04.01.12 A Deeper Faith, Psalm 31:1-24 Sermon Summary
There is no abbreviating the last week of Jesus’ life. But Psalm 31 gives us a summary of the essence of Jesus’ faith during Holy Week.
- Psalms in the New Testament and today
- Observations on Jesus’ faith through Psalm 31
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
In many ways, the Old Testament book of Psalms, essentially the liturgy of ancient Israel, forms the basis of the New Testament. As much as any other book, the Psalms guided the interpretation and even writing of the New Testament authors. When it comes to Jesus’ last week, and particularly the presentation and interpretation of his “passion,” his suffering, Psalm 22 along with Isaiah 53 provide the backdrop.
Beyond mere interpretation, the early church came to see the psalms as prophecies, predictions of what Christ would experience. There is some value in this approach, but what we loose is the original experience of the psalm authors, and our present day experience when we read the psalms.
During this Holy Week commemorating the last week of Jesus’ life, Psalm 31 can help us understand how the New Testament viewed Jesus, and invite us into the same faith Jesus had even in our own experience. Psalm 31 is one of those “whole story” psalms—including a crisis, prayer, deliverance by God, and subsequent praise. When we’re in the crisis, when we find it hard to pray, when we are awaiting God’s deliverance, it helps to realize we’re only in part of a larger story. This perspective is what guided Jesus and the New Testament writers through his last week. And it can guide us also.
We find what might be the essence of faith in verses 4-5: “Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.” In 1 Peter 5:8, we are told that God’s Adversary prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. God’s people, including Jesus and including us, are always under surveillance and potential attack regarding our faithfulness. Thus when Jesus quotes Psalm 31:5 according to Luke 23:46, he expresses the universal and fundamental truth of our faith.
Holy Week will be a test of faith for Jesus, much like that attested to in Psalm 31:11-14. Like the psalmist, Jesus had been abandoned by his closest friends. The week started with adoring crowds and expectant disciples. But by Friday morning Jesus was alone, and the words of Psalm 31:11 apply: “Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbors and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me.” In response to this verse, John Calvin observes that people avoid those who suffer for fear of the “contagion of their misery.” Jesus was alone because others sought to avoid his fate.
As in the psalm, Jesus was conspired against by the powerful. Verse 13 says, “I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’ They conspire against me and plot to take my life.” In Jesus’ day, it was the Jewish religious and Roman political authorities. In Jeremiah’s day, it was a priest named Pashhur. Jeremiah was the prophet who spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century before Christ. No one wanted to hear that bad news, especially the priests. So Jeremiah reports, “I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ All my close friends are watching for me to stumble” (Jeremiah 20:12). As with Jeremiah, so with Psalm 31, so with Jesus, and so sometimes with us when we following in the path of faithfulness.
The response in Psalm 31:14 was also Jesus’ response, and may it be ours as well: “But I trust in you, LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’” When we are utterly alone, which is where suffering and misery often leaves us, trusting in God is the most difficult. It is the time when we say privately, inwardly, and intimately with Jesus in the words of Psalm 31, “I trust in you.”
Two verses later we catch another glimpse of the kind of faith Jesus had. In verse 16 the psalm pray, “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” Like the sun in the clouds or in the darkness of night, God’s unfailing love persists even when we can’t see it. It is this reality that saves us—that God is faithful even when we don’t experience it. And it is this faith that sustained Jesus and will save us in our time of trial.
Sometimes all we can do is pray, and we sometimes feel like our faith is less because of that. But Jesus’ life exemplified the model in Psalm 31:22, “In my alarm I said, ‘I am cut off from your sight!’ Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help.” Calvin encourages us to prayer despite doubt because, “Saints often wrestle with their distrust. But the weakness of the flesh, even when they are almost overthrown, does not hinder them from showing that they are unwearied and invincible champions before God.”
Psalm 31 ends with these words: “Love the LORD, all his faithful people! The LORD preserves those who are true to him, but the proud he pays back in full. Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the LORD.” Jesus ended his life on the cross with the words of Psalm 31:5 (above). But his story ends with these final verses of the psalm. God did deliver Jesus from his persecutors, and even delivered him from death. And this seems to me to be a major point of Jesus’ life: to demonstrate God’s faithfulness and to awaken our faith.
For when Jesus quoted Psalm 31:5 from the cross, one of the Roman soldiers who had participated in his crucifixion realized and testified that Jesus was indeed a righteous man. And Luke tells us also that others who knew Jesus, particularly the women, were standing by and watching. This Holy Week let us recognize in Jesus’ death that his is the righteous example we are called to follow. And let us wait expectantly with those women for the fulfillment of Psalm 31 until we encounter the risen Christ and God’s deliverance in our lives.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- This week meditate on Psalm 31 and read at least one of the accounts of Jesus last week. These can be found towards the end of any of the four Gospels. As you read, take note of the connections between these two passages of scripture, and reflect upon how God is calling you to walk the way of Jesus.
- Reflect upon a time when you were like a city besieged (see verse 21). How did you pray? How did God deliver you? Did you come full circle to the final verses of the psalm?
- In verses 19-20, Psalm 31 observes, “How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who take refuge in you, things that you bestow in the sight of all. In the shelter of your presence you hide the faithful and keep them safe.” When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we partake of such “good things in the sight of all.” And we also recognize “the shelter of God’s presence.” The next time you partake of Communion, remember that here God is testifying of his faithfulness to you, and in the presence of Christ, keeping you safe.