“Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2)
One of the basic messages of the Bible is that God’s ways are higher and better than our own.
This is one of the pivotal, fundamental lessons of the Christian experience. Only the real, supernatural God can compose and direct circumstances in our lives that will lead to genuine, everlasting spiritual growth.
It is within God’s unique character-manufacturing furnace of present-time experience that He forges mature saints who can trust and follow Him. Peter and Paul are two of the best examples of this process from scripture.
Before the crucifixion, Peter thought (according to Peter’s understanding in the realm of the “natural man”) that Jesus was in peril from the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, and that Jesus needed Peter’s personal help for physical protection (Mt. 16:22).
When Peter utterly failed in this capacity, to the point that he actually denied knowing Jesus using cursing to save himself out of a difficult situation in the courtyard, Matthew 26:75 says: “And he went out, and wept bitterly.”
Peter was not just mildly disappointed in himself. He thought he had failed in the critical, defining moment in his life.
But this was not the defining moment in Peter’s life. God the Father knew from eternity past that Jesus would die on the cross, and that He would raise Jesus from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea. God did not need or want Peter’s help to prevent the crucifixion of Jesus. That was merely Peter’s best intentions according to his own thinking.
The critical moment that God had planned for Peter was not at the midnight trial standing alongside Jesus as a faithful companion, but on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, at the birth of the Christian church, as described in the second chapter of the book of Acts.
On Resurrection Day, when Peter first sees the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5), Peter realizes in an instant that God did not need his well-intentioned help to guide these final events. God did not need Peter to prevent what Peter thought would be a guaranteed negative outcome if Jesus fell into the hands of the Jewish authorities.
God the Father had raised and transformed the broken and mutilated body of Jesus Christ His Son from the effects of a violent death that had occurred only a few days before, into a new and glorious resurrected body. In a moment of realization…in the light of finally understanding…it all comes together for Peter.
Peter thinks back upon Jesus by the lakeside, in a boat because of the press of the crowd, as He is brilliantly teaching truth like no one has ever heard before (Lk. 5:3). Peter remembers the oversized catch of fish in the nets that nearly overturns Peter’s boat (Lk. 5:4-11), the miracle of the feeding of the thousands on the hillside (Mt. 14:15-21), Jesus walking on water (Mt. 14:22-36), the transfiguration (Mk. 9:2), lepers cleansed (Lk. 5:12-15), the blind receiving sight (Jn. 9:1-41), and the dead raised (Jn. 11:1-44).
When Peter intently gazes upon his risen Lord on Resurrection Day in amazement and appreciation, he cannot take his eyes off Jesus. He realizes in a series of quick flashbacks the always up-to-the-challenge Son of God, working masterfully with the Father and the Holy Spirit through every imaginable human issue and crisis, but especially in this final, amazing, unexpected event of salvation for mankind through the bodily resurrection of Jesus after the seeming finality of death on the cross.
Peter realizes that Jesus had Peter’s denial in the courtyard factored into the whole process all along (Mt. 26:34). With an enormous sense of relief, Peter now understands that his personal failure at the critical time…when under normal circumstances Jesus might have otherwise needed his support the most…that any well-meaning attempt on the part of Peter to physically protect Jesus, could not possibly have prevented or affected in any way the monumental work of salvation planned by Almighty God so long ago.
Peter was also resurrected to an eternal hope in that single moment of time upon first seeing the risen Jesus (1 Peter 1:3).
In a bright flash of spiritual light, Peter in that instant finally realized that God was infinitely bigger than he was. Peter saw with his own eyes the capacity of God to overcome anything, no matter how hopeless, when he saw the risen Jesus.
This experience changed Peter forever.
At that moment Peter shifted his reliance from self to God. Peter could go forward from that day onward with the rock-solid hope of a living faith, and a vessel emptied of self-reliance, to serve his Savior to the end of his life.
This is how Peter was able to stand up before thousands of people in the center of Jerusalem during the celebration of Pentecost, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and not through his natural leadership ability and bold personality, to successfully proclaim the truth that Jesus was indeed the Christ of God.
Peter’s prior overconfident statement, before Gethsemane, that even though all other men might forsake Jesus, that Peter under no circumstances would forsake Him (Mt. 26:33), revealed a person who was still partially self-led. Peter was talking out of his un-crucified self-in-charge nature, and this led to bitter spiritual defeat.
Peter, in the courtyard of Caiaphas the High Priest, was not operating “in the narrow gate” (Mt. 7:13-14) of listening to and following the Holy Spirit, as an apostle of Jesus Christ should. Trouble found and exposed a vulnerable flaw in Peter, because self was still in-charge in this instance.
The character transforming lesson of Peter’s denial of Jesus in the courtyard, and the loving forgiveness he experienced in his personal interview with Jesus on Resurrection Day, changed Peter from self-led failure to a Spirit-led overcomer. Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ is an example of experiential faith that actualized into spiritual victory.
Rewinding these events backwards in time, Peter could have faithfully and courageously stood at the side of Jesus, as he said he would, and been condemned to death as a follower of Jesus.
Peter would then have occupied the fourth cross on the hill of Calvary that Passover Day.
But God the Father had a much different plan for Peter.
How infinitely better and more exciting would it be, to be filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and to stand up before thousands of people in Jerusalem and preach powerfully about both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah (Acts 2:14-36)?
How much more exciting would it be to bring Tabitha back to life (Acts 9:40), or to heal the crippled man at the gate to the Temple (Acts 3:7), or to participate in the revival in Samaria (Acts 8:14-25), or be preaching to the Gentiles when the Pentecost “gift of the Holy Spirit” was poured out on them as well (Acts 10:44-48), or be miraculously released by an angel in the dead of night from Herod’s prison (Acts 12:7-11)?
How much better was God’s plan for Peter than what Peter had in mind for himself prior to the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? To what purpose would a fourth cross on Calvary, bearing Peter, have served?
According to historical tradition, Peter was eventually crucified in Rome, sometime in the early to middle 60’s A.D. Peter was finally crucified physically, but not before living a full life in service to his Lord Jesus Christ according to the much higher plans of God.
The Narrow Gate for Paul (Mt. 7:13-14)
Paul’s appeal to Caesar in Acts 25:11 is another excellent biblical example of God’s foresight and intervention in guiding the fine details of the lives of people who are in the midst of a walk of faith with Jesus Christ.
Paul is under arrest in Caesarea for the tumultuous uproar that occurred in Jerusalem. Paul does not know that the sympathetic Roman ruler, King Agrippa, will arrive in Caesarea in the near future. Agrippa apparently would have released Paul (Acts 26:32).
The Jewish authorities want Paul to be returned to Jerusalem for trial. Paul knows that there are forty Jews sworn to attack his escort of Roman soldiers conducting him back to Jerusalem, but even if Paul makes it safely back, any hearing in Jerusalem would be prejudicial against him.
But Festus, the Roman official having jurisdiction over Caesarea, suggests in an open hearing, for political reasons, that Paul be brought to Jerusalem to be judged before Festus regarding the accusations against Paul. Before Agrippa arrives, Paul has no choice but to appeal to Caesar.
This is a fascinating and instructive development in the story of Paul. It provides all Christians with a window into how God works in our lives if we will follow Him completely and not lose faith.
As events narrowly unfold in this account of Paul in Caesarea, Paul is compelled to appeal to Caesar for a hearing in Rome. This changes the entire nature of the ministry of Paul from being a man of action…planting new churches in Asia Minor…to a man with quiet time to contemplate and compose the upcoming “prison epistles” written while in Rome (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians).
At this late stage in Paul’s career, more new churches in Greece and Italy are probably not needed. History shows that the number of churches in existence when Paul set-off for Jerusalem for the last time, were enough in number and quality to create a strong foothold for the spread of Christianity in the first-century.
If left up to Paul, he would have continued to faithfully pursue his original calling, traveling and planting new churches in Greece, Italy, and he hoped even in Spain (Rom. 15:24). But it was the God-appointed quiet time in Caesarea and in Rome that enabled the writing of these crucial last epistles to the churches that completed his inspired New Testament contribution of Christian doctrines and practices.
It is also this abrupt change in plans that provides the narrative story for the distinctly different final four chapters in the book of Acts, providing us with a look into the customs of Roman public hearings, an ancient shipwreck, and Luke’s unfinished history of Paul in Rome that enables conservative scholars to date the ending of the book of Acts as a milestone event sometime in the early to middle 60’s A.D.
This has enormous apologetic value in validating the authenticity of the New Testament gospels in relation to the activities of Paul, placing the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts so close to the time of the ministry of Jesus as to remove the possibility of legendary development or exaggeration entering into the New Testament.
It took God intervening in the situations and circumstances during this period of Paul’s detention in Caesarea for this change-in-mission to occur. Through these tightly inter-related events, God closed one door and opened another door in the ministry of Paul.
The lesson here for every Christian is that no matter how fierce are the winds and the seas of the storm of circumstances around us, the eye of the hurricane is in the center of God’s will. God sets up, guides, and molds events in the life of Paul, above anything that Paul could manufacture on his own, which results in the optimum final outcome for a life that is totally and completely surrendered to Jesus.
What is uniquely instructive about this episode in the life of Paul is that after this final visit to Jerusalem, he is under Roman arrest for most of his remaining years. Not only is solitude imposed upon him for the purpose of quiet reflection about all that he has learned and experienced, but Paul is also made safe from the external threat of harm that he daily lived with while he was out on the road, from the Jews or from any of his other enemies. Tradition does say that Paul was released for some period of time in Rome between a first and second imprisonment.
But from Caesarea onward, Paul was for the most part within God’s bubble of protection through the use of Roman officials and the Roman judicial system. Paul could not be safer (other than eventual martyrdom by Nero around 62-65 A.D.) in the Roman world of the first century than to be under house arrest in Rome in the care of a Roman soldier. Paul no longer had to worry about hostile Jews from a previous city showing up suddenly, with deadly intentions, in the city he was currently ministering in (Acts 13:50; Acts 14:5; Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5; Acts 17:13; Acts 18:12; Acts 19:26).
Through the clarity of hindsight, we see that God accomplished two things at the same time…first a change in the nature of the ministry of Paul…and second in the protective environment for Paul to compose his final letters to the churches.
This is a clear-cut demonstration of the narrow gate that Jesus is referring to in Matthew 7:13-14. It is an example of the benefits and outcomes that God would like to perform in our lives through experiential faith.
The Character Manufacturing Furnace
Nearly every Christian can look backwards in time and say: “Now I understand why God took me through that trial.” Every Christian looks forward to the future with hope that we will improve as people and that things will get better.
It is the present time that we all have difficulty with. Knowing, without a doubt, that we have surrendered and yielded our lives to Jesus Christ, and that the present situations and circumstances in our lives are not an accident but are in the control of God, is a mark of the mature Christian. The mature Christian can apply every line of Psalm 23, along with David, with full assurance and confidence to their lives.
In-the-moment, present-time situations and circumstances is the furnace where Christian character is manufactured (Jas. 1:2-4).
Our self-in-charge natures will not venture anywhere near the character-manufacturing furnace. Self-in-charge is terrified of the risk of potential failure that is associated with this furnace.
In the furnace of present-time, in-the-moment situations and circumstances, the issues are so important according to outward appearances that a real spiritual test is set up.
Is God reliable enough to place my faith in as the Lord and Sovereign King of my life, in the present-time circumstances, or do I have to take matters into my own hands because the issues are simply too important to trust to anyone but myself alone (1 Sam. 13:12)?
This is a fundamental, pivotal issue of faith outlined for us throughout the Bible. Gideon was in the present moment when he went to battle with 300 men against tens of thousands of the enemy. David was hunted by Saul in-the-moment. Queen Esther made her decision to risk personal safety, in-the-moment, in approaching the King and opposing Haman to save her people from destruction.
God told the young prophet Jeremiah not to be afraid of the countenance of the people’s faces when Jeremiah delivered God’s message to them, thus declaring plainly that it took some courage on Jeremiah’s part to be God’s spokesman. This challenge for Jeremiah occurred in-the-moment.
In the New Testament, Peter and John defending themselves before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:29-32, had the very real risk of being stoned to death like Stephen a few chapters later (Acts 7:58-59).
These accounts are all variations of the central question of the reliability of God’s character in the fiery trial. These people all put their faith and trust in God…in-the-moment of their present-time circumstances…thus declaring that they believed that the character of God was trustworthy.
The Holy Spirit is charged with the task of taking us to the character manufacturing furnace of personally tailored situations and circumstances, but only if our self-in-control nature is subordinate to the will and plans of God.
Any attempt to skirt around the Christian character manufacturing furnace is self-deceiving. Certainly God is not fooled. God is only dismayed and hurt that we do not trust Him enough to let go of self-in-control. When we exercise faith and trust in God in the present-time, no matter what is happening or how bleak the circumstances look, we are saying we believe in the goodness and reliability of God’s character.
The furnace of in-the-moment situations and circumstances is always a test of character, both God’s and ours.
This is where the value of a real relationship with the living God rises to the fore. It is not some homogenized, new-age diluted humanistic slogan like “let go, let god.”
People who say and teach these kinds of cleverly reduced, cheerleader-type motivational phrases generally have no actual intention of stepping down off the thrones of their lives and following the Holy Spirit into real-life circumstances that require genuine release and trust in the one living God.
The cross is difficult. Death to self-in-charge is not easy.
Whether it is financial challenges, family issues, health struggles, or the opposition of people to our Christian ministry, God will set up the issues in our lives specifically to create this furnace of character manufacturing for our spiritual growth.
That is why the outward appearances of some of these situations and circumstances are frightening and terrifying. Without the genuine challenge of real consequences that matter, the decision to follow God would be too easy. If the Christian life went perfectly smooth from beginning to end, we would never learn anything about ourselves, about eternal truths, or about God.
 Bob Mumford, Fifteen Steps Out (South Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc.) 5-7