The axe is laid to the root of all us trees. It’s as if we haven’t brought forth the fruit we should, and the husbandman has just tapped us with His axe, ready to cut us down- unless we change and start bringing forth good fruit (Lk. 3:9). This is how serious our position is. We are as the weak army against whom the Lord Jesus comes with an infinitely stronger one, we are as those who have made a quarrel with Him (Col. 3:13). And we must urgently seek reconciliation; for time is short. Those who are thankfully redeemed in Christ, now lovingly reconciled to Him, are described as blind, starving prisoners, bound in the darkness, awaiting execution (Ps. 107:14; Is. 42:7; 49:9; 61:1; Zech. 9:11). Our prayers should be like those of a man on death row in a dark dungeon, waiting to die, but groaning for salvation (Ps. 102:17,20). This is the extent of our desperation. We are “the poor” (Gk. ‘the crouchers’), cringing in utter spiritual destitution (Mt. 5:3). And yet we have a terrible tendency to only occasionally really pray, content with prayer on a surface level (see Devotion: A Caveat). When we come to the New Testament, the Lord's parables invite us to see ourselves as, e.g., the desperate widow woman pleading for deliverance from her oppressive landlord (Lk. 18:3). He had a way of focusing men upon their need. Thus He would have passed by the desperate disciples as they struggled in the storm, He would have gone further on the road to Emmaus, and He asked the blind men the obvious question: “What will ye that I shall do unto you?” (Mt. 20:32). He only partially cured another blind man, to focus that man’s mind on the faith that was needed for the second and final stage of the cure (Mk. 8:23-25). He elicited from the father of the epileptic child the miserable childhood story of the boy- not that the Lord needed to know it, but to concentrate the man on his need for the Lord’s intervention (Mk. 9:21). He wanted them to focus on their need: in this case, for sight. He let Peter start to sink, and only then, when Peter’s whole heart and soul were focused on the Lord, did He stretch forth His hand. The Lord deliberately delayed going to see Lazarus until he was dead and buried; to elicit within His followers the acuteness of their need. And was He really sleeping in the boat with the storm all around Him? Was He not waiting there for them to finally quit their human efforts and come running to Him with faith in no other (Mk. 4:38,39)? Only when men were thus focused on their desperate need for the Lord would He answer them. The Lord further focused men’s need when he asked the lame man: “Wilt thou be made whole?” (Jn. 5:6). Of course the man wanted healing. But the Lord first of all focused his desire for it. He told the story of the man who had a desperate need at midnight, and because of his utter importunity he was driven to throw himself upon the grace of another; and, the Lord taught, so is a man with God, holding himself back from throwing himself upon Him, until the realization of his desperation compels him. And so is a man with God (Lk. 11:5-8). Indeed, the whole way the Father Himself works with us reflects this way of driving us to know our desperation. God made the Israelites encamp in a place where the Egyptians would hem them in- and then, when they knew their desperation, He opened the Red Sea for them.
The Gospel records are full of encounters between the Lord and people in desperate need. The frantic begging of the blind for sight, the leper falling on his face and beseeching, another leper lifting up his weakened voice in desperation, the paralytic desperately hopeful there was some truth in the legend that an Angel stirred up the water, the parents of sick, spastic and dying children... these incidents fill the Gospels. There were doubtless many more 'normal', less highly charged, encounters between the Lord and human beings. But these are somehow de-emphasized. We are surely invited to see in the Lord's encounters with the desperate some prototype of His dealings with us. For those desperate men and women were types of us. And yet we must learn our desperation, as Jacob had to learn his and Samson his, and as snake bitten Israel had to drag themselves in desperation before the bronze snake and fix their eyes upon it. And so likewise we must learn Christ and His cross. For those who were baptized after learning the Gospel as part of their parental upbringing, or as the logical extension of their hobby of Bible study, it is hard to know our desperation. And yet clearly the call of the Gospel is to the desperate. This explains why the poorer nations of the earth are now more responsive to the Gospel than the richer; and why even amongst the richer nations, it is the desperate types, those who know their need, who respond. And it explains why those almost born into the ecclesia must be brought to know the desperation of their need, too. John speaks in his Gospel of those who received Christ (Jn. 1:12,16; 3:32 etc.)- and it is in allusion to this that he speaks of how the disciples ‘received Christ’ into their ship whilst about to drown on Galilee (Jn. 6:21). Their desperation as they faced death was understood by John as a symbol of the desperation of all those who truly receive Christ. But without perceiving our desperation, can we properly ‘receive’ Him?
We must balance ourselves against Him who endured such contradiction, and the more freely confess that we “have not yet resisted unto blood (in our) striving against sin” (Heb. 12:3,4 Gk.). Only by a personal reconstruction and reliving of the cross, and a serious, sustained attempt to live out something of its spirit in our lives, will we come to a recognition of the depth of our own failure, our need for His grace, and an appreciation of what really was done for us. And if we realize all this, we will respond- mightily. As the forgiveness suggested by the sin offering led on to the burnt offering (with its message of dedication), so our desperation leads to our dedication (Lev. 5:7). I don't need to list the ways of dedication; for you know, deep within you, how you ought to live: the readings you should read, the money you should quietly give, the phone call you should make, the recurrent wandering thought you should crush... The things you should purge out, the witness you should make, the habits you should form, the rejections and the acceptances you should make. We are taught by the realization of our desperation to go forward, quite naturally, and do all these things. He who is forgiven much, the same will love much (Lk. 7:41-50). The purpose of the Lord's mini-parable was not that the druggies, the hookers, the murderers will love Christ more than you or me. It was to teach that according to a man's perception of his sin, so he will love his Lord. All too often we serve Him because we have a conscience that we should do so; and yet the service He requires is service, even the senseless service of that forgiven woman with her precious ointment, simply because we love Him. And that overwhelming, overflowing love will only come from a true sense of our desperation. By knowing our desperation, we will know the Lord, we will know the grace and fathomless mercy which is so essentially Him: " Ye shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed. And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you...not according to your wicked ways" (Ez. 20:43,44).
Even a righteous man must realize his sinfulness if he is to truly comprehend the essential perfection of God. Moses was brought to cower in the rocks, just as the unworthy will do (Ex. 33:22 = Is. 2:21); and he only saw the back, not the face of God, which is the attitude God adopts to those He rejects (Jer. 18:17). And only in this position could Moses see the vision of God's moral glory.
These thoughts come to a climax in Paul's comments concerning the breaking of bread. He urges us to thorough self-examination, because the breaking of bread is a foretaste of the judgment to come. We eat and drink either blessing and acceptance, or damnation (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:29). When they came together as the ecclesia before the symbols of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 11:17-20,33), they were coming together before Him as it were at the judgment; for we shall all be gathered together unto Him then. Indeed, the Greek phrase translated 'gathering together' in 2 Thess. 2:1 concerning our gathering to judgment is only used elsewhere in Heb. 10:25, concerning our gathering together at the memorial meeting. There was the risk that when they came together before the emblems, they would come together unto condemnation (1 Cor. 11:34). We must discern the body of the Lord Jesus, and discern ourselves (1 Cor. 11:29,31 same words). Our consideration of Him must be allowed to reflect in a consideration of ourselves; and the extent of our discernment and analysis of Him, will be the extent of our own very personal self-analysis. Hence the connection between the breaking of bread and self-examination. And if in that self-understanding we come to judge / condemn ourselves, we will not be condemned. We must tell ourselves that we are unprofitable servants (Lk. 18:10)- knowing that the unprofitable servant is he who will be condemned (Mt. 25:30). If we realize our utter spiritual desperation, our worthiness of rejection, our betrayals of our Lord's love, if we condemn ourselves in our own judgment; then we will not have to go through this process when the Lord comes. Yet if we don't do this, Paul says, then we are drinking condemnation to ourselves at the last day. It's a powerful, terrifying argument. Such must be- not ought to be- our level of self-analysis and knowledge of our desperation. If we so know our desperation now, we will not be condemned. Knowing and feeling our desperation is the key to so many Christian problems: monotony and boredom in spiritual life, problems with our partner, with our ecclesia, pride, a critical, ungrateful spirit, a lack of heartfelt praise, a reserve in witnessing. Even division amongst us would be outlawed by a true sense of our personal desperation. Reflect how the group of ten lepers huddled together, Jew and Samarian together, their differences sunk in their common appreciation of their desperation (Lk. 17:12). In deep seated humility, we can wait with unfeigned faith for the day of acceptance to dawn, serving with a true love, not interested in feuding with our brethren, thankfully partaking of the emblems with them, not forgetting how we were cleansed from our past sins (cp. 2 Pet. 1:9 RV- a sure allusion to the nine ungrateful lepers who forgot the wonder of their cleansing). If we remember how we were cleansed, then there will abound in us virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, culminating in a true love (so Peter’s logic runs in 2 Pet. 1:5-9). For our desperation, the cross of the Lord Jesus, the frankness of the Father's forgiveness- these things will ever live within our grateful, gracious souls.
And if they do, we will find the strength to forgive from the heart, to thereby live without bitterness, without the past existing as an unending source of anger and regret… The Jews had a tradition that one must be patient up to three times; and so Peter thought he was being generous by offering to forgive his brother seven times. The Lord’s response is not so much aimed at increasing that seven times to 490 times; but rather to show that one “from the heart” forgiveness is better than 490 forgivenesses, as acts performed from a sense of spiritual duty that well, we have to forgive our brother… True forgiveness can never come from self-effort, designed to meet some standard. It comes from realizing our desperate situation and that our only hope is in God’s mercy, and then letting this knowledge flow into our hearts.