and He will resurrect, and He will redeem, and He will heal, and He will fix all the brokenness and all the darkness and all the mess and all the death.
That is when His good work will be completed, including completed in you because your life is part of something much, much bigger, because your little project is part of a way larger project, because your game did not start on the day you were born, and it will not end on the day you die because Jesus is coming back. He is in the bullpen. He is all warmed up. He is the Starter, and He is the Closer. He is the Alpha, and He is the Omega. He is the first, and He is the last. He is the Author of our faith, and He is the Perfecter of our faith. He came, and one day, He is coming back.
And if this was another kind of church, right about now, somebody would say amen!
And therefore, God has no intention of giving up now. One of the elders was telling me this week there is a group of long-time husbands who were talking about how…have you been following the story about how the government is doing a cash-for-clunkers deal? You take in your old clunker, and you get something new, and you get some money besides.
And this group of guys was saying, “What if the government made that same offer to wives? You could bring your old husband in, trade him in for a new, more fuel-efficient model, and get a few thousand dollars extra on the side.”
They were all laughing about this, and one of the wives heard them laughing and asked, “What was so funny?” And they explained the concept. And she said, “Are you kidding me? It’s taken me 50 years to get this one whipped into any kind of shape at all. If you think I’m starting all over again with a brand new, untrained model, you’re out of your mind!”
See, God has a lifetime of love, and grace, and compassion, and watching, and protection, and guidance, and teaching, and reproof, and mercy, and correction invested in you. And if you think He is going to quit on you now, you’re out of your mind!
“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.” And that day is coming. It hasn’t come yet. Not here now, but it is coming. So whatever you do, don’t quit now.
And all through the letter…you read this fabulous letter by Paul. Keep reading it all through this month…it just keeps recurring from his pen, “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven, live in a manner worthy of the gospel.” Whatever happens, “You stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way.”
This is what I’m doing, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” Whatever you do, don’t quit now.
Maybe you’ve been praying for somebody for years…nothing happening! I talked to someone this week who told me, “I’ve been praying for somebody I love for ages and ages. No response. I finally gave up. And now, I just found out they’re opening their heart up to God. They’re actually getting biblical teaching about who God is, on their own choice, on a regular basis. What do I do when I find out God is more faithful than my prayers?” Well, don’t quit praying.
You’re a parent, and you don’t know what to do. You have a child going in directions that are killing you. You want to resign or withdraw your heart. Will you hang in? Will you keep loving? Will you keep praying? Will you keep trying the best you know how?
Maybe you’re facing a spiritual quitting point. Maybe you have been trying to walk with God, and it’s getting really hard, and you have a habit around money or sexuality or anger, and you’ve just gotten discouraged. You know, you can quit anytime you want to. You can. It always feels easier, I know. But how often do you look back on your life and say you were glad you quit something? When did quitting ever build character and equip you for future problems?
Maybe the quitting point for you is around taking care of this body God has given to you. Maybe it’s about sharing your faith with somebody who is a friend of yours. Maybe it’s God has called you in some part of His vineyard, maybe to work with a little group of people, and it’s getting a little difficult. Maybe you work with some young people, and they’re kind of resisting. Maybe to help in education where there are such needs. Or to make a dent in the poverty problem in our world.
And it’s so overwhelming that you’re tempted to throw in the towel. Maybe you wrestle with a level of anxiety or depression so deep you want to quit on life. Not now, not now! “He”…let’s do it together one more time…”He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus.”
And when that day comes, oh man, when that day comes, there could be a whole lot of people who look back on this life that is over so fast, and who just say, “Thank God, thank God, I didn’t quit.” That is what’s so great about the gospel!
Would you bow your heads? Would you close your eyes? And here is what I think right now. I think what the Spirit of God would want to do in this room in this moment is just encourage a whole lot of folks who are here.
So, you just let Him whisper to you right now, “You are My beloved son. You are my prized daughter.” I think God would say to you right now, “I began a good work in you. Whatever weighs you down or burdens you doesn’t get the last word. I know all about your inadequacy and your regrets and your mistakes. I’ve begun a good work in you. And My son, My daughter, I’m faithful. It is not in My heart to give up on you. That little life I have placed in you, it’s still there, and it’s growing, and I will carry it through.”
Now, heavenly Father, just like a healing balm, just like oil over troubled waters, would You breathe Your encouragement and Your life on me and my brothers and sisters? We are staking everything, God, we are placing all of our hopes, we are entrusting our hearts and our eternities to You. Thank You that You are the faithful God. Thank you for the good news. We pray in the name of Jesus.