In Luke 17:32 we read the shortest saying of Jesus and the second shortest verse in the Bible, "Remember Lot's wife!"
This saying recalls the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom was where Abraham's nephew, Lot, had chosen to live. But God had declared to Abraham that he would destroy these cities because "their sin is so grievous" (Gen. 18:20). Abraham then prayed that the city be spared "if there are fifty righteous people in the city" (v.24), or "forty" (v.29), or "thirty" (v.30), or "twenty" (v.31), or "ten" (v.32). God's promise to him was "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it" (v.32).
Yet when the angelic messengers went to Lot's house in Sodom, the riotous degraded actions of the men of the city make it quite clear that their heart was turned against the Lord God. There were not even ten!
The city would not be spared the divine judgment! They must escape while they could! So Lot and his wife and two daughters set out for safety. Among the instructions given to them was, "Don't look back!" (19:17). "But Lot's wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt" (v.26).
When Jesus said, "Remember Lot's wife", he was warning against the temptation to turn back to the old life. As he stated it in today's Scripture, (Luke 9:62) "No man, having put his hand to the plough and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God". Before we look at this temptation, however, let us think about the nature of the old life and the new.
One of the most marked characteristics of the old life is selfishness. Paul speaks about walking "according to the sinful nature (literally, the flesh)", fulfilling its desires, considering our chief responsibility to be towards ourselves. This has always led to the greatest blot on the image of God in us - sin. We see this right back in Genesis - it was through the temptation to be equal with God that Adam and Eve fell into sin. Paul writes that "the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (Romans.8:68).
In the fate of two cities in Genesis, Jude sees a pattern of all who sin, when he writes, "Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7). We find Peter also, in his second letter writing about how God "condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men... The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority" (2 Pet2:6-7, 9-10).
The greatest offence in sin is not that it corrupts our nature, nor that it is often against others, but that it is against God, and the old life is characterised by separation from God. On the surface there may be superficial happiness, but the deadly disease of sin is at work. Whatever the appearances, the old life was rotten deep down and leading the person who trod it to destruction. So we find Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, speaking of the old life with all its glamour, "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it" (Matthew7:13).
In contrast, the new life is the life "in Christ". Jesus says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev3:20).
It is only through Christ that the new life is possible - it is supremely through his sacrificial death that God's grace has become available to us. From our side, no efforts at righteousness could bridge the gap between us and God. God has taken the initiative - the new life is a gift, requiring only to be accepted by faith. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2Cor 5:17).
The very inner principle of our lives has been changed. Compare a petrol engine with a diesel. There are very significant differences, but both are internal combustion engines. On the other hand, the electric motor is powered by a different principle.
Paul describes the Christian as the person who no longer lives "according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). And God's grace, now active in our life through faith, is directed towards good works - "for we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph 2:10). So the new life will express the "fruit of the Spirit" - "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Our sins are washed in the blood of the Lamb; our lawlessness is overcome by obedience to Christ, the Lord of all; our self-centredness is overwhelmed by God's infinite love and mercy. Yet of this new life, Jesus spoke these sobering words, "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:14).
There was a time in the ministry of Jesus - when he had been teaching the absolute necessity of each person receiving for him/herself the benefits of his atoning death - when we read, "From that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:66).
There are those who take offence at the cross, who are interested in different aspects of Christianity but baulk at the Gospel itself. Our concern here, however, is with those who have set out on the race of faith - it is, if you like, with Lot's family, not with the people who chose to stay behind in Sodom. Of such disciples Paul wrote (1 Timothy5:15), "Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan." He spoke to the Ephesians’ elders in Acts 20:30 about those who would "arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them."
Quite obviously, since the evil one is the enemy of the Lord, we can expect him to take delight in leading astray, by one means or other, those who are Christ's.
For the young Christian, the keenest temptations come along the line of the old life. They are temptations to "turn back", or at least to "look back" with longing on the old life we have left. We try to supplement the joy we have in Christ. Although we know that Christ died for the entire world, we revel in our own personal salvation. We become "conformed to the pattern of this world" rather than "transformed by the renewing of our mind" (Rom12:2). We fill our minds and lives with so-called "harmless" activities, ignoring the words of Jesus, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23), or again, "Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).
It is not enough to enter the small gate, if we will not walk the narrow road. At one stage in Jesus' ministry we are told that, as Jesus spoke, many put their faith in him. "To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, 'If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'" Later in the same passage we read, "... they picked up stones to stone him" (John 8:31-32, 59). At one moment of exultation the crowd cried out, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9). Later a crowd (how many of them the same we do not know) cried out, "Crucify him!" (Matthew 27:22-23).
Three men - three backgrounds, three motivations, three agendas - thought it would be good and commendable to follow Jesus. But Jesus challenged them to a wholehearted commitment. "No one," he said, "who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for [service in] the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).
Surely then, we must be in earnest when we come to Christ - not trusting ourselves, but with our confidence fixed on him. We need to learn to say with the humility of the great apostle Paul, "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil 3:13-14).
"Remember Lot's wife." We seem to need that warning - we can all go through periods of slackness! But we need to get into gear and positively fix our mind on what Paul says here. We have to forget what is behind. When those things are confessed and forgiven, we are not to waste our time brooding over them. Rather, straining toward what is ahead, we must press towards God's goal.