How God’s Grace Works
BY IAN GREIG writing in THE LIVING WORD
In this week’s story for The Living Word we zero in on God’s grace, something frequently misunderstood which becomes an exciting discovery.
Many of us have grown up thinking that grace is something said before a formal meal — or else, it’s a complicated theological thing.
But grace is powerful and the way grace works in God’s kingdom is not complicated! It’s very straightforward. But it‘s counter-cultural, because it runs opposite to the rules of life we have grown up with. That’s why we find grace difficult to grasp, and often try to turn it into something else.
As our story unfolds through the Bible readings traditionally set for this week we’ll see the Israelites in the desert hit a low point, angering God by grumbling rather than trusting Him. Have they gone too far this time or — looking ahead — do they make it to the Promised Land? This is the story of God’s grace.
Then we are with Jesus when He meets a lone and rather defensive woman. Breaking all the taboos, He talks with her kindly. Which is remarkable, because she is a Samaritan, who most Jews would treat as an enemy. What is God doing with this most unlikely of people? This is the story of His grace.
Christians in the early church had either been converted from the rules and good works of Judaism — or from a pagan background where a variety of ‘gods needed to be appeased. Coming to know the Living God through Jesus couldn’t be more different — and this important extract of a letter picks up the story of grace and rounds it off.
We set the scene with some verses from Psalm 95 which praises God for His forbearance, at times when His people have let Him down, and calls down His grace in speaking to them and leading them in life.
Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care…
Today, if only you would hear His voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested Me; they tried Me, though they had seen what I did. (excerpted from Psalm 95)
And the psalmist has lifted the curtain on the scene at Rephidim where this great mass of people and animals came up against a very basic physical need — fresh water to drink. The animals were bellowing their thirst. The children were getting fractious and noisy. And the adults were doing what we all tend to do when things seem to be going wrong. We do everything — have meetings, express our dissatisfaction, find someone to blame — everything apart from having a prayer meeting and humbly getting before God!
They were about to propose a vote of no confidence in Moses — conveniently forgetting his intercession with God that had enabled them to escape the Egyptians via a most unconventional sea crossing, to be led by the pillar of fire and cloud, find food miraculously provided in the desert, and have the security of a unique covenant with God, living and active among them.
Let’s hear from Exodus 17 how that was all forgotten in the emotional storm that was blowing up over their need for water:
The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
So they quarrelled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.
And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarrelled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1–7)
We know that they reached the promised Land and prospered there — for a time. That’s where the next scene takes place, between Judah and Galilee when Jesus, hot and tired from travelling, stops by a wayside well and needs some help drawing water from it.
There’s a connection between the Massah and Meribah, the hardening of hearts that is unwilling to hear what the Lord is saying, and the Samaritan woman we are about to meet.
Jesus encounters by the well a lone representative of a kind of ‘outsider tribe’ that had its roots in the breakaway northern kingdom. This kingdom was the first to fall and be deported by the Assyrians — that was a century or more before the fall of Jerusalem — and they were the first to be resettled in part of that northern area. This is where the quarrelling and grumbling comes in again.
The Samaritans held a deep resentment against the Jews, who were concentrated in Judah. A bit like some cults today, they followed their own suitably altered version of the Scriptures and had an alternative holy mountain and temple — until it was destroyed. There was a lot of unresolved resentment there!
Jesus had plenty of cultural reasons not to speak to this woman. Jews didn’t have dealing with Samaritans. Men didn’t generally speak to women on their own. And he was not likely to get a good response — as we will see. Let’s hear this quite long story as recorded in John chapter 4 — and watch out for the prophetic ‘word of knowledge’, the Holy Spirit given insight, which changes the whole course of the conversation:
So He came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as He was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give Me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to Him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can You ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe Me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.
Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you — I am He.”
Just then His disciples returned and were surprised to find Him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do You want?” or “Why are You talking with her?”
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward Him.
Meanwhile His disciples urged Him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Then His disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought Him food?”
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent Me and to finish His work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.
Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to Him, they urged Him to stay with them, and He stayed two days. And because of His words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (John 4:5-42)
This story highlights another important aspect of God’s grace. We have seen already how it was grace that gushed fresh water out of the rock for the grumbling, undeserving and thirsty desert wanderers and continued to guide them.
Now we see God’s grace overriding centuries of suspicion and resentment. There’s another telling lesson that comes out of this woman meeting with Jesus. She had led a difficult life and is a picture of someone who has made some bad choices. And she gets to talk with and be accepted by Jesus the Messiah.
This is God’s grace that seeks out and finds the lost, the last and the least. God sees through outside appearances and social situations to what can be in a person — like a prospector whose practised eye can see the tiniest glint of gold in the mud and sand passing over the sieve.
Unlike many of the Jews that Jesus ministered to, this woman did not respond with a sense of entitlement. She knew her need. And she knew she needed the “living water” that Jesus spoke about.
What did he mean? The prophets had used the phrase “living water” and it was a graphic image, a metaphor, for something that is difficult to communicate — the life of God, or the Life of the Spirit. Those bad choices and shameful associations were about to get wiped away in new start and new life!
This new spiritual life is God’s gift for all who come to Him through believing and receiving Jesus.
The first ‘grace’ aspect is that this is God’s gift. It is freely given, and any sense of us earning it dishonours and diminishes the gift.
The second grace aspect is that it is God’s gift for all, and ‘all’ means ‘all’. We may struggle with this, but God’s priorities are not our priorities, and He seems to single out, and give preference to, some who we might pass over or not see in the same way.
Paul knows that the ‘grace lesson’ is one many hearers find difficult and it often gets subtly changed into a form of works. It’s a common mistake even in churches which claim to be Bible-centric. So let’s hear his teaching now from Romans 5:
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.
Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege… confidently and joyfully looking forward to sharing God’s glory.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.
And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. …This hope will not lead to disappointment… We know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love…
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
Now, most people would not be willing to die [even] for an upright person… But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us, while we were still sinners.
And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, He will certainly save us from God’s condemnation.
… Since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son.
So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.
Romans 5:1–11 NLT
This is part of a longer passage in which Paul continues to explain how Adam’s sin brings condemnation for everyone, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God despite being guilty of many sins. He concludes the section, further on from our reading, summarising it like this:
So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:21)
A lot of people struggle with condemnation in all its various forms — poor self-image, irrational guilt, imposter syndrome and so on. Later on in his letter, Paul states definitely:
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to Him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Romans 8:1-2)
Four times in this teaching, which forms a conclusion to our story, we are told that we have been made right with God and our friendship restored with Him, by Jesus’ shed blood and death. NOT by anything we have done or achieved. The expression “have been made right” or “has made us friends with God” are clearly about something done FOR US. Something freely GIVEN to us. Without us earning it.
This is the story of God’s amazing grace.
- Listen to this week’s podcast episode This Is the Story of God’s Amazing Grace