by John Howell, Jr.
2017 Glimpses of Grace Conference
This is the transcript of a message delivered by John Howell, Jr. at the 2017 Glimpses of Grace Conference.
I. Introduction: How would you define “grace”?
We know from the Bible that, if you are a child of God, you are a beneficiary of something called “grace.” It is the word in our language associated with how God saves sinners, so it is a word of extreme significance. We use the word “grace” quite a bit, and we often sing out this word in our songs of praise. Nevertheless, I am convinced we scarcely begin to understand how amazing is God’s grace. God issued forth His grace in order to save us sinners. Grace is what erupted from the cross, and flows mightily even now. Grace is what happened when God’s justice met God’s love in that sacrifice of the Lamb. “For by grace are ye saved through faith…” (Eph. 2:8).
I am quick to tell people that “grace” is my favorite word. But, I struggle to define grace in a way that describes this concept sufficiently. I know we can point to the acrostic G-R-A-C-E and say, “Grace is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” We can also use the helpful word play: “Justice is getting what I deserve. Mercy is not getting what I deserve. Grace is getting what I do not deserve.” But, really, do these attempts to explain give me a rich, full definition of God’s grace.
How would you describe God’s saving grace?
There is some good news for those who truly want to understand the beauty and scope of God’s grace. In the Bible, grace is defined and “fleshed out” through real-life events and actions of real-life people (the Word of God is living and powerful! Heb. 4:12). So, to assist our limited mental reach, God has been “gracious” to show us what grace looks like, so that our hearts and minds can get a better grasp on His grace. As you study the Word, be looking for those living, breathing illustrations of this majestic attribute of God that we call “grace.”
II. Grace in the Life of Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9)
A pitiful existence
Mephibosheth’s life was sad and painful until King David sought him and showered much grace into his life.
The grandson of Saul and son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth was born in a time of great conflict. King Saul lost his mind and was often on the offensive against David and men who were loyal to David. Saul was also on the defensive against Israel’s traditional enemies, the Philistines. After Saul and his son Jonathan were killed by the Philistines, a period of civil war ignited between Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Saul’s son Ish-boseth attempted to keep the throne but was assassinated. In this time of violence, Mephibosheth was a five year old boy. A nurse attempted to help the child flee the violence as Saul’s short-lived dynasty was crumbling, Mephibosheth suffered a fall which inflicted a serious injury that damaged both feet and crippled him for life.
As was prophesied, David ascended to the throne, eventually unifying Israel and Judah. Nothing is heard about Mephibosheth for many years. One can imagine that he had a bleak life, enduring a severe handicap as well as a realistic fear that he could be assassinated! In this time, descendants of a former king were usually eliminated by the new king to avoid any possibility of rebellion by those loyal to the former king. That was the code of conduct for this period. Mephibosheth, as the grandson of Saul, would never have been able to rest comfortably, and probably spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder, maybe even in hiding. As a crippled man, he was defenseless. As a descendant of Saul, Mephibosheth would also have no claim on any former property or wealth due to the downfall of the family.
So the man Mephibosheth was crippled and impoverished. As the last survivor of Saul’s family, he was always aware that he was operating on borrowed time.
Grace behind the scenes
Though Mephibosheth likely had little hope for joy and meaning in his life, there were some things that he did not know or fully understand—very important information about his daddy (Jonathan) and King David.
God in His sovereignty had knitted the hearts of David and Jonathan in a beautiful friendship when they were growing up. Despite Saul’s hatred for David, Saul’s own son, Jonathan, deeply loved David. What’s more, Jonathan respected the plan of God, which called for the leadership of Israel to shift from Saul to David. Jonathan’s loyalty to David on occasion saved David’s very life as Jonathan helped David avoid the insane violence of Saul. In return, Jonathan’s request to David was this: “If I continue to live, show me kindness from the LORD, but if I die, don’t ever withdraw your kindness from my household—not even when the LORD cuts off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth” (1 Samuel 20:14-15). Jonathan and David then made a covenant, centered around that request from Jonathan. Why did David do this? David made this covenant because he loved Jonathan “as he loved himself” (1 Sam. 20:17).
Years after that covenant was struck, this beautiful, godly friendship still lived in David’s heart. The kingdom had been established, and David’s enemies had indeed been “cut off” as Jonathan had prophesied. Reminiscing, David’s thoughts turned to Jonathan. “David asked, ‘Is there anyone remaining from the family of Saul I can show kindness to for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Samuel 9:1). And then, learning that there was a remaining descendant, David turned those thoughts of love into actions of grace!
This is what grace looks like!
Through an elderly servant of Saul’s former estate (property now controlled by David, of course), David learned that Jonathan’s son Mephiboseth had survived the bloody years and now lived as an adult at Lo-Debar under the charity of a man named Machir. So David had Mephibosheth fetched from that location and brought to the king.
Don’t you know those were some anxious moments for Mephibosheth! Logically, he would have concluded that David perceived him as a potential threat. Mephibosheth probably thought that he was being summonsed to his imprisonment, or worse! Here is the scene when Mephibosheth finally arrived in Jerusalem and made his way into the very presence of the king: “Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, fell facedown, and paid homage. David said, ‘Mephibosheth!” ‘I am your servant,” he [Mephibosheth] replied” (2 Samuel 2:6).
What a scene! The poor, crippled descendent of an untrustworthy former king brought into the presence of the mighty King David. Mephibosheth’s life was in David’s hands. What was about to happen to him? This man was frightened and not hiding it. David’s first instructions to him: “Don’t be afraid.” Huh? What’s going on? David explains, “’Don’t be afraid,’” David said to him, ‘since I intend to show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan…’” (2 Sam. 9:7a).
So here is the message from David to the crippled man: “Mephibosheth, you are not in danger. You are not unwanted. Mephibosheth, I have brought you into my court to show you checed (an important Hebrew word for lovingkindness/grace) because of a covenant and a friendship I had with your father Jonathan.”
Whoa! Imagine Mephibosheth’s mind trying to process this development. But wait, there’s more! David continues, “I will restore to you all your grandfather Saul’s fields, and you will always eat meals at my table” (2 Sam. 9:7s).
Friends, this is grace. This is mind-blowing, inexplicable, beautiful grace. Mephibosheth is not hated. He is not in trouble. He is not in danger. He is now loved and protected. Mephibosheth is no longer poor and an outcast. He is now wealthy! Very wealthy! The estate and property of King Saul was now to be transferred to his ownership. Verses 9 and 10 reveal that David instructs a capable manager, Ziba (who formerly served Saul, and who also had 15 sons and 20 servants in his employ), to manage Saul’s fields on behalf of Mephibosheth,. This meant that Mephibosheth’s job would be to just pick up the check when the harvest was sold. And the icing on the cake: Mephibosheth would eat all of his meals from this point forward at the table of David and his family. David orders Ziba to carry out the work and tells him again how it all will work: “But Mephibosheth, your master’s grandson, is always to eat at my table” (2 Sam. 9:10).
This helps me to wrap my mind around the concept of grace. Grace brings off-the-charts blessings. Grace brings mysterious, humbling, unexpected outcomes. Grace actually is “getting what you don’t deserve.” If you and I can get in Mephibosheth’s mind at this point, as he digests David’s promises to him, we can get a glimpse of God’s grace. God’s grace is so amazing, so big, and so breathtaking that it takes scenes like this just to give us that glimpse.
The only proper response to grace
One key in the work of understanding God’s grace is to see just how unmerited it is and how unworthy are the recipients of His grace. Mephibosheth didn’t stick out his chest, take a big breath, and orate about the return of Saul’s glory. Mephibosheth didn’t let this stunned audience in David’s court know that it was about time that someone recognized Saul’s grandson as worthy of attention and honor. No, not all. Here is how he responded: “Mephibosheth paid homage and said, ‘What is your servant that you take an interest in a dead dog like me?” (2 Sam. 9:8).
Homage. Servant. Dead dog. Mephibosheth’s heart melted upon exposure to God’s grace. There was no response other than the proper response of brokenness and humility. There could be no label more humble or more crude than the label of a “dead dog,” especially in the culture of the Middle East.
At that moment, David didn’t respond by putting his boot on Mephibosheth’s prostrated body and say, “Boy, you got that right. I’m the grace-giver and you are nothing but a dead dog.” Instead, David just lavishes more grace as that is when he gives Ziba his instructions put his team to work for Mephibosheth’s business interests.
It’s just crazy beautiful to see grace flowing. But is also breathtakingly humiliating when God pours His grace into my life.
III. I am Mephibosheth
The parallels between Mephibosheth and me are spot-on. Look at this encounter in God’s Word again, and catch the truth of its application to me and to you.
A pitiful existence
Mephibosheth was in bad shape—crippled and a descendant of a disgraced dynasty. He was living a sad life and had a bleak future. Mephibosheth in this illustration from God’s Word represents me, and you. We are broken. As sinners, we are in bad shape. We come into this world spiritually dead to God. Romans 3 spells out just how bad our predicament is from the perspective of a holy God:
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one…for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-12, 23).
Because of our sin, we deserve death and eternal separation from the holy God who created us. As sinners, we are in bad, bad shape. You and I are Mephibosheth.
Grace behind the scenes
Thankfully, just as grace enters this chapter through the heart of King David, grace enters into our rebellious, messy world through the heart of God. Consider something very, very important that went on behind the scenes, long before we lived, before this universe was even created.
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit put a plan into motion before the world was created whereby the Father covenanted to send the Son to come to this sinful world and to die on the cross for the sins of us all. God the Son convenanted to come, and to die this sacrificial death—the sinless lamb of God! God the Spirit covenanted to draw men, women, boys and girls to the Son. This mighty work of God is what is referred to in Hebrew 13:20 as the “blood of the everlasting covenant.” The result of this work of God is the mighty flow of something that the Word calls His grace!
This is what grace looks like
When King David saw Mephibosheth, he didn’t see a sad, crippled man from the lineage of a Saul (a guy who repeatedly tried to kill David!). Instead, when David saw Mephibosheth, he saw Jonathan, whom David dearly loved. Never once in this chapter do you hear David refer to Mephibosheth’s crippled condition. Instead, David said, “Fear not: for I will surely shew thee kindness for Jonathan thy father’s sake…” (2 Sam. 9:7a).
This is a picture of how God sees the person who is in Jesus Christ. When God looks at us, God sees His beloved Son. That is why the Bible tells us that the believer is clothed in “the garments of salvation” and covered with “the robes of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). What a manifestation of grace! In Christ, we are not seen as sinners of the race of the first broken Adam; we are seen by God as being in the last Adam, the righteousness One, Jesus Christ.
And grace keeps getting bigger and more spellbinding the more I study the Bible. Mephibosheth sat at the king’s table, and was given possession of Saul’s important and valuable estate. Likewise, because I am in Christ, God considers me to be His adopted son. And being in Christ, I have a seat at God’s table! Always and continually! I am a child of the King! I am the recipients of spiritual blessings and power, even now. And I am the recipient of eternal blessings.
The only proper response to grace
When King David poured grace onto the life of Mephibosheth, we see Mephibosheth respond by accepting this outpouring of grace in great humility. We don’t see Mephibosheth manifest any pride. We don’t see him attempt to do any negotiations with David, or in any way proclaim his own worthiness. No, we see that Mephibosheth “fell on his face, and did reverence” (v. 6) Mephibosheth responded to David by saying, “Behold, thy servant!” (v. 6). Mephibosheth submitted to David’s gracious authority by bowing before David and saying, “What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?” (v. 8).
Likewise, when the gospel is presented to a sinner, and the sinner learns that God provides forgiveness and eternal life through His Son, the sinner’s only proper and saving response is to bow down and show reverence, and say, “Behold, thy servant!” Who am I, Father, that thou shouldest look upon me, a dead dog of a sinner? The sinner accepts the grace that God has chosen to pour upon him, and he walks in newness of life, a saved man! A blessed man! A beneficiary of God’s amazing grace!
“For by grace are ye saved by faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8)