The Sabbath

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 2, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Here’s something that most people don’t know about me: I have a ringing in my ears. It’s technically called tinnitus. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but I know that I noticed it sometime in 2006 or 2007. I was at home, at night, reading a book. It was quiet and no appliances other than the refrigerator were running. Yet I heard this high pitch. I got up and went to the refrigerator, which was relatively new, to see if it was making the sound. It wasn’t the refrigerator. I tried to think of any other electrical device that might be emitting that annoying, high pitch. It only slowly dawned on me that the ringing wasn’t outside me but was inside me. And it hasn’t stopped since that time. I suppose I tune out the noise when I’m busy or focusing on something. But it’s always there, sometimes a little louder, and sometimes a little softer. But I haven’t experienced complete quiet in over a decade.

Recently, I read an article about tinnitus online.[1] The author of the article claims that between 15 to 20 percent of people will experience tinnitus in their lifetime. Then the author claimed that tinnitus was simply a symptom of a larger problem: noise pollution. Noise pollution leads to stress, which negatively affects our health: “Trying to filter unwanted sounds creates a chemical spike in our bodies. Glucocorticoid enzyme levels rise by as much as 40 percent when we’re separating noise from signal, resulting in fatigue and stress.” And I can relate to that: I’m sure I experience more stress now than when I did before the ringing in my ears. And there’s a lot of stress that is caused from all kinds of noise: noise from my family and, more importantly, noise from the world. And the noise I have in mind is largely metaphorical. We’re bombarded with all kinds of messages that assault us, causing stress. It’s hard to unplug from the world in order to find rest.

Perhaps your issue isn’t noise. Maybe you experience stress because of physical pain, or stressful relationships, or financial concerns. Jobs are often the source of great stress and fatigue. All of us have some source of worry, things that drain our energy. We live in a restless world. Yet we all long for rest, for healing and wholeness.

I mention this because today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see once again that Jesus enters into controversy on the Sabbath. Once again, he heals someone on the seventh day, the Jewish day of rest. And once again, the religious leaders of the day seem to be opposed to Jesus.

Today, what I want to do is look at the short passage before us, Luke 14:1–6, and explain what’s happening there. Then, I went to consider two things: how Jesus give us rest, and how we practice Sabbath. The two are intertwined.

So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 14:1–6:

1 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.[2]

It is the Sabbath day, and Jesus is eating in the house of a Pharisee. The Pharisees were influential lay leaders in Israel at this time. This isn’t just any Pharisee, but a leader of some kind. It’s surprising that Jesus would eat in the house of a Pharisee, because for quite some time now, Jesus and the Pharisees have been in conflict. Tension between the two has been mounting. We’re told at the end of Luke 11 that “the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (Luke 11:53–54). In other words, the Pharisees and the experts of the Jewish law were trying to trap Jesus, hoping to catch him doing or saying something wrong so they could charge him with a crime. They did this not because Jesus ever did anything wrong—he never failed, he never sinned, he never committed one act of evil, selfishness, greed, covetousness, or all the things that you and I do. No, they did this because they hated Jesus, because they were jealous of the attention he was getting, and because they didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. They certainly didn’t believe that he is the Son of God. These Jewish religious leaders were trying to set a trap for Jesus, and Jesus must have known that.

Yet Jesus goes to this man’s house and eats with him. Meal scenes are very common in Luke (Luke 5:29; 7:36; 9:16; 10:38; 11:37; 22:14; 24:30). So are parables that talk about meals (Luke 14:7–11, 12–24; 15:11–32). Meals are important because they’re intimate gatherings where something vital—life-sustaining food—is shared. Jesus is willing to dine with his enemies, even enemies who “were watching him carefully,” which suggests that they’re lying in wait, hoping to catch him doing something wrong. The Pharisees are embodying Psalm 37:32: “The wicked watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death.”

And when Jesus eats with the Pharisees, there among them is a man who has dropsy. Dropsy is an old-fashioned term for a type of edema, a swelling of tissue. Specifically, the body retains water, and this man’s limbs and abdomen would be obviously swollen. This condition is sometimes known as “thirsty dropsy,” because people who had it would have an unquenchable thirst. Often, this is associated with chronic heart failure. Strangely, though a person with dropsy would be full of water, they wanted more and more, and their thirst was never satisfied. That’s why dropsy was often associated with gluttony and greed. According to a theologian from 1,500 years ago, Caesarius of Arles (c.468–542), “all avaricious and covetous men seem to be sick with dropsy. Just as a man with dropsy thirsts all the more, the more he drinks, so the avaricious and covetous man runs a risk by acquiring more and is not satisfied with it when it does abound.”[3]

Jesus sees this man, and it appears that he has compassion on him. We’re told he “responded to the lawyers and the Pharisees,” though they didn’t say anything. He’s probably responding to their thoughts, which he knows. He knows that they want to catch him working on the Sabbath, and in their minds healing this man would count as work. Jesus has already healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1–11; 13:10–17). Just three weeks ago, I talked a bit about the Old Testament background to the Sabbath.[4] To recap quickly, in Genesis 1, we are told that God made or fashioned the world in six days. At the beginning of Genesis 2, we’re told that he rested. But that doesn’t mean God became really tired. And it doesn’t mean that he stopped working. God continually sustains his creation at every moment. Without God, the universe would cease to exist. And in John 5, when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, he says quite clearly, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). God’s seventh day has no end.[5] In other words, God works on the Sabbath. But what rest meant was that everything was rightly ordered and in harmony, and God could, metaphorically speaking, sit on his throne and survey his creation, ruling over it.

The law given to the Israelites stated that they should keep every seventh day as a Sabbath, a day of rest, a day to cease from their labors. This is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were to do this after the pattern of Genesis 1:3–2:3 (Exod. 20:8–11) and also as a reminder that God brought them out of brutal, oppressive work as slaves in Egypt (Deut. 5:12–15). Jewish leaders took the Sabbath seriously and required that people not work, even creating a list of all kinds of things forbidden on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was one of the distinctive marks of Judaism, along with circumcision and dietary laws.

Now, Jesus knows all of this, and he knows the Pharisees’ hearts. And he knows that this man who has dropsy isn’t in an emergency. He didn’t need to be healed on the Sabbath. If Jesus wanted to heal him, he could have waited a day. But Jesus plans to heal him. So, first he asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” The Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest, a day of healing. It wasn’t supposed to be something that turned into legalism. The Pharisees and the experts of the law don’t answer Jesus. If they say no, they will appear not to care for this man who has dropsy. If they say yes, they can’t trap Jesus. So, they remain silent. And then Jesus heals the man.

Jesus then chastises them by asking a question: “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” If these men had an animal that was caught in a well, they would pull it out. If they had a son who had fallen into a well, of course they would pull him out. Jesus seems to be implying, “How much more should you heal a child of God on the Sabbath day.” Once again, the Pharisees and experts of the law couldn’t say anything. Their trap had failed. They knew Jesus did the right thing, but they couldn’t admit it, for fear of making Jesus look good.

It’s clear that Jesus doesn’t violate the Sabbath. He is actually fulfilling its intent. And it’s clear whose side God is on, the side of Jesus, the one who is miraculously healing people. The people who should have been the godliest have set a trap for the Son of God, which reveals how much they’re actually opposed to God. And their trap failed. But they won’t quit trying. Their conflict with Jesus will continue, and they will find a way to put Jesus on the cross.

But for now, let’s think about this: Why does Jesus continually heal on the Sabbath? And why does Luke tell us about this multiple times? Jesus didn’t have to heal on the Sabbath. These weren’t life-or-death situations.

I think the answer is that Jesus came to fulfill the Sabbath. Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament law, to obey the demands of the old covenant that Israel failed to obey (Matt. 5:17). Jesus does what Adam and Israel couldn’t do, perfectly loving God and loving other people, perfectly obeying God’s commands. Jesus is the end of the law, the one to whom the law pointed (Rom. 10:4). And Jesus not only perfectly obeyed the Sabbath, including God’s intent for that holy day, but he also fulfilled its purpose. I think it’s clear from the New Testament that the Sabbath day not only pointed back to the seventh day of creation, but also pointed forward to Jesus, the one who gives us true rest.

The word Sabbath basically means rest.[6] In Matthew’s Gospel, before one of the occasions when Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And immediately after that, we’re told that Jesus’ disciples picked grain on the Sabbath and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He told the Pharisees that he is the “lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). It seems that Jesus was trying to teach that the Sabbath, just like the temple and the animal sacrifices performed there, were meant to foreshadow Jesus. They had a purpose for a time. A large part of their purpose was to point to Christ. But now that he had come, their day was ending.

Significantly, the apostle Paul addresses the Sabbath. Paul was greatly concerned that Jewish and Gentile Christians be one the same footing. That meant teaching about the law. In Galatians, he makes it quite clear that we are not under the law. He was alarmed by the false teaching that said you need to put your faith in Jesus and obey the law in order to be justified, or declared in the right with God. So, Paul writes, in Galatians 4:9–11:

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

“Days and months and seasons and years” must refer not only to Jewish festivals like the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, and things like the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee, but also to the weekly Sabbath.

In Colossians 2:16–17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Sabbath and the other holy days of Judaism were only shadows. They were things that foreshadowed the coming of Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, we should celebrate the substance, not the shadow. Jesus is the main event, and the Sabbath was the undercard. The Sabbath was a trailer, but Jesus is the full movie. So, Paul tells the Colossians, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to observe the Sabbath or continue to observe dietary laws. Trust Jesus and follow him.”

So, I don’t believe that we follow the Sabbath by taking a seventh day of rest, on which we don’t work at all. We should observe the Lord’s Day, Sunday, as a day to worship together. This is in honor of the day when Jesus rose from the grave. When Jesus died, he died on the sixth day, when he completed his work and said, “It is finished” (John 20:30). He died to pay the penalty that we all deserve because we are sinners and we have sinned. We are rebels against God, not living for him and loving him and obeying as we should. That crime deserves the harshest punishment. Yet Jesus, who never sinned, died in the place of all who put their trust in him, who come under his rule and receive his blessings. When he died, he was placed in a tomb, where he rested on the seventh day. And he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, inaugurating a new creation for which we are still waiting. According to Athanasius (c. 298–373), bishop of Alexandria, “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s Day as being the memorial of the new creation.”[7]

Some Christians believe that the Sabbath is still in effect, and that it moved from Saturday to Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The Bible never says this, and I think the passages that I’ve cited actually speak against this idea. Also, in the Roman Empire, Sunday was not a day of rest until the year 321. So, Christians had to work on Sunday for almost three hundred years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. They would gather to worship on that day, probably early in the morning or at night, but they would also have to work. If Sunday was the new Sabbath and work was forbidden, Christians wouldn’t be able to have jobs. They wouldn’t have survived. So, both biblically and historically, it doesn’t seem like the Sunday was the Sabbath.

But Christians are free to disagree about such matters. In Romans, Paul writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Paul doesn’t mean that everyone is right. Paul means that with some of these issues, even if people are wrong, it’s worth respecting other people’s convictions.

So, Jesus came to fulfill the Sabbath and to give us rest. How does he do this? He does this by addressing the root of what causes us so much unrest. What disrupts rest? What causes all the anxiety, the stress, the fatigue of the world? It’s sin. Before sin entered into the world, there was harmony: God and humans had a harmonious relationship. Creation was not marred by natural disasters. There was no death. All was well. But when the first humans failed to love and trust God, and when they disobeyed his commandment, sin entered into the world and flooded it. The consequences of sin include things like natural disasters. Creation isn’t always harmonious, and our relationship to it isn’t one of peace. There are floods and earthquakes and famines. We are often not at peace with one another. We argue and fight and covet and steal and kill. We’re not even at peace with ourselves. So much of the noise that I experience comes from within. And I’m not talking about my ringing ears. I’m talking about the many ways that my divided heart and mind are at war. And we are not at peace with God as long as we continue to rebel against him.

Sin is the cause of ringing ears, bad relationships, economic hardships, bad health, bad governments and politicians, and death itself. Sin causes unrest. But Jesus came to give us rest, and he said that everyone who comes to him in faith will receive that rest. He came to do the work that we can’t do because of our sin. He lived a perfect life. And he came to take on the punishment that we should receive, dying on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death. And he also bore God’s wrath on the cross, which goes far beyond physical pain. He experienced hell on earth so that all who come to him in faith won’t experience hell forever. Everyone who loves Jesus, trusts him, and starts to follow him (even if imperfectly) have their sins wiped away and forgiven, they are adopted into God’s family, and they will live with God forever, in heaven and in the new creation, when God restores the world. Those who trust in Jesus are at rest with God.

Though Jesus has inaugurated the true Sabbath in the spiritual rest that he provides for his disciples, the final fulfillment of that Sabbath rest is still future. The author of Hebrews writes, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). Whoever has entered God’s rest, through faith in Christ, has already rested from his or her works, as God rested after his creative activity (v. 10). In Revelation 14:13 it is said that those who die in the Lord rest from their labors (Rev. 14:13), indicating a future rest, which is achieved when God’s people are with him after death and, ultimately, in the new creation.

So, what should we do with this message? If you are not a Christian, I tell you that you will never find true rest until you put your faith in Jesus. You can try every other solution in the world, every other thing that people tell you will bring you ultimate comfort and peace and satisfaction in life. And it will fail every time. The reason why money, a good career, a great marriage, great health, pleasures of all kinds, power, celebrity and everything else that people chase after won’t give you rest is because they were never meant to do that. A lot of those things are good things, gifts from God, but they can’t satisfy your soul. They can’t make you whole. They won’t heal you.

If you continue to chase those things and remain unsatisfied, you’re like the man who has dropsy. You drink and drink and drink, and you’re bloated with all the things of the world, but you remain thirsty. That’s basically the human condition. We’re sick and thirsty, but we keep drinking from the wrong well. But God beckons us to stop trying to fix ourselves, and to let him fix us instead. In Isaiah 55, he says,

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live (Isa. 55:1–3a).

If you’re not a Christian, I would love to talk with you more about what it means to follow Jesus and how you can do that. I urge you to speak to God, tell him you realize you have sinned and you can’t save yourself, and ask him to forgive you and to grant you faith and repentance. Turn away from your old ways of living for yourself and live for God.

If you are a Christian, remember to rest in Christ. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the ways of the world, to get worried about all kinds of things, as if God is not on this throne and he is not on our side. We worry so much. A friend of mind, who is concerned about his job status, told me how he had applied for different jobs and was anxiously waiting to hear back from potential employers. He’s a Christian, yet he was acting as if God wouldn’t provide for him. I told him to rest in Christ. So many of us try to find rest in other things, even after we come to Christ. We need to remember what Augustine prayed to God: “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[8]

So many of us are worried about health and death. We worry not only about our own health, but the health of our loved ones. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to look at a book of Charles Spurgeon’s letters. Spurgeon (1832–1892), was a pastor in London in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was famous and he is rightly regarded as the “Prince of Preachers.” He died at the age of 57, and as he was dying, he wrote letters to his church. In one letter, written 25 days before he died, he writes,

On looking back upon the valley of the shadow of death through which I passed so short a time ago, I feel my mind grasping with firmer grip than ever that everlasting gospel which for so many years I have preached to you. We have not been deceived. Jesus does give rest to those who come to him, he does save those who trust him, he does photograph his image on those who learn of him. . . . Cling to the gospel of forgiveness through the substitionary sacrifice, and spread it with all your might, each one of you, for it is the only cure for bleeding hearts.[9]

That is my message to you. Trust in Christ. Cling to Christ. Rest in Christ. That is how we keep the Sabbath.

Notes

  1. Derek Beres, “Tinnitus and the Deafening Problem of Noise Pollution,”Big Think, May 16, 2019, https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/tinnitus, accessed May 31, 2019.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Sermo CCXXII, quoted in M. A. Riva et al, “The ‘Thirsty Dropsy’: Early Descriptions in Medical and Non-Medical Authors of Thirst as Symptom of Chronic Heart Failure,” International Journal of Cardiology 245 (2017): 187–189.
  4. See the May 12, 2019 sermon, “You Are Freed,” available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.
  5. The seventh day, in Genesis 2:1–3, lacks the phrase “there was evening and there was morning” that serves as a refrain in Genesis 1, marking the end of each day.
  6. The Hebrew noun translated as “Sabbath” (šabbāt) is related to the verb šābat, which means to cease or rest.
  7. Athanasius, On the Sabbath and Circumcision 3, quoted in Craig L. Blomberg, “The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ,” in Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views, ed. Christopher John Danto (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 310–11.
  8. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
  9. Charles Spurgeon, The Suffering Letters of C. H. Spurgeon (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2007), 118–119.

Will Those Who Are Saved Be Few?

This sermon was preached on May 26, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Imagine you’re trying to organize a family reunion. You have a large family with a history of not getting along. You want to make sure that everyone comes to this reunion, so you plan carefully. You’re very worried about what kind of food and drink to serve. First, you think about what snacks to serve. You know that a lot of people in your family love peanuts. But then you think of that cousin with the severe peanut allergy, and you want him to come, so you decide there can be no peanuts. That’s not such a big deal. People can go without peanuts for a day. So, you settle on some other snacks. You remember there are some people who have a gluten intolerance, but they don’t mind if other people eat gluten, so you make sure to have some gluten-free options. But then you think about the meal you’re going to serve. Traditionally, the family reunion has been a cookout, and you were thinking of barbecuing hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken. You start calculating how much meat to buy when you remember that there are two people in your family who are vegans. And they’re not quiet, unassuming vegans. They are the zealous, nobody-should-kill-and-eat-animals kind of vegan. They refuse to be with people who eat meat. They won’t to go to any restaurant that serves meat. And if you’re barbecuing anything but corn on the cob, they’re not coming. Can you really have a family reunion without the barbecue? If everyone is eating no-pork-and-beans without hot dogs and veggie burgers, will everyone be happy?

You start to think that you can live with this vegan solution, and then you start to think about beverages. You’ll have bottles of water and soda, and perhaps some iced tea. But traditionally, reunions in your family have had beer. You start to calculate how much beer you would need to buy when you remember there are some recovering alcoholics—and perhaps some not-so-recovering alcoholics—in your family. And, like the vegans, if they know that alcohol is being served, they won’t come. You start to think about some other people in you family, the kind that expect to have a hamburger and a beer. How will they respond to an invitation promising them all the fun they can have with a black bean burger and a glass of iced tea? Will they come?

And, forget about food, the real issue is that some people in your family might not come to the reunion if they know that other people in your family will be there. They might not care if you’re serving liver and onions; but they do care if your uncle Sal will be there.

The point of this story is to show not that it’s impossible to please everyone. We already know that. It’s to show that it’s pretty much impossible to include everyone. In our time, the idea of inclusion has become very important. Exclusion is a dirty word. We don’t want to exclude anyone. No child is to be left behind. Some people don’t think anyone should be excluded from entering our country. In sports, people are afraid of excluding transgender women, biological men who identify as women. So, in some cases, biological men are beating biological women in track and field and in weightlifting, among other things. In that case, the desire to include transgender women ends up excluding biological women from winning these events.

The reality is that in nearly every case, there will be always be people excluded. And that is certainly the case in the kingdom of God. The reality is that not every human being will enter the kingdom. Not every person will be included among God’s people. This is a very clear principle, from nearly the beginning of the Bible all the way to the end. And we see this in the passage that we’re looking at today, Luke 13:22–35. But though there will be some people who are excluded from God’s kingdom, it is not because God doesn’t care or because he’s cruel. No, we’ll see Jesus lamenting over the fact that some people will not enter. God may be an exclusive God, but he longs to include everyone, even though he can’t.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 13:22–30:

22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”[1]

Luke begins by stating that Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem. This has been the case for about four chapters now. Luke’s main concern isn’t about geography. If Jesus wanted to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, it would only take three days of walking. He could have been there by now. But Luke is more concerned about what Jerusalem means to Jesus. Jerusalem is where Jesus is going to die. And Jesus knows that. That’s why, in Luke 9:51, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what’s coming, and this is Luke’s way of reminding his readers what Jesus is going to face.

As Jesus is making his way through towns and villages, teaching people about the kingdom of God, someone asks an important question: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” This question makes sense in light of Jesus’ teaching that unless you repent, you will perish (Luke 13:1–5) and that there are barren trees that will be cut down (Luke 13:6–9). Will many survive the judgment of God and enter his kingdom, or will it only be a few?

Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. He turns it around to say, “Don’t worry about the numbers. Make sure that you enter the kingdom!” He says that the door to the kingdom is narrow. Many will attempt to enter it, but they won’t be able to get in. And there will be a time when it is too late for them to enter. The master of the house will shut the door, and at that time it will be impossible to get in. Still, people will say, “Let us in!” Then the master of the house, who is surely Jesus, will say, “I do not know where you come from.” Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. Jesus, as the Son of God, knows everything. But he means, “I don’t know you. I don’t have a personal relationship with you. You’re not on my team. You didn’t accept the invitation to the family reunion while you still had time to come. And once the party has begun, it’s too late to come in.”

The people who are shut out will say, “We ate and drank in your presence, you taught in our streets.” It’s their way of saying, “But we spent time with you. We hung out with you. We even had meals with you. We heard your words.” But for Jesus, it’s not enough that you spend some time with him. It’s not enough that went to church for some time, or even took the Lord’s Supper and were baptized. Jesus wants faith. Faith is trusting in him, not just knowing facts about him. Real trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior leads to obedience. It leads to a changed life. It’s not enough to say you believe in him. Anyone can do that. You have to mean it, and if you mean it, there will be things in your life that demonstrate that truth.

Jesus says that this master will say, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.” The line comes from Psalm 6:8, a Psalm in which David says that his enemies will be ashamed (Psalm 6:10). You may think it’s strange that these people, who apparently want to get into the party, are called workers of evil. But to ignore Jesus’ calls to repentance is evil. To reject Jesus is to reject God. Rejecting God is evil because he is the very reason why we exist.

There’s a great illustration that by a pastor and author, Tim Keller, that I would like to read. This is what he says:

Imagine a widow has a son she raises and puts through good schools and a good university at great sacrifice to herself, for she is a woman of very slender means. And as she’s raising him she says, “Son, I want you to live a good life. I want you to always tell the truth, always work hard, and care for the poor.” And after the young man graduates from college he goes off into his career and life—and never speaks to his mother or spends time with her. Oh, he may send her a card on her birthday, but he never phones or visits. What if you asked him about his relationship with his mother, and he responded: “No, I don’t have anything to do with her personally. But I always tell the truth, work hard, and care for the poor. I’ve lived a good life—that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

I doubt you would be satisfied with that answer. It is not enough for the man to merely live a moral life as his mother desired without having any kind of relationship with her. His behavior is condemnable because in fact she gave him all he has. More than just a moral life, he owes her his love and loyalty.

And if there is a God, you owe him literally everything. If there is a God, you owe him far more than a morally decent life. He deserves to be at the center of your life. Even if you are a good person but you are not letting God be God to you, you are . . . guilty of sin. . . . You are being your own savior and lord.[2]

We often ignore God. Though he has given us life, and though we exist to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him, we take him for granted. That is wrong. And because we do this, the world is cracked. We fight, we argue, we’re selfish, we’re greedy. Things are not the way they ought to be.

And that puts us in a bind. If God is going to fix the world, he has to remove all evil. If we’re evil, God would have to remove us. Is there a way for God to remove the evil from us without removing us?

That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t. He always put his relationship with God the Father first. He was never selfish. Yet he died as a criminal. He was literally regarded as sin (2 Cor. 5:21), so that when he died, God could destroy sin without destroying all sinners. And if you have a right relationship with Jesus, your evil has already been punished. And God has given you the Holy Spirit to start changing you from the inside out, to start replacing evil desires with good ones.

Jesus is telling these Jewish people that they should have known that he is the promised Messiah, the one that was prophesied to come. The Old Testament promised there would be a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David, who would be the anointed King, the one who would defeat the enemies of God’s people. But the Old Testament also promised a suffering servant of God, someone who would come and take the punishment that God’s people deserved for their sin, so that they could be healed and delivered from condemnation. They should have known that Jesus fulfilled these roles. But so many didn’t. And Jesus warns them here that while their faithful forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will be in the kingdom of God, along with all the prophets, not every Jewish person will be there. No one gets an automatic ticket to the kingdom of God. It’s not based on your genes, or whether your parents had faith. It’s not based on church attendance or how many good works you’ve done, because even your best acts are tainted with selfish motives, and we have all sinned in many ways. The one thing that gets us a ticket to the great family reunion, when we are reunited and reconciled to God the Father, is whether we know Jesus. Or, more accurately, whether Jesus knows us.

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C. I happened to walk by the White House, but I didn’t get in. I admit I didn’t try to get in, but if I had tried to get in, I wouldn’t have been allowed in. I wouldn’t have been allowed in even if I said, “I know the president. I’ve seen Donald Trump on TV! I’ve watched The Apprentice! I’ve stayed in a Trump Hotel! I even went to one of his rallies!” (Those last two things aren’t true, by the way.) None of that would matter to the Secret Service agents. But if, while I was standing outside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump came out of the White House and said, “I know him,” then I would get in.

That’s how it’s like with Jesus. If he knows us because we trust him and have been following him, he will let us in to the kingdom. He has the keys to the kingdom of God. Or, as it says in Isaiah, he has “the key to the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa. 22:22). Jesus says that many others will enter into the kingdom and eat. They will come from east and west and north and south. He’s probably referring to Jews who were scattered throughout the world, but also Gentiles—anyone who has faith in him.

Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last. It’s not how you start out in life; it’s how you end up. We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. They have a race, and the hare starts out fast. Quite naturally, he’s faster than the tortoise. But he is arrogant and proud and perhaps lazy, so he takes a nap. And when he finally wakes up, he realizes the tortoise has won the race. Some people appear to start out life quite well. They may have been raised in the church and baptized at an early age. But then they grow up and don’t go to church and don’t really seem to be obey Jesus. They don’t care that some people don’t know Jesus. They don’t obey Jesus in ways that only Christians do. Some people start out life poorly. They’re the obvious sinners, the people who do terrible wrongs, the people whom you might consider to be the real “workers of evil.” But if they turn to Jesus in faith, knowing that he alone can bring them forgiveness and reconciliation with God, then they enter into God’s kingdom.

Jesus makes it clear that there will be some excluded from the great party that is eternity with God. For them, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, a terrible fate we don’t want to know personally. Those excluded are those who didn’t put their lives in Jesus’ hands in this life, while there’s still time to turn from sin and turn to the Savior.

This idea of exclusion is rejected by some people who claim to be Christians. They believe in what is called universalism: somehow, in some way, everyone will be saved. But this goes against the grain of the whole Bible. God is continually making a division between his people and those who are against him. On Wednesday nights, we’re reading through Exodus, and we saw this in chapter 8, when God makes a distinction between his people, living in Goshen, and the Egyptians. The Egyptians suffer the fourth plague and the Israelites don’t (Exod. 8:20–24). The tenth plague is the worst, the one that causes Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of slavery. That plague had the firstborn of all families die—unless they obeyed the word of God and sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood of the lamb on their door frames. This was a sign that they trusted in God’s word. This trust led to obedience. And it was also a sign of atonement. The Israelites and anyone who joined with them were sinners, but a substitute could die in their place, taking the penalty they deserved for sin.

As the story of the Bible progresses, God makes divisions within Israel itself. It is clear that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” to use the apostle Paul’s words (Rom. 9:6). Not everyone in Israel had faith in God and his promises. God knew that. We’re told in both the Old and New Testaments that Lord knows who are his (Num. 16:5; Nah. 1:7; John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor. 8:3; 2 Tim. 2:19). Jesus says that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). In John 10, he says that he is the shepherd who brings his sheep through the gate. The gate keeper opens to him, and he leads his sheep, who follow his voice, into safe pasture (John 10:2–3). There are others who try to sneak into the sheepfold by another way, but they are thieves and robbers (John 10:1). Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). He tells the Jewish people he has other sheep—Gentiles—and they will be become part of the one fold of God. He says that those who don’t pay heed to his voice are not his sheep (John 10:26), but, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Jesus clearly includes some and excludes others. The irony is that if a pastor disagrees with Jesus and says that all will be saved, he is including a Jesus of his own making and excluding the real Jesus. And he will be including people into his church who don’t believe in the real Jesus, and he will exclude ones who do, for they will seek out a church where the truth of the Bible is taught. Even attempts to create a “radically inclusive Jesus” end up excluding people.

To some, the idea of an exclusive Jesus might seem cruel or cold. But even though Jesus does exclude some, we can never accuse him of not caring, of being indifferent or unloving. We see this in the next few verses, verses 31–35:

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Some Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, tell him that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. Herod was the ruler over Galilee, and he will eventually figure into Jesus’ death. Jesus gives them a message: “Tell that fox Herod that I’m not afraid. I’ll continue to do my work until it’s done.” Jesus will continue to perform miracles, to cast out demons and heal people. He will continue to teach. And his course will be finished on the third day. That could be just a figure of speech. But it’s also an allusion to his resurrection. Jesus knew he wouldn’t die in Galilee. He would die in Jerusalem, where prophets and apostles are killed. He would die on the cross, because some Jewish leaders wanted him dead, and because neither Pilate nor Herod stepped into rescue an innocent man. He died because Satan wanted him dead. But ultimately, he died because it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. The Father sent the Son, his dear, loved, one-of-a-kind Son to die in the place of sinners. And Jesus came to lay down his life, since it was no less his plan than the Father’s. Jesus knew what was coming, and he wasn’t afraid of any man who might get in his way. He knew that his course included death on the cross and resurrection from the grave.

But even though he knew what was coming, and that many people would not enter the kingdom, he still laments. Jerusalem stands for the whole nation of Israel. Jesus laments that not all of Israel would come under his wings. He yearned to protect them the way a hen protects her brood. But they were not willing to come under his wings.

Now, the truth is that no one is willing to come under Jesus’ wings unless they are first changed by God. Paul says that no one seeks for (Rom. 3:11), and the fact is that no one would seek after him were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit. And some may wonder why God doesn’t change everyone’s heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. Some might say that such a thing would violate free will. But the Bible never says that. In fact, the Bible says: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21; 9:12; 10:1; 14:8). And God has hardened and softened other hearts as he sees fit. So, it’s not as though God is helpless. Yet, for some reason, God has chosen to bring some people to faith and not all. In a similar way, Jesus chose to let his friend Lazarus die. He did this so he could later bring Lazarus back to life. This was all for God’s glory and to show what Jesus could do and what he would do by dying and being raised back to life himself (John 11:4, see also John 11:21, 37). But Jesus still wept (John 11:35). And then he raised Lazarus back to life.

We might say that God, in one sense, wants all people to be in his kingdom, but in another sense, he wants something else, something greater. Again, some people would say that this greater thing is to respect a person’s free will. But the Bible doesn’t say that clearly, and I don’t think our will is as free as we sometimes think it is. But the Bible does say, in different ways, that God desires his own glory above all else. And this is a good thing. God is the most glorious being. If God glorified someone else more than he glorified himself, God would be an idolater, and therefore a worker of evil. But God doesn’t just love and glorify himself. He loves sinners, and he has chosen to bring some sinners to glory through the door that is Jesus. We can accept that truth, and trust Jesus, or we can complain about God and show our true selves, that we don’t love him and trust him. We may not understand all God’s ways. In fact, if God is God and we are finite beings, we shouldn’t expect to understand God completely. But we should trust that God is good and wise and that he always does what is right. And we should run under the protection of Jesus, because he is the only way to get into the kingdom. He is an exclusive God, but he’s also a God who cares, who loves so deeply that he would die for sinners, and who even laments that other sinners will not be part of his kingdom. This is a God you can love, a God you can trust, a God who is worth following.

This message of exclusivity is one that challenges our society. And it challenges all of us. It’s heavy. We should feel the weight of it. Some people will be shut out of the kingdom of God. And this is their own choosing. They didn’t want to enter under God’s terms. They thought that they God would allow them to do whatever they wanted and respect what they believe are their rights. This should cause us to lament. It should cause us to warn other people about this reality, to urge them to trust in Jesus.

And it should cause us to make sure that we are following Jesus. The truth is, we don’t know how many will be reconciled to God. It may be very few. But Jesus doesn’t want us to speculate about that. He wants us to consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14). He gives salvation as a gift, but it’s a gift that’s hard to receive. Receiving it means acknowledging that we’re sinners who can’t rescue ourselves. It’s a blow to our pride. And the way of Jesus isn’t easy. When we follow Jesus, some people will hate us. We have to continue repenting, turning away from the allure of the world and all the things it promises us will make us happy. It means putting our old selves to death so Jesus can make us into new people, the people we should be.

What we should do today is consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. Are we truly following Jesus? Are there ways that we have been following the world, walking that broad path that leads to destruction? If so, it’s not too late to turn around and get on the right path. As long as there is life and breath in a person, it is not too late to change paths, to walk toward heaven’s gate, Jesus himself. He stands waiting. If we knock on his door in faith, he will let us in. Those who truly seek him will never be excluded. If we know this, we should tell others. In that great feast of heaven, there is room for more.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (New York: Dutton, 2013), 36–37.

In Christ We Have Hope

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 21, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.

In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.

Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.

It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?

I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.

This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.

We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:

1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.[1]

Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.

Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.

Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.[2]) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.

Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.

Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)

Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.

Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.

Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.

Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.

Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.

So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.

Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.

Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[4] He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[5] In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”[6]

Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.

However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights.[7] Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.

So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).

I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[8]

I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”

The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.

Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.

Let’s look at verses 32–34

32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.

But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.

And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.

However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:

53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55  “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.

Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.

And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106.
  5. Ibid., 107.
  6. Ibid., 115.
  7. For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016).
  8. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63.

 

Where Is Your Treasure

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 14, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

About exactly ten years ago, Kathy and I took a vacation to California. We flew from Seattle to San Francisco, spent a couple of days there, drove down to San Diego to visit one friend, and then later drove to Palm Springs to visit another friend. Finally, we drove through Los Angeles and then drove back to San Francisco along the coast. On the way back, we stopped at San Simeon to see the Hearst Castle. This is the property developed by William Randolph Heart, the millionaire newspaper publisher. The 40,000 acres of property on which Heart’s “castle” is situated were purchased by his father in 1865. After Hearst inherited the property in 1919, he started building it up so that it would include exquisite gardens, tennis courts, a mansion, a luxurious indoor swimming pool, and several guest houses. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst hosted parties for the rich and famous, and several movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable stayed there, as did other famous people like Winston Churchill and Charles Lindbergh.

Hearst Castle is impressive. All of it is ornate. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is eclectic and eccentric. Perhaps some of it is just gaudy. Hearst spent millions of dollars to build up the place over nearly three decades. We were able to tour the estate, seeing the various buildings in their ostentatious glory.

Do you know who lives in Hearst Castle? As far as I know, no one does. But I can tell you who certainly doesn’t live there: William Randolph Hearst. He died in 1951. Hearst Castle is a monument to his wealth, but it also feels like a grand waste. I felt the same way when Kathy and I went to Newport a few years ago and toured the mansion called The Breakers, which has now become a museum of sorts, a museum of lavish amounts of money spent on one of the fanciest summer homes the world has ever known.

Homes like these are reminders of how people have spent extraordinary amounts of money on themselves. I’ve been a in few estates and castles like this, and I always get the same feeling: Though these places are impressive, they were built as monuments to the self, a self that long since died, a soul who now is either with God for eternity or, perhaps more likely, is apart from God for eternity. These places feel like memorials to lives that were wasted.

Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to encounter some hard words from Jesus about wealth and possessions. As we read these words, let’s not think that they apply only to the fabulously rich. By the world’s standards, we are very rich. Let us hear from Jesus, and let’s not be defensive. Let’s consider how we could better use all that God has given to us, so that we wouldn’t build monuments to waste. Instead, let us consider how we could be better stewards of God’s wealth.

We’re going to read Luke 12:13–34 today. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is a biography of Jesus. Most of Luke’s Gospel concerns the years before Jesus’ death, and a good chunk of the Gospel details Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, when he was crucified and then rose from the grave. We’re now in a section of the Gospel where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching.

So, let’s go ahead and read verses 13–21:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”[1]

Jesus has been teaching and someone interrupts him. This man wants Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. It’s probably more likely that this man wants Jesus to settle the dispute in his favor. He may have been a younger brother whose older brother refused to divide the family’s inheritance. We don’t know. But we do know that in Israel’s law, there are passages that deal with inheritance issues (Num. 27:10–11; 36:2–10; Deut. 21:15–17). Since Jesus is regarded as a religious teacher, it makes sense for someone to ask him to help. But Jesus did not come to settle family squabbles, and Jesus cannot be manipulated or used to do our selfish bidding.

So, Jesus refused to get involved. Jesus is a judge, and people will stand before him in judgment one day, but he had better things to do than mediate this family issue.

Jesus tells his followers to be on guard against greed and covetousness, because life is more than possessions. Then, Jesus tells a parable, which are so common in Luke’s Gospel. A parable is a little story, probably fictional, that teaches theological truths in colorful and memorable ways.

The parable is quite easy to understand. There’s a rich man whose land has produced a great deal of crops. He looks around and sees that he has so much that he can’t store it all. So, he decides to build new storehouses. And when he’s done, he thinks he can “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.” This man is living the American dream in first-century Palestine.

In reality, the Bible teaches that it is God that causes crops to grow (Ps. 104:14). But this man isn’t thinking about God; he’s thinking about himself. In his little soliloquy, there are six first-person verbs—“I will do this” and “I will do that”—and there are five occurrences of “my”my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. But the fact is that God is the owner of all. Psalm 24:1 says,

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.

In Psalm 50, God says that he doesn’t need sacrifices. He doesn’t need the Israelites, who had been offering up sacrifices in bad faith, to present animals such as bulls to him. God then gives the reason why in verses 10–12:

10  For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11  I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12  If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.

God owns everything. But this man couldn’t see that. All he thought was, “I, me, mine.”

And there was something else the man couldn’t see: his own expiration date. He thought he could sit back and enjoy all his stuff for years. He didn’t realize that death can come at any time. As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes: “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Eccl. 8:8). Death will come for us all, and death doesn’t give us a warning.

The man’s failure to realize all this is why he’s called a fool. In the Bible, “fool” isn’t just an insult. The Bible says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1). A fool may not actually say that God doesn’t exist, but he certainly lives like it. He doesn’t fear God. Last week, we read the beginning of Luke 12, in which Jesus says that we should fear God, because our eternal destination is in his hands. This man was thinking only about himself. He didn’t realize that things would not go according to plan. His materialistic dream turned into a terrible tragedy. We have no indication that he would be with God for eternity. It’s just the opposite: this man is surely cut off from God, for there’s no indication that he had a right relationship with him.

And Jesus warns us in verse 21: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Everyone who acts like this man will experience a similar fate. We will either realize that all we have is a gift from God, and we will use it accordingly, or we will act like everything is ours, and we will build our little castles and say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” to use a phrase we’ll encounter next week (1 Cor. 15:32). While it may seem wise to pamper ourselves, to spare no comfort or joy that money can afford, we would be foolish to do that. We would be foolish because such a way of living doesn’t think of God. It doesn’t recognize that God has given us everything we have. It doesn’t ask, “God, what do you want me to do with all that you’ve given me?” It doesn’t spend precious resources on the things that God cares about. It’s a waste. Also, it’s foolish because we can’t take it with us when we die. And the Bible acknowledges that after we die, our possessions will be left to others, and in some cases, they’ll forget about us and use that inheritance unwisely (Pss. 39:6; 49:10; Eccl. 2:20–23).

This parable raises some important questions. Is it wrong to save for the future? I don’t think so. I think we can read some of the Proverbs as saying that it’s wise to work hard when you can so that you will have food later (Prov. 6:6–8; 10:4–5; 28:19). The reality is that we only have so much time to work, and then later there will be a time when we can’t work, or at least not as hard. So, it’s wise to save while we can so that we will have some later to live on. But there are many Proverbs that warn about greed. Consider these:

Proverbs 11:24:

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.

Proverbs 11:28:

Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Proverbs 23:4:

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.

Proverbs 28:22:

A stingy man hastens after wealth
and does not know that poverty will come upon him.

There is clearly a line between being greedy and being prosperous and being generous. If God has given you abilities to work hard and talents that allow you to have a good job, there’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money. The question is what we do with that money. Do we hoard it, or do we give generously to advance the kingdom of God and to give to those who are needy?

Perhaps the best thing is to be neither too rich nor too poor, but somewhere in the middle. That idea, too, comes from Proverbs. This is what Proverbs 30:7–9 says:

Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

Being poor might lead us to be angry with God, or to do something unethical to get what we need to survive. But the bigger warning is against being rich and complacent. If all our material needs are met, we might deny God and say, “Who is the Lord?” We might not literally say that, but it’s easy to be slack in our dependence on God when we have everything we think we need. That certainly happened in Israel’s history (Moses saw it coming in Deut. 31:20). And we see it today, too.

Part of the reason why riches are so dangerous is that money can be an idol. The apostle Paul says that greed and covetousness is an idol (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). He also says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). He doesn’t say money or wealth is necessarily a root of evil, but it’s the love of those things. And if you hoard those things, you love them, or you’re at least putting your faith in those things.

It may be strange to think of money, wealth, and our love of these things as idols. Aren’t idols little statues that primitive and ignorant people worshiped? Well, not necessarily. Anything can be an idol. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, has written a great little book on idolatry called Counterfeit Gods. In it, he writes: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”[2] He says that an idol is the thing that we think we can’t live without. It’s the kind of thing that dominates our life. If we lose it, we think our life is not worth living. It’s what we daydream about, what we think the most about, what consumes are time and energy. Perhaps it’s what we don’t yet have, something we’re desperate to acquire, because we think it will give our lives meaning. In short, an idol is whatever takes the place that God should have in our lives.[3] God made us for himself. God should be at the center of our lives, but an idol removes God from his throne, at least in our hearts, and usurps his place. An idol is whatever we love the most, trust the most, and obey the most.[4]

Keller says that we can have “surface idols,” like money, a career, a relationship, sex, entertainment, or all kinds of things. But those surface idols are built on the “deep idols” of power, approval, comfort, and security.[5] Think about why we want money. We think it will give us the power to do or to have what we want. If we have enough money, we can control our lives. We can improve our health, improve our looks, improve our social status. If we have enough money, we’ll get approval. People will love us, they’ll want to be with us. If we have enough money, we can have all the comfort this world can give us. And if we have enough money, we can have security, or so we think. We can have a retirement plan. If an accident occurs, we’ll be ready. “Money answers everything”—that’s what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes thought (Eccl. 10:19), but it seems that he didn’t think of life from an eternal perspective.

But nothing can give us ultimate security. Only God can do that. Houses can burn down. Riches can be stolen or lost. Investments can tank. Another Proverb says that wealth can “suddenly . . . sprout wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Prov. 23:5). Money cannot give us power over death. It cannot give us the comfort of a right relationship with God, of being at peace with our Maker. Money certainly can’t buy his approval. Money is a gift, but it’s meant to be used in the way the Giver wants us to use it.

We’ll think a bit more about the right use of wealth. But let’s now turn to rest of today’s passage. Here is Luke 12:22–34:

22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Here, Jesus tells us not to worry so much about money. God will take care of his people. Again, Jesus says that life is more than stuff, even more than basic things like food and clothing. God takes care of ravens, which were regarded as unclean animals, animals that the Israelites couldn’t eat (Lev. 11:15; Deut. 14:14). Perhaps the reference to ravens is a reminder that God used ravens to feed the prophet Elijah during a time of famine (1 Kgs. 17:4, 6). If God can take care of birds, who don’t plant and harvest, won’t he take care of human beings? If God makes sure that lilies, which are alive today and dead tomorrow, are clothed in beauty, won’t he make sure that his people are clothed?

Jesus’ point is to trust God for basic provisions. That’s why he teaches his followers to pray for their daily bread (Luke 11:3). Every day, we should rely upon God. Imagine how Jesus’ initial audience had to rely on God. They lived in a culture in which people had to work hard almost every day just to survive. They relied on each season’s crop, which meant they relied on the weather, which only God can control. The lived hand to mouth, and they had to live with the reminder that God causes rain to fall and crops to grow. In the west, we tend to forget all about this. Our prosperity causes us to think we’re self-reliant instead of God-reliant.

Jesus tells us to trust that our Father in heaven is good and will supply all our needs. Therefore, we don’t need to worry. The Gentiles, those apart from God, worry. But one sign of a Christian is that he or she knows God will provide. So, instead of worrying about money and food and clothing and shelter, we should first seek the kingdom of God. Seek the King. Worship him. Praise him. Live life on his terms. And ask him to provide what you need.

We should do that because God gives his children himself. God gives his children his kingdom. God has given us his own Son. If God did not spare his own precious Son, how much more will he give us little things like food and clothing!

Jesus ends this section of teaching by telling his followers to sell their possessions, to give to the needy, and to make their treasure in heaven, for that treasure cannot be lost or stolen, neither will it decay. What we treasure most is an indication of what we love the most. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Again, the issue really comes down to what we’re worshiping. If we worship God, he will be our treasure, and we won’t worry so much about how much money we have. But if we’re always thinking about money, if we’re always motivated by money, then we have a problem. Money has become our real treasure, our idol. And that is the greatest sin.

So, what do we do with this passage? One temptation would be to think that this passage is directed only at the “1 percent,” the über-rich. But let’s not make that mistake. Jesus was talking to a group of people who weren’t terribly wealthy. In fact, by our standards, they were quite poor.

The first thing we should do is have a biblical view of money and possessions. Everything we have comes from God. Even the ability to work hard, to have lucrative skills, comes from God (Deut. 8:17–18). Every good gift comes from his hand (James 1:17). And God has called us to trust that he will provide. He has called us to manage what he has given to us wisely. He has called us to give to others.

At the end of Paul’s first letter to his younger associate, Timothy, he tells Timothy that some people think that godliness is a way to become wealthy. There were people who believed the prosperity gospel then, just as there are people who believe that now. You know that message: “If you really believe in God, he will give you wealth.” People somehow think that God can be manipulated, like a celestial genie, or a heavenly ATM. So, Paul tells Timothy this in 1 Timothy 6:6–10:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Then, a few verses later, Paul adds this (1 Tim. 6:17–19):

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

God gives us good things to enjoy, but he gives us those things also to be rich in good works, to be generous to those who are needy. Elsewhere, we’re told to give to people in ministry, too, which is why we give to the church (1 Tim. 5:17–18, also 1 Cor. 9:4–14; Gal. 6:6). If we use our resources in the way that God wants us to, we’re showing that God is our true treasure. We’re storing up treasure for ourselves, a treasure that gives us true life.

Does this mean that we have to sell all our possessions and give them away? I don’t think so. Jesus doesn’t tell us to sell all our possessions. And, if we think about it, he might just be saying, “Give your money away.” In those days, there weren’t banks and investments, at least not the way we have banks and stocks and bonds today. I’m guessing that most people didn’t have a lot of coins in their possession. Most of their wealth would be stored in what they owned: their house, their clothing, perhaps some jewelry, quite often animals. The wealthier might have had some precious metals or stones. So, for them to give money away, they would first have to sell their possessions. At any rate, Jesus is certainly calling us to give generously, but that doesn’t mean we must give everything away. Later in Luke’s Gospel, we’ll encounter Zacchaeus, a tax collector who meets Jesus and is changed. Zacchaeus gives away half of his wealth and he is lifted up as an example (Luke 19:1–10).

A couple of weeks ago, I said that every generation has its blind spots. We have certain things in our lives that we don’t realize are sins. I wonder how future generations of Christians will look back at us. We can look back and say, “I can’t believe Christians owned slaves, or we’re racists,” or whatever. Future generations will look at us, I’m sure, and wonder how we could tolerate sexual sins, so much divorce, pornography, and abortion. I’m sure they’ll look at our society, with its triviality and entertainment, and wonder how we could be so shallow. But they’ll also look at our wealth and wonder why we didn’t give more. They’ll wonder whether we loved God or our money more. According to theologian Craig Blomberg, “It is arguable that materialism is the single biggest competitor with authentic Christianity for the hearts and souls of millions in our world today, including many in the visible church.”[6]

There are always people and causes to give to. There is no shortage of poor people throughout the world. And we can give to Christian organizations who help the poor and the sick. You can sponsor a child through Compassion International or World Vision. Both organizations help with disaster relief, and other Christian agencies do that, too. The Voice of the Martyrs helps persecuted Christians, often with practical things like food, housing, and medicine. There are many ways to give to the poor. And we should remember that Jesus never says it’s the government’s job to take care of poverty. He doesn’t call for higher tax rates and more state-run welfare programs. He calls his followers to voluntarily give, and we can give to organizations that help the poor and tell others about Jesus.

Of course, churches, missionaries, and other Christian institutions need money. And we should give to them, and we should do so generously. Most of the things we spend our money on won’t last. But when we give to things that help advance God’s kingdom, our money is used for eternal causes. When we use our money to help other people get Bibles, or help other people hear the gospel, or help other people become better disciples, we’re spending our money on eternal matters.

And, above all, we should be thankful for all that God has given to us. When we’re greedy, we’re not content with what we have. And a failure to be content is a failure to thank God. Grace should lead to thanksgiving.

So, this week, think about your stuff. Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? Will you let God control your life, including your possessions, or are you trying to control everything? Are you using your things wisely? Are there ways that you could be more generous? Could you literally sell something, whether a physical object or an investment, and give more money away? Think about the end of your life: Do you want to be known for building a castle full of toys, or for giving generously, particularly to eternal causes? Ask God to lead you in this. Think about it. And then act.

And let us be thankful. God has given us so much. God has given us his Son, Jesus. Though we all have idols, though we all have failed to love God and worship him and obey him and trust him, though we all have sinned, God has given us everything we need to be reconciled to him. And Jesus left his luxurious home in heaven to become a man, to live a righteous life for us and to die an atoning death for us. He did this because his true treasure was doing the will of his Father. If your life is built on the counterfeit god of money, or on any other idol, I urge you to smash that idol and to turn to Jesus. And let us all follow his example: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvii.
  3. Ibid., xviii–xix
  4. Ibid., xxi–xxii.
  5. Ibid., 64–65
  6. Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 132.

Fear Him!

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Let me start with a question: What is your biggest fear? What are you most afraid of? Take a moment to think about it. Chapman University conducts an annual survey of American fears. Here are some of the results in 2018’s survey:

73.6 percent were afraid of corrupt government officials.

61.6 percent and 60.7 percent were afraid of pollution of bodies of water and pollution of drinking water, respectively.

57 percent were afraid of not having enough money for the future.

56.5 percent were afraid of “people I love becoming seriously ill.”

56.4 percent of people were afraid of “people I love dying.”

As you go down the list, you see other items that aren’t surprising: about half of people are afraid of terrorism and wars, a significant number of people are afraid of accidents, and people are increasingly concerned about privacy issues related to personal data and identity theft. Surprisingly, only 27.9 percent said they were afraid of dying and 23.7 percent said they were afraid of hell. Even more surprisingly, only 8.4 percent said they were afraid of zombies, 8.3 percent said they were afraid of ghosts, and 7.1 percent said they were afraid of clowns.[1]

I think most people are afraid of embarrassment, pain, and loss. A lot of people are afraid of public speaking—26.2 percent in that survey—because they’re afraid they’ll be embarrassed. People are often afraid of what others will think about them. People are afraid of physical and emotional pain, which could come from accidents, terrorist attacks, abuse, and deaths. And people are afraid of loss—loss of money, loss of sensitive personal data, loss of a job, loss of a relationship, loss of loved ones, and loss of life. Those fears are all understandable, and some of us in this room have had some big fears realized in our lives.

What someone fears tells you a lot about what a person values. So, what do you fear the most? And what does that say about you?

I bring this issue of fear up because in the passage that we’re studying today, Luke 12:1–12, Jesus tells us who we should not fear, and who we should. And since Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and the Son of God, I think we should pay attention to what he has to say about fear.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a while now, and we’re in the period of Jesus’ life when he’s teaching and when he’s starting to have more and more conflict with the Jewish religious leaders of his day, in particular the Pharisees. Last week, in Luke 11:37–54, we saw that Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the religious legal scholars because of their hypocrisy. This week, we see Jesus warn his disciples not to become like the Pharisees, and to think very carefully about how they will live. And he says that who we fear will dictate how we live.

Let’s begin by reading the first three verses of Luke 12:

1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.[2]

Last week, at the very end of Luke 11, we read that the Pharisees and the scribes were plotting to trap Jesus, to trip him up and cause him to say something that would condemn him. Of course, they couldn’t succeed in doing that, because Jesus spoke perfectly. He answered all their insincere questions in ways that shut them down.

But as they were scheming, Jesus kept drawing crowds. Luke tells us that thousands of people gathered around Jesus, so much that they were “trampling one another.” And I’m sure it was his recent criticism of the Pharisees plus the large crowds that led him to warn his disciples about becoming like the Pharisees. He tells them to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” In the Jewish context, “leaven” was a bit of fermented dough which could taint a whole lump of dough. A little bit of leaven, like yeast, can affect a large lump of dough.

It’s interesting that the apostle Paul also uses the phrase, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” a couple of times in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 5, he warns the church about allowing sin to continue in the church (1 Cor. 5:6–8). In Galatians 5:9, Paul warns Christians not to try to earn a right standing with God by obedience to the old covenant law, the law that God gave Israel at Mount Sinai (Gal. 5:9). In the Didache, an early Christian document from the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), it says, “Throw out, therefore, the bad leaven, which has become stale and sour, and reach for the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted with him, so that none of you become rotten, for by your odor you will be examined.”[3] Then it makes it clear that the old leaven in mind is Judaism, specifically adherence to the old covenant. While the meaning of the phrase is different in each context, the saying shows that certain ways of doing things are not compatible with Christianity. Hypocrisy, outrageous and damaging sin, and the old covenant are not compatible with the way of Jesus.

In this case, Jesus is warning against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Jesus’ twelve disciples might be tempted, in order to please a large crowd, to act one way in public while they lived a different way in private. They might have been tempted to lead double lives, and Jesus warns them about that. Nothing that is covered up will not be revealed. Whatever is in the dark will come to the light. That’s true of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. It’s true of Christians who are hypocrites. And it’s also true of Jesus’ identity and the truth of the Christian message. All that is true will be revealed in the end, when Jesus returns to this world and there is a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. What is inside a person will be laid bare, exposed before God. There will be no fooling God, for he knows everything about us. And the truth about Jesus will be undeniable, because we will stand before him in his glory. And it’s Jesus that we should most concerned about, not what the crowds think and what the crowds approve.

Let’s now read verses 4–7:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Again, Jesus must have the Pharisees and crowds in mind when he tells his disciples not to fear people, but to fear God instead. The Pharisees would prove hostile to Jesus, and Jesus knew that those who hated him will hate his followers. The Roman Empire was largely hostile to Christianity, too. In time, many of the original disciples would die for their faith. Others, like Stephen (Acts 7), James (Jesus’ brother), and Paul would die for their faith. Later in this Gospel of Luke, Jesus will tell the twelve that before the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, they would be persecuted (Luke 21:12). So, that people had the power to kill the bodies of the disciples is not some empty rhetoric. This was something that would happen to many, though not all of them.

Even though that threat of persecution was real, Jesus tells his followers not to fear people. The worst that people can do is kill you. Instead, fear God, who has the ability to cast you into hell. This is the only time that Luke uses that word, hell, which is literally Gehenna (Greek: γέεννα). It’s a reference to where people are punished after that great day of judgment. The name comes from a physical location, a valley south of Jerusalem called “the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” It’s a place where wicked Israelites had sacrificed their children to a false god, an idol named Molech (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31–32; 19:4–6; 32:34–35). These were burnt sacrifices: the children were burned. So, the image of Gehenna is a place associated with wickedness and burning, but it came to be used of people who would be condemned by God, cut off from him and everything that is good forever. The book of Revelation calls it the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10–15). But the torment of hell is far greater than fire, and sometimes it’s called “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12). In either case, whether the image is fire or darkness, hell is an awful fate, something far worse than we can imagine, and it’s a fate reserved for those who reject have sinned against God—which is all of us—and who don’t embrace Jesus.

Essentially, Jesus is telling his followers not to worry about the masses of people who don’t have real power. Worry about God, who has our eternal destiny in his hands. And if you belong to God, you are valuable. God knows and cares about small things like sparrows, which apparently were things that the poorest people would buy to eat, and even the number of hairs on your head. He knows these things and he cares about such little details. And if he cares about such little things, how much more will he care for his children. If you trust in Jesus, believing that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, the worst fate you can experience is rejection by others, torture, and death. But you will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world, a renewed and restored creation in which there is nothing bad—no hunger or pain, no diseases or wars, and no death. But if you live to please the masses instead of God, you will have an unending experience of decay, torment, isolation. You’ll be permanently trapped in darkness, something like solitary confinement—but far worse, and without a moment of relief.

Jesus says that everyone who has ever lived will fall into two camps: they will embrace him or deny him. Let’s look at verses 8–12:

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

Those who acknowledge Jesus will be acknowledged by God. Those who deny Jesus will be denied by God. When Jesus says “acknowledge,” he doesn’t mean that those who know Jesus lived will go to heaven when they die. The devil knows Jesus is alive. Knowing facts about Jesus is not what he has in mind. Acknowledging Jesus means knowing who he is and responding appropriately. We talk of faith or belief. If you believe that Jesus is Lord and God, you will trust that he is a good King, and you will come under his rule. If you believe that Jesus is the Savior, you will trust that he is the only one who can make you right with God, who can take care of your sins so that they are wiped away and who can credit you with his righteousness so that God will regard you as having done what is right and good. If you trust Jesus, you will not only obey him and believe in his work on your behalf, but you’ll love him.

Jesus even forgives those who have spoken against him. Look at verse 10 again: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” If we take this verse out of context, we might be confused and even very afraid. But we have the rest of the New Testament to help us make sense out of what Jesus was saying. We can even think about specific cases. Think about one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. But after he became aware of what he had done, he had great sorrow, and he repented. He turned back to Jesus. He was forgiven. Think of Paul. Paul was a Pharisee who first had persecuted Christians. He surely spoke against Jesus many times. But when he saw the truth about Jesus, he was changed. He was forgiven. Those who had spoken against Jesus and turn back to him are forgiven. And that turning back to him must occur in this life.

On the other hand, those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus says this, he says in the context of people believing that his miracles were performed by the power of Satan. So, it appears that speaking against the Holy Spirit means ascribing his power to the devil. But the Holy Spirit does other things besides empowering people to perform miracles. The Holy Spirit later empowers the disciples to preach the good news about Jesus. We see that in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit leads some of those apostles, and others like Luke, to write the books of the New Testament. Denying the Holy Spirit means denying the gospel, denying God’s word. And not just denying once. Paul denied the gospel message for a while. But he repented and put his faith in Jesus. Jesus must have in mind those who continue to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, even to their deaths. If you continually deny God’s activity, which comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, throughout your life, there is not hope for you. And as we’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel, to deny God all you have to do is be apathetic about Jesus. Denying God may not look like hostility. It may look like a shrug and indifference.

Perhaps Jesus has something more specific in mind in the context of this passage. He might mean that the disciples might be tempted to change what they believe in the context of persecution. When the masses turn against them, and the powers that be are threatening their lives, they may be tempted to deny Jesus, to change their tune. That’s why Jesus says, in verses 11 and 12, not to be anxious about what will happen when the stand before Jewish and Roman authorities. In that day, the Holy Spirit will teach them what they are to say.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, shortly before his death, Jesus teaches the disciples that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. The Roman Empire did this in the year 70, about forty years later. And Jesus tells his disciples this, in Luke 21:12–19:

12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

Jesus says that they will be persecuted. He doesn’t sugar coat things for his followers. He says that some of the twelve would die for their faith, and yet, not a hair of their head would perish. Of course, he didn’t mean that literally. He just said some of them would die. But that’s the worst that could happen to them. And, in light of eternal bliss, what is a bit of momentary pain? It’s nothing. It’s better to have momentary pain and eternal joy than to deny Jesus and have eternal torment. And in that context, Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Don’t think about what you’ll say. The Holy Spirit will be with you, and he’ll take care of you.”

Some Christians have used this to say that when we share our faith with others, we shouldn’t think in advance what we’ll say. But that’s not what context of this passage. When we tell people the gospel, we should prepare. We should study. We should know what we believe. We should learn how to communicate it well. We should learn how non-Christians think, what their questions are, and what their objections to Christianity are. Jesus is not excusing laziness and anti-intellectualism. Just last night, I was reading a portion of a new book on apologetics, which is a rational presentation or defense of the Christian faith. At the beginning of the book, there’s a reference to recent surveys which suggest that young people are leaving the church because the church is often anti-intellectual.[4] Jesus is not saying, “Don’t think. Don’t prepare in advance what you’ll say in any given situation.” If that were so, all my sermons would be extemporaneous, and they would be pretty lousy.

But Jesus is talking about the context of persecution, when your life is being threatened. He’s talking about a situation in which an authority, who has the power to throw you in prison or kill you, is pressing you to deny Jesus. And Jesus says, “Don’t worry.”

Maybe you’ve never thought about what you would do in that situation. I have. I have thought about it because I’ve studied enough history to know that people have been martyred. People have been pressured to give up their faith. We will likely see this more and more in this country. We won’t see Christians get the death penalty. More likely, we’ll see Christians being refused employment, losing their jobs because of their faith. A relatively small number of Christians will die each year for the faith. But many more will be beaten, imprisoned, robbed, fired, or cut off from family.

If your life was on the line, would you deny Jesus or continue to believe in him? Settle it in your minds, right now. But don’t worry about what you would say in that moment. Just focus on Jesus, and the right words will come.

When I think about this issue, I think about a recent movie by Martin Scorsese, called Silence. Scorsese is a Catholic, and I don’t know what he truly believes. But the film is thought-provoking and it’s worth seeing. It’s based on a novel which is rooted in history. In this story, some Jesuit priests travel from Portugal to Japan in the seventeenth century to check up on another Jesuit priest, a missionary who has disappeared. In Japan, the priests witness Japanese Christians being tortured and killed for their faith. The Japanese government pressured Christians to renounce their faith by stepping on images of Jesus called fumi-e. If I remember the film correctly, Christians were also forced to spit on the cross. If they didn’t perform these physical acts of renunciation, they would die. The film doesn’t present great theology, but it raises a lot of interesting questions, and it gets you to think about what you would do if you were in that situation. Settle it in your mind to believe in Jesus to the end, never to renounce him. But don’t worry about what you will say.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think a bit more about fearing God.

One thing we must realize is that there will always be a temptation to change what we believe in the face of public pressure. There will always be a large amount of people who believe things that aren’t biblical. And this creates tension for Christians. Do we yield to the masses, or do we continue to believe what Jesus taught? Do we give in to public pressure, or do we remain faithful?

This is a question the apostles had to deal with. It’s one that the apostle Paul knew well. And he often had to confront false beliefs. About four years ago, I preached through the book of Galatians. You can find all of those sermons online at our website, by going to wbcommunity.org/galatians. In that letter, Paul was confronting false beliefs taught by others, who were teaching that in order for Gentiles to become Christians, they first had to obey all of the law of the old covenant. Specifically, men had to be circumcised. And Paul said that that message was not the gospel. The gospel is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and this is a gift from God. It’s not based on our doing, but on God’s doing. Yet these false teachers were persuasive, and Christians were starting to change their beliefs. And that’s why Paul writes these words (in Galatians 1:6–10):

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Paul is saying that there is only one gospel message. There is only one message about Jesus, about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus, and it’s the message that has been preached since Jesus died and rose from the grave. There is only one gospel. And he says that even if he changes his message, and even if an angel comes to them and tells them a different message, not to believe that person. He says that false messenger will be condemned. And then he says he is not trying to please men, but to please God. If he was trying to please others, he would change his message based on public opinion. But if he was trying to please God, he would hold fast to the truth.

Paul could have used the language of fearing God. He could have said, “Do I fear man or God? If I feared man, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ. I would say what people want to hear. But if I fear God, I must tell the truth that God revealed to me.”

The fact is that public opinion does not decide the truth. Everyone could believe something was true and they could still be wrong. There was a time when everyone thought the sun orbited around the Earth, instead of the other way around. They were wrong. The truth doesn’t change based on what others think. So, 99 percent of people could believe that something is true, and they could still believe a lie. The truth never changes. It doesn’t care about what we think or how we feel. The truth is what is real, and we don’t get to decide what is real. We may be tempted to question the truth of the Bible because others don’t believe what we believe. We’ll be tempted to alter the Bible’s message because it is offensive to some. But if what the Bible teaches is true, then to deny its message is to deny the Holy Spirit. And if we persist in that, we will be cut off from God.

So, I urge you to cling to the truth. Do that because you love Jesus. Do that because you fear God.

Some people don’t like that phrase, “fear God.” What does that even mean? Does it mean being frightened by God, being afraid of him? I think, in part, that is the case. If we understand exactly who God is, and if we understand our sin, we may be frightened. God is perfect. He is wholly other. He is above and beyond his creation. God doesn’t have a body, but it’s helpful to think that God is bigger than the universe. He has more power than all the energy in the universe. Have you ever seen the power of nature unleashed? Have you been in an earthquake? Have you witnessed a hurricane or a tornado, or even a powerful thunderstorm? Even if you’ve only seen those things in videos, you get some sense of God’s power. God is not to be trifled with.

And if you realize that you have often failed to live for God, not seeking to live life on his terms, not seeking to do what pleases him, but often ignoring him, avoiding him, and certainly not loving him, then you start to get a sense of the offense of your sin. If you really know God, you’ll start to see the ugliness of your sin. And if you know God and your sin, there should be a bit of fear in you—not a paralyzing fear, but a healthy fear. Sadly, this fear is lacking. In the survey I referred to earlier, only 14.2 percent of people said that they feared God.

But God invites us to become his friends. It’s interesting to see that Jesus calls his disciples friends (in verse 4) in the context of fearing God. We must have a healthy sense of awe in the presence of God, but we can also be Jesus’ friend. We can be his friend if we trust him. Jesus came to bring us to God. Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to remove our fear of death. He did that by becoming like us. Jesus is the Son of God who has always existed, yet who, over two thousand years ago, also became a man. And he experienced temptation and suffering. He knows what it’s like to obey God, to fear him in a healthy way. And though Jesus never sinned—and he’s the only human who has never sinned and who never had the power of sin at work in him—he died by crucifixion. He died on the cross, an instrument of suffering and shame, reserved for enemies of the state, not because he was guilty, but because we are. His perfect righteousness is credited to those who trust him. And his death wiped away the record of sin of those who embrace him. If you trust Jesus, you don’t have to fear the crowds. And you don’t have to fear death. This is what the author of Hebrews tells us:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14–15).

Fear of public opinion and death is a kind of slavery. And Jesus came to break those chains. If we trust him, there is nothing to fear but God. And that fear of God is a healthy fear, a sense of awe and wonder and love. Jesus was able to endure the cross because he had a healthy fear of his Father. If we trust Jesus and have that healthy fear, we can endure whatever suffering we may face. And if we do that, God will acknowledge us. He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23).

If you fear God, turn to Jesus and trust him, and you will live forever. If you fear humans, you will be enslaved forever. The choice is yours.

Notes

  1. Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5, “The Complete List of Fears, 2018,” https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/fear-2018/Complete-Fears-2018-ranked.pdf, accessed on April 6, 2019.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 157.
  4. Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 13. This observation is made by J. P. Moreland in his foreword to the book.

 

The Kingdom of God Has Come upon You

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

As you can see, I now wear glasses. At the end of last year, it became clear to me how I wasn’t seeing things clearly. I had a hard time reading any text that was about ten or fifteen feet away. Kathy and I were away one weekend, and we visited a church that projects the lyrics of songs on screens, and I had a hard time reading the words. At first, I thought, “Why did they choose such a small font?” But then Kathy said she had no problem reading the words. Then I noticed while I was in a classroom that I had a hard time reading the names of my fellow students, which were printed in fairly large print, on cards where they were seated. So, I finally got an eye exam and I got glasses.

What I didn’t realize was that I was missing out on a lot of other details in the distance, like the branches of trees. I could see the trees, of course, but I couldn’t make out all the branches within the trees. The trees were a bit blurry. The past few weeks I’ve driven in and out of Boston, and I now can see all the definition of all the buildings in the city.

I used to have better eyesight, but over time, particularly the last couple of years, it has become worse. So, I was slowly able to recognize how my vision had become worse. But some people start out with bad eyesight. When I told a friend I had glasses, he said he is nearsighted, and he refused to get glasses for years. He thought that everyone had a hard time seeing things in the distance. If you start out with bad eyesight, you wouldn’t know what you’re missing until you get glasses or contacts. Then, you can see things as they really are.

In a similar way, we don’t start out life seeing reality clearly. I’m not talking about literal vision. I’m talking about perception. We don’t perceive all that there is to life. We certainly don’t understand life very well. What we need is a set of glasses, metaphorically speaking, that will enable us to see reality. And the Bible is that set of glasses. The Bible is God’s written word, which tells us what he is like, what the world is, who we are, what’s gone wrong with the world and us, and how things can be fixed. If we don’t see the world through the lens of the Bible, we won’t reality clearly. Of course, we’ll see important things; we’re not completely blind. But there are things that are real, and things that are really important, that we won’t see at all unless we view the world through a biblical worldview.

So, today, I want us to slip on a pair of biblical glasses to see four realities. We’re continuing in the Gospel of Luke, which we have been studying for some time now. And we’re going to read Luke 11:14–36 today. As we do that, we’re going to see four things. One, supernatural good and evil are real. There really is a God and there really is a devil and his demons. Two, we’ll see that Jesus is real and we’ll see something about his identity. Three, there is no spiritual neutrality. Four, there is no neutral response to Jesus, and we’ll see what it looks like to respond to him positively.

So, keep those four things in mind as I read today’s passage. The passage may seem like it’s drawing together some disjointed sayings. That’s probably because our Bible translations have the passage broken up into smaller sections. You can ignore those subheadings that the Bible editors put there. Those subheadings aren’t part of the original text, and while sometimes they can help, sometimes they just get in the way.

Let’s now read Luke 11:14–36:

14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

33 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. 35 Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36 If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”[1]

The first reality we see through the lens of the Bible is that there is a supernatural good, God, and there is supernatural (or preternatural) evil, Satan, who is called Beelzebul here. That name, Beelzebul, refers back to Baal-Zebub, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 1. He is called “the god of Ekron,” one of the Philistine cities (2 Kgs. 1:2–3, 6, 16). The name means “Lord of the flies.” You may not understand any of that if you’re not familiar with the Bible, but if you’re familiar with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you might recognize “Beelzebub.”[2] Beelzebul might mean “Lord of the dwelling place (or temple).” But what matters is it’s a reference to Satan, the devil.

And in this passage, we read about demons, or unclean spirits. Jesus casts a demon out of a man. The demon had caused the man to be mute, unable to speak. Jesus also tells a cautionary tale about unclean spirits. All of this might seem quite strange, because we don’t see demons, just as we don’t see God or the devil. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. We certainly see the effects of God and Satan.

This discussion about good and evil leads us to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which is the second reality the Bible allows us to see. The question of Jesus’ identity keeps coming up in Luke’s Gospel. The four Gospels of the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are biographies of Jesus. But they’re not really like modern biographies, which generally tell about every age of a person’s life. These biographies focus mostly on two or three years of Jesus’ life, and they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about one particular week of Jesus’ life, the week that ended with his death. Luke clearly wants his readers to know who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do during that period of time.

So, the question of Jesus’ identity is brought up once again. We see that Jesus is able to heal the man who was demon-oppressed. But some people, probably Jewish religious leaders, accused Jesus of doing the work of Satan. Jesus points out that this accusation makes no sense. Why would Satan drive out his own demons? Jesus says that every kingdom divided against itself falls—that’s true whether the kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Israel, or the kingdom of the devil. Jesus points out how illogical they are being.

Then, Jesus asks, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” He’s referring to other Jewish exorcists. He’s probably referring to his own disciples, who were given the authority to cast out demons (Luke 9:1; 10:17). They will judge Israel (Matt. 19:28). His point is that if all the other Jewish exorcists are casting out demons by the power of God, then so is he. Or, to put it the other way around, if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of Satan, then so are the other Jewish exorcists. You can’t have it both ways.

But Jesus says that he isn’t casting out demons by the power of Satan. Instead, what he’s doing is proof that the kingdom of God has come. He is driving out demons “by the finger of God.” That’s an interesting phrase. In Matthew’s Gospel, in a parallel passage, Jesus says he casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). So, the “finger of God” is an anthropomorphic way of referring to the Holy Spirit. But Luke uses the “finger of God” to refer back to something in Israel’s history. In the days of Moses, God delivered the Israelites out of slavery through miracles. Moses would perform some action with his staff, and miracles would happen. What’s interesting is that the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, had magicians who could also do miraculous works. They weren’t doing these things by the power of the Holy Spirit, but by some demonic force. (That, by the way, shows that everything that appears miraculous is not from God. That’s why we have to be careful about paying too much attention to miracles.) But there were times when Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t do what Moses did. And at one of those points, the magicians say, “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19). We’re also told that the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10).

What that means is that Jesus is doing the work of God. He is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles, signs that show that he is from God. And, just as the Holy Spirit wrote the Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit is revealing who Jesus is. He’s a man, but he’s not just a man. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that he is the Son of God. He is divine, eternal. As God, he has always existed. Over two thousand years ago, he added a human nature to himself, becoming a baby in a virgin’s womb. That miracle, too, was brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the “strong man” who can bind Satan, attacking him, overpowering him, stripping him of his armor, and dividing his spoils. Jesus came to drive back the devil, to wrest the world away from Satan’s hold, to put an end to evil. John, an apostle, said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

I’ll say more about how Jesus does that, and a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do, a bit later. But first I want to point out something interesting. It’s no surprise that the Bible says that Jesus could work wonders. We would expect that. Most of what we know about Jesus is found in the Bible, and the Bible presents Jesus as the God-man, the Savior, the Lord, and a miracle worker. But we do have some other information about Jesus outside of the Bible. The Roman sources about Jesus affirmed that he lived and was crucified by Pontius Pilate.[3] There are a couple of references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of writings by Jewish rabbis. The Talmud was put together a few hundred years after Jesus. It’s not the Bible, so we can’t view it as completely true and authoritative. But it does refer to Jesus as a worker of wonders. These statements were written by people who didn’t believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews. So, one claims that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray” (Sanhedrin 107b). Another says, “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy” (Sanhedrin 43a).[4] Those rabbis were wrong to say that Jesus led Israel astray. But what’s interesting is that everyone seems to acknowledge that Jesus worked miracles and that he was an exorcist. The only dispute is whether he came from God or Satan. The claim that he came from Satan simply doesn’t make sense. The way that Jesus lived and the things he taught could never come from the prince of demons.

Before we move on to the third reality we’ll see this morning, we should note two more things about Jesus’ identity. First, he claims to be greater than Jonah, one of Israel’s prophets. If you don’t know anything about Jonah other than a whale (or, as the Bible puts it, a great fish), then join us next Sunday at 9:15. We’re currently studying the book of Jonah. And Jesus claims to be greater than Solomon, one of Israel’s more famous kings, and a man known for his great wisdom. Second, Jesus implies that he is related to being enlightened. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the one who came to reveal our true condition, to lead us out of darkness, and into life. I’ll say more about these things in a moment.

The third reality we see is that there is no spiritual neutrality. That’s his point in the little parable found in verses 24–26. Jesus describes a situation in which an unclean spirit is cast out of a person. If that person doesn’t have the Holy Spirit filling the vacuum, the demon will return with seven more. I don’t think he’s saying that this is exactly how all exorcisms work. The point is that it’s not enough to simply cast out evil. One must be filled with the good. It’s not enough to avoid doing “bad things,” whatever you think those bad things are. If you aren’t turning to Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, you open yourself up to spiritual attacks from the enemy. And you will be guided by one spirit or another. Some people say they’re spiritual but not religious. I have no doubt about that. Everyone is spiritual; the only question is whether that spirit is the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. We will either be with God or against him. We will be on one side of the dividing line or another.

In a similar way, Jesus says that we will either be filled with darkness or light. We have to look to a light that is outside of us. And that implies that all of us start out filled with darkness. If we look to the light, our whole body will be full of light. But we can only do this if we have healthy eyes, eyes that can see the truth clearly. If we don’t have eyes to see, we will be full of darkness. Jesus urges us to come to the light, to look to it and trust it. What Jesus doesn’t say here is that he himself is the light. But he implies that he is the one that we have to look at, the one we must respond to.

And that brings me to the fourth reality we see here. Just as there is no neutral position spiritually speaking, there is no neutral response to him. He explicitly says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You are either with Jesus or against him. If you’re with him, you’re doing the work of gathering people into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[5] Jesus came to call people into that kingdom, and to show that he himself is King. And Jesus uses his followers to gather people, the way a farmer gathers a harvest (Luke 10:2). If you’re not working to know Jesus and to make him known, you’re working against him. You’re allowing people to be scattered, apart from God, and therefore apart from true life and hope. The key point is that you are either under the King’s rule, doing his work, or you’re not. There’s simply no fence-sitting when it comes to Jesus.

To be against Jesus, you don’t have to be hostile to Christianity. You don’t have to be an atheist. If you’re apathetic, not really interested in following Jesus, you’re against him. So many people are simply apathetic to Jesus. I see this every Easter. On Easter, which is four weeks away, we’ll probably have twice as many people here. And that’s good. I encourage you to invite people to come here, to join us in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for more people to hear about Jesus. But so many who come will be apathetic. They may enjoy the service to some extent, but they won’t pursue a relationship with Jesus. They won’t read the Bible, pray, and worship with other Christians. They likely won’t obey other commandments of Jesus, ones that are demanding. It’s heartbreaking, really.

What does a right response to Jesus look like? Jesus gives us a couple of examples. First, he refers to Jonah. There were people who wanted to see a sign from Jesus, as though Jesus hadn’t performed enough miracles already. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew that some people will never have enough proof to believe. They will demand proof after proof after proof and never put their trust in him. They want to be in control. So, Jesus says that no other sign will be given to them other than the sign of Jonah. In this case, he probably is referring to Jonah’s preaching. Jonah was sent to one of Israel’s enemies, Assyria, specifically to the city of Nineveh, in order to tell them God’s judgment would come upon them for their evil deeds. When Jonah relayed that message to the people of Nineveh, they repented. They responded positively to Jonah’s message. In a similar way, the Queen of the south, or the Queen of Sheba, came from a great distance to see Solomon. She heard his wisdom and was amazed. She had a positive response to Solomon. Jesus says these people will rise up on the day of judgment, and they will judge the unbelieving Jewish people standing in front of Jesus.

This would have been an amazing thing for these Jewish religious leaders to hear. These Gentiles had faith, and they would judge Jewish people, the supposed “chosen people of God.” God did choose the Israelites as his people. They were rescued by God, delivered out of slavery. They received his law and many of his blessings. But that doesn’t mean that all of them believed and had a right relationship with God. No one is born with a right relationship with God. We must respond to him positively. And we do that by responding positively to Jesus.

What do people who respond positively to Jesus do? Look at verses 27 and 28. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching, a woman interrupts Jesus by yelling, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” In other words, “Jesus, your mother is blessed to have you as a child.” She’s acknowledging that Jesus is great. But Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Mary is blessed.” And if ever there were a time when Jesus would say something about Mary being sinless, which is what Catholics believe, he would have said it here. But he doesn’t say that. What he says is, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” What does it look like to trust Jesus? You believe that he speaks the words of God, and you do what he tells you to do.

Now, this does not mean that we earn a right standing with God. The Bible’s message is that we cannot do that, because our obedience is always imperfect, mixed not only with moments of disobedience, but also bad motives. We can only receive a right relationship with God by trusting in Jesus, trusting that he alone has fulfilled all of God’s righteous demands and that he died on the cross by bearing the penalty for our sin. But if we truly trust Jesus in that way, we’ll obey him. Those who receive God’s blessings also come under his rule. You can’t be a Christian and ignore what Jesus says. In that case, you’re not looking to the light. Instead, you’re remaining in darkness.

Jesus came to save his people, and to destroy the works of the devil. But he hasn’t fully destroyed those works yet. Satan is still active, and we obviously experience evil all around us and even within us. Jesus will come again, sometime in the future, and he will completely defeat Satan. The strong man will not only bind the devil, but he will destroy him. But Jesus came the first time to remove Satan’s grip on us. And he did that not by acting as a strong man. Instead, he let himself be bound. Though he was perfectly righteous, completely sinless, people didn’t believe him. They hated him. They didn’t like what he said, and they were threatened by what he was doing. So, they bound him and killed him under false charges. But this was ultimately God’s plan. Jesus allowed this to happen, because he knew that that he had to suffer the punishment that we deserve. Jesus died on the cross, and when he did that, he endured not just physical pain and death, but spiritual pain and death. He endured God’s wrath. The light of the world was submerged into the greatest darkness in order to bring us into the light. And Jesus then rose from the grave to show that he satisfied God’s demands, that he has power of sin and death, and that all who come to him will be raised from the dead when he comes again in glory.

So, what do we do with this information? We’ve slipped on our biblical glasses and seen some things that we couldn’t otherwise see. So what?

We should consider these four realities. God is real. And so is Satan. Furthermore, so is Jesus. And there is no neutral spiritual ground. We will either be with Jesus or against him. So, which side are we on?

I realize that many people find the idea of no neutrality off-putting, to say the least. Some people think that whole “we’re either with Jesus or against him” business to be very narrow-minded. They would probably say, “That’s far too black and white. The real world is full of grays.” I do believe that reality is often quite complex, and there are many situations where things are not so black and white. But just because there’s a lot of gray doesn’t mean there is no black and white. Many truths are precise and even narrow. Two plus two is four, not three or five or any number. All species of living things are either human beings or not. There are times when we can very neatly say that people are in this group or that. For example, you’re either an American citizen, or you’re not.

As I was thinking about this, I thought of the following image. We all know about the Titanic. I’m sure a lot of us saw the movie of the same name that came out in the late ’90s. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler: A large ship hits an iceberg, the ship is destroyed, and a lot of people die. There were some lifeboats, and people who got on those lifeboats lived. But those who didn’t died. Even those who had lifejackets didn’t survive, because they were in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic. So, you were either on a boat or you were dead. There was no neutral ground, no third place.

And that is a good way of imagining what the Bible tells us. God made a good world, which we might liken to a luxury liner. Things were fine on board. But then a disaster happened. The ship struck the iceberg of sin. Like an iceberg, sin might not seem so dangerous on the surface. But sin is deep and dangerous. It is a failure to love, trust, worship, and obey God the way that we should. And when the first human beings sinned, the luxury liner that God created was ruined. It’s been sinking ever since. And everyone who has ever lived is either plunging to their death or they’re getting on the lifeboat. That lifeboat is God himself, and now that Jesus has been revealed, it is Jesus. He is the only place to find refuge.

If someone rescued you from frigid waters, in which you would surely die, and put you on their boat, you would listen to them. If a captain of a ship found you drowning and he pulled you on to his ship, you probably would be grateful and while you’re on his ship, you would abide by his rules. The same is true of Jesus. If we have truly come to know him, if we’ve been pulled onto his ship, not by our own efforts, but by his, then we will be thankful, and we will listen to our captain and do what he says.

But there are many others who aren’t on that lifeboat yet. They’re on the ship that’s sinking and think everything is fine. They think, “Oh, the ship has some trouble, but we’ll find a way to patch it up someday.” Some people are in the water, thinking that they can save themselves because they’re strong swimmers. Those who think there’s nothing to be saved from will be lost. Those who think they can save themselves will be lost. But those who fix their eyes on the light, who trust that Jesus is their only hope, find salvation, and their lives are changed forever.

If you haven’t looked to the light, if you haven’t gotten on board the only lifeboat there is, then I urge you to do so now. If you’re already on board, listen to your captain. Abide by his rules. Don’t just be hearers of the word, but also be doers. And if you’re on board, look around. There are many people who are drowning. They are scattered in dangerous waters. Will you gather them? Will you try to rescue them? Do you realize they are truly lost? A nice person who doesn’t know Jesus is a drowning person who cannot save herself. Not one of us can save ourselves through our own efforts. The only hope is Jesus.

To use a different metaphor, God’s kingdom has come, and Jesus is the gate, the door, to that kingdom. He’s the only way in. Let us make sure we are in that kingdom and that we obey the King. And let us bring others along with us, urging them to find shelter in a kingdom of love, light, and life.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. That’s a reference to the song by the band Queen. The line from the song, “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me,” doesn’t quite back sense, unless we think of “devil” as a demon.
  3. For more information on sources about Jesus, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  4. Quoted in Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 214.
  5. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

 

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever wanted what someone else has? Of course, you have. At some point in our lives, all of us have probably wanted someone else’s money, house, car, or job, or perhaps their popularity or celebrity. But I’m not thinking of those kinds of things. I’m thinking more about abilities or personalities. Have you ever seen someone do something so well that you thought, “I wish I could do that”? Have you ever met someone who has a certain personality trait and you thought, “I wish I was more like that”? Perhaps the ability is something practical like the ability to cook well, or to fix a car. Perhaps the character trait is something like kindness, or perhaps you wish you were funnier or more intelligent.

A lot of times, when we want something that someone else has, it’s a sin. It’s envy. Or, we might call it coveting. But there are times when we see someone able to do something, and we think, “I want to learn how to that.” That’s not coveting; it’s emulating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on our motivation. It’s not wrong to see someone who is able to cook a great meal or fix their own car and think, “I would like to learn how to do what they do.” It’s not bad to see someone who acts calmly under pressure, or who treats everyone with grace and kindness and think, “I want to learn to be more like them.”

So, let’s say you know someone who has an ability or a characteristic that you desire to have. What would you do? Perhaps you would try to copy them. But, if you really know that person well, you might simply ask, “Could you teach me how to do that?” Or, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you always act this way, and I really admire that. What’s your secret?”

I imagine that Jesus’ followers had a similar experience. They were around Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, and they saw how unique he was. He was an incredible teacher. He possessed great power—he could miraculously heal and feed people. He was able to handle stress and pressure without breaking. He never got his feathers ruffled. He was able to answer difficult questions in the most brilliant ways. He was the most spiritually mature person they ever met. He had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was selfless yet self-assured, tender yet tough, humble yet confident. There simply was no one like him.

And Jesus’ disciples must have realized that Jesus often prayed. It’s something that Luke in his Gospel brings up again and again. Jesus prayed when he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him (Luke 3:21–22). He prayed alone and then people sought after him. The result was that he taught in many synagogues (Luke 4:42–44). Jesus prayed before healing a paralyzed man (Luke 5:16ff.). He prayed before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He was praying right before Peter confessed that he is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:18–20). Jesus went with three of his disciples to pray when he was transfigured, appearing in all his glory (Luke 9:28–29). He urged his disciples to pray that more people would do the work of God and then he prayed to God with joy when his disciples returned successfully from their mission (Luke 10:2, 21–22).

So, prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life, and he often prayed at critical times. I’m sure his disciples noticed that when Jesus prayed, big things happened. Perhaps they connected his power and his abilities to his prayer life. It’s only natural for them to observe Jesus and say, “Hey, how do you do that? What’s your secret?”

And that’s what we see today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus. We’re now in chapter 11 of Luke. We’ll see what Jesus has to say about prayer.

First, let’s read verses 1–4:

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”[1]

Once again, Jesus was praying, and when he was done, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his own disciples. We don’t have any record of John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray, but we know he had disciples, and he must have taught them something about that. At any rate, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer.

What follows is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not an accurate description of the prayer, because it sounds like it’s the prayer that Jesus often prayed. But Jesus wouldn’t need to pray that God would forgive his sins—he never sinned. A better title might be “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because it’s meant to be used by the disciples. But since the old title is so common, I’ll use that.

If you’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that what appears in Luke is a bit shorter than the traditional version you’re used to. It’s shorter than the version found in Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presented it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he’s teaching it privately to his disciples. Jesus must have taught the same things in slightly different ways over the course of his ministry. And the differences show us that the prayer is meant to be used as a framework, a skeleton that we fill out with the body of our own words, our own particular petitions. I don’t think Jesus intended for this prayer to be repeated word for word, without thinking, as if it’s some kind of mantra.

Before we look at some of the things Jesus teaches his followers to pray for, I want to note a couple features of the prayer. The first is that it’s a communal prayer. It’s not an individual prayer. The prayer mentions “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” This teaches us that we should pray together. Of course, we can and should pray alone. But praying together is important. We do that as a church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. If you’re coming to those meetings, I would encourage you to do so.

The prayer begins “Father . . .” That’s another important feature of the prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to address God as Father. That’s one of the stunning things about Jesus’ teachings. There were times in the Old Testament when Israelites were referred to as God’s children or son (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). And there were times in the Old Testament when God was referred to as Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8). But those times were relatively few. According to David Garland, “The term ‘Father’ for God appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, while it appears 255 times in the New Testament.”[2] That’s significant given the fact that the Old Testament is about four times as long as the New Testament. What that means is that Jesus taught his followers to know God intimately as their Father. We can come to God as his beloved children and know him as a loving Father. God is not some distant, terrifying being—at least not to those who put their faith in his Son, Jesus.

But because God is Father and can be known intimately doesn’t mean he’s not the transcendent Creator. So, Jesus teaches his followers to ask that God’s name be “hallowed,” or sanctified. God’s name is his identity, and it refers to his reputation. God himself can’t be made more holy, righteous, powerful, or perfect. God cannot improve. He already is perfect. But the prayer asks that God would make himself known for who he is. It asks that people would see that he is holy, that he is great. When we ask that God would be glorified, we’re asking that we and other people would see how great God is.

There’s a point in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, when God tells the sinful nation of Israel, which has gone into exile because of their idolatry, that he will act to vindicate his reputation. This is what Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

Because of the way Israel acted, they brought God’s shame upon his reputation. They acted as if he was less valuable than their false gods. If they had seen how great God was, they would have lived differently. And they would have let the nations around them know how great their God was. When we live as if God is the greatest being there is, then we make his name “hallowed.”

In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. God has always been King, so there’s a sense in which his kingdom has always been present. To use, once again, a definition that we recently learned, God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[3] But since Jesus would have us pray for God’s kingdom to come, it means that it has not come in its fullest yet. Israel often lived as if God were not their King. And today there are many people who live as if God is not King. When Jesus came the first time, he came to establish God’s kingdom. He is the King of kings, and all who turn to him enter into God’s kingdom. They are his people and he is their God. To pray that God’s kingdom would come is to pray that everyone on Earth would bow the knee and worship God and live as if he were their ruler. God is a loving Father, but he’s also a King who must be obeyed. One day, when Jesus returns, the whole world will become God’s kingdom. On that day, it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their daily needs. We are to pray for our “daily bread.” In the ancient world, having enough food to eat each day was no small thing, and it was no guarantee. They couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy that week’s food. Bread needed to be baked on a regular basis. But the prayer isn’t just for bread. It’s a request that God give us what we need each and every day. This implies that this prayer should be prayed daily. We should ask God to glorify himself, for people to enter into God’s kingdom, for Jesus to return, for God to give us everything we need, for God to forgive us our sins, and to protect us—all on a regular basis.

And that leads us to the next petition: forgiveness of sins. Again, this is why this isn’t the prayer that Jesus prayed for himself. Jesus needed no forgiveness because he never sinned. But forgiveness from God is exactly what we need. Luke compares this to being in debt. We owe God love, worship, and obedience. And the fact is that all of us have not loved, worshiped, treasured, and obeyed God—not all the time, and not perfectly. The fact that the first humans sinned means led to a terrible reality: we are separated from God, and God put the world under a partial penalty, or a curse. Instead of living in a garden paradise, we live in a world that is fallen. It’s still beautiful, but it has cracks in it. We can still experience goodness and love, but not perfectly. There is harmony, but there are often discordant notes that interrupt our peace. We’re not at peace with God, not at peace with each other, not at peace with our environment, and we’re not even at peace with ourselves. The only way to be restored to God and to have hope of living in a paradise once again is to seek forgiveness from God.

Forgiveness always comes at a cost. To borrow an illustration from Tim Keller, if you were to damage my property, you would enter into my debt.[4] You would owe me, at the least, the price of repair or replacement of my property. And if I am to forgive you of that debt, I would have to pay the cost. The damage doesn’t go away unless someone pays. So, I can choose to forgive you but then I accept the cost of the damage. In a similar way, for God to forgive us, he can’t simply forget that we’ve done wrong. For our sin to be repaired, someone must pay the price for the damage. And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to pay the price for our sin, which is a debt so large that we could never repay it. Because he is righteous, he had no debt. Because he’s God, he is infinitely wealthy. He can pay for everyone’s sin. But first, you must come to him and trust that he is the only one who can make us right with God. You must trust him personally. And a good way to do that is to take this prayer that he taught and make it your own. Say it to God, but don’t repeat it as empty words. Adapt it with your own words. And mean it.

The prayer teaches us that we are completely reliant upon God, the way that young children are completely reliant upon their parents. We need God to provide for us. And he does. Every good gift we have comes from God (James 1:17). The Bible teaches us that God gives us the power to work and to earn money (Deut. 8:18). God sustains our lives at every moment. Without God, we wouldn’t exist. And without God’s mercy and grace, we couldn’t be reconciled to him, forgiven of our sins, and adopted as his children.

If we are forgiven, we will forgive others. Jesus makes that clear. If we are not forgiving of those who seek our forgiveness, we must not have experienced God’s forgiveness. If you truly know how awful your sin is, and how amazing it is for God to forgive you, then you can and will extend forgiveness to others, even when it’s hard. For there to be true forgiveness, there must be confession of sin and repentance. If someone comes to us, admitting their wrong and seeking reconciliation, we must forgive. We must be like our Father.

We are also supposed to ask for spiritual protection. We are supposed to ask God that he would not lead us into temptation. We should pray that God would deliver us from sinning. We shouldn’t view God’s forgiveness as a blank check to keep on sinning. We shouldn’t think that just because God pays our debt, we can keep running up a huge bill at his expense. We should desire not to sin. Though God gives us trials, these are meant to refine us. We should pray that we would endure the trials. But our Father knows are weaknesses, and we should ask him to strengthen us, not to overwhelm us with temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We should pray to that end.

So, Jesus teaches us to pray that God would be glorified, that God would provide for our needs, that God would forgive us our sins, and that God would spiritually protect us. This gives us a framework for how to pray.

But Jesus doesn’t just give us that model prayer. Jesus also taught us about why we should go to our Father in heaven. He is a good Father who gives his children good things. To see that, let’s look at the rest of the passage, verses 5–13:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The first part of that paragraph is a bit of a parable. Jesus has us imagine two men living in a village. One has a friend come to him at night. The problem is that this man has no food to give his visiting friend. The friend is probably tired and hungry and, again, there is no way to simply go to the grocery store or call for late night delivery. If the man doesn’t feed his friend, his friend doesn’t eat. More than that, the man would experience shame for being a bad host. So, he goes to his friend in the village at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. The other man in the village may be bothered. He lives in a one-bedroom house. The first man has interrupted his sleep and is in danger of waking up his children. But even if that man is put out, grumpy, and half asleep, he will give his friend what he needs. The point Jesus is making is that if such people are willing to answer the bold request of their friends, how much more does God the Father give good things to his children.

God is always listening. He never sleeps. He knows all. He can process billions of prayer requests at the same time. And God is not some grumpy man who gives begrudgingly. So, Jesus encourages us to go to God, to ask for what we need. We are to ask God, and what we need will be given to us. We are to seek God, and we will find him. We should knock on the door of his kingdom, and the gates will be opened.

Jesus then gives us another reason to go to our Father in verses 11–13. He asks what kind of human father would give his child a serpent instead of a fish. The serpent might have been a water snake used for bait.[5] We might paraphrase this statement by saying, “What kind of father would give his son a worm when he asked for salmon?” If the child asked for an egg to eat, no father would give him a scorpion. Now, I suppose there are some pretty terrible parents who might give their children something bad when they asked for something good, but most parents wouldn’t do this. Most parents give their children what they need, even if it’s not what their children want. And Jesus’ point is that if humans, with all their sin, manage to give their children what they need, how much more will the perfect Father give his children what they need when they ask him.

We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus refers to his followers as “evil.” God doesn’t flatter us. He doesn’t sugar coat things. Even the followers of Jesus have their sins. Christians don’t earn their way to God through good behavior. No one is good enough to be in a right relationship with God. Even the best people are evil because of the power of sin. That’s why all of us need to go to God for forgiveness, and the only path to God is Jesus himself (John 14:6). Jesus does not teach us that we are deserving of God’s good gifts. He teaches us that God gives to those who are undeserving. God even adopts bratty kids into his family and makes them his own children.

So, if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the perfect Father give good gifts to his children. And the chief good gift is the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that Jesus says that at the end: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That seems to come out of the blue.

Well, if the mention of the Holy Spirit seems to come out of the blue, it’s because we’re not thinking of asking God for the right things. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray for: God’s glory, God’s kingdom, what we need, forgiveness of sins, and protection from sin and evil. This is what we need to pray for, and the answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit.

Earlier, I quoted a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where God says that he will act to vindicate his name. These are the verses that immediately follow:

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24–28).

How does God sanctify his name? How does God vindicate the holiness of his great name? He gives the Holy Spirit to his people. The Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, to see and enter into the kingdom of God by faith (John 3:3–8). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t trust Jesus, we wouldn’t seek forgiveness from God. Without the Holy Spirit, we couldn’t be protected from sin and evil. We may ask God for all kinds of things we want, all kinds of things we think we need. But what we need most is God himself. And God gives himself to those who seek him. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God. God is one being who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So, when Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask, he’s saying that God will give himself. God is the greatest gift. He is what we need, and he can be found and received if we would only ask.

Jesus teaches us today to seek God. Part of our problem is that we don’t seek God for himself. We want things from God, but we don’t want him. You might say that’s the root of sin. Our failure to regard God’s name as “hallow,” or holy, our failure to see that he is greater than his creation, leads us to make created things our gods. We treasure the things of this world more than the “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This doesn’t mean that we utterly reject God. Instead, we often treat him as a cosmic butler. When we really want something or when we’re in a bind, we may call on God to give us what we want, or to get us out of a jam. But we don’t come to God and seek him above all else. That’s because we’re evil.

Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to treasure God above all things. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be convicted of sin. If you’re here today and you feel that you haven’t been seeking God for who he is, and you’re coming to see that you haven’t loved the Father the way a good, loving child should, then the Holy Spirit is working on you. If you’re in that place, then ask God for forgiveness, seek him with all your heart, knock on the door of his kingdom. He promises to open that door, to accept you as his child, to forgive you of anything bad that you’ve ever done. His love, his goodness, and his grace are infinite. If you want to know how to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

If you are already a Christian, consider how you normally pray. Are you praying the way that Jesus taught? Do you pray above all that God would be glorified? Do you pray that God would give you what you need, instead of what you want? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for him, your knowledge of him, and your obedience to him? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for others?

If you haven’t prayed for these things, there’s good news: God forgives us, and we can boldly seek forgiveness from him, because Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 4:14–16).

God always answers prayer, and he always gives us what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we want, or the things that we ask for. Sometimes, his answer is no. Sometimes, we’re asking God for a serpent, and he gives us a fish. But if we ask things of God that line up with his will, we can be sure that he will give us what we need. The apostle John wrote this toward the end of his first letter:

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:13–15).

Let us go to our Father in heaven and pray the way his Son taught us.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 471.
  3. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  4. See the discussion of forgiveness in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 194–200.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1061 n. 36.

 

One Thing Is Necessary

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 10, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Does anyone here remember the movie City Slickers? The movie came out in 1991 and starred Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern as three middle-aged men, the city slickers of the title, who are all having what amounts to a mid-life crisis. The three friends leave New York City and go out west to a tourist ranch to take part in a two-week cattle drive. While there, they meet an old cowboy named Curly, played by the leathery Jack Palance, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. At one point in the film, Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, is riding alone with Curly, and they discuss marriage, love, and life. Curly recognizes that Mitch is like most of the other men who come to the ranch, all in the midst of their mid-life malaise. So, Curley asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He then holds up one finger and says, “This.” Mitch says, “Your finger?” Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and every else don’t mean [ahem].” Mitch says, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Curly responds, “That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”

That’s a question we should all ask ourselves. What is the one thing? What is the most important thing in life, the thing we need to stick to? What is the highest priority? Figure that out, and everything else follows.

We’ve been studying the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke. And today we’ll see that Jesus says something very similar to what ol’ Curly said. One thing is necessary. What is that thing? Let’s see.

Today, we’re looking at Luke 10:38–42. Jesus spends time with two sisters, Martha and Mary. One of them has discovered that one necessary thing and the other hasn’t. Let’s read the passage.

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”[1]

On one level, this story is easy to understand. There are two sisters, Martha and Mary, who are with Jesus in Martha’s house. These two women are most likely the sisters of Lazarus, whose story is told in John 11. While Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, Martha is “distracted with much serving.” She’s probably cooking, bringing Jesus food, cleaning dishes, worried about being a good hostess. And she’s bothered that she’s doing all the work. So, she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus answers her by telling her that she is worried about a lot of things, but only “one thing is necessary.” He implies that if there’s something to be concerned about, it’s that one thing. But here Jesus sounds like Curly. What’s the one thing?

The answer is found in Mary. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” What is the good portion? On the surface, it seems like Jesus is saying that Mary has chosen to listen to him, to learn from him. And that’s no small thing. In fact, it was not common for women to be allowed to sit a teacher’s feet, yet here we see Jesus teaching a woman.

But is Jesus only referring to his teaching? Is that the good portion?

Perhaps the word “portion” is the key to understanding “the one thing” that “is necessary.” And if we look the Old Testament, we find out what, or who, that portion is.

We’re going to turn to some Psalms see to see how that word is used. The first one we’ll look at is Psalm 16, particularly verses 5–8:

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Jesus says that Mary chose the good portion. David says that “the Lord is my chosen portion.” Notice how he also says, “I have set the Lord always before me.” David says that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is his portion, he is the one who is always before him, and because of that, he will not be shaken.

I don’t think it’s an accident that in this passage of Luke, Jesus is referred to as “Lord” three times, twice by Luke and once by Martha. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew, the covenant name of God, which we pronounce as Yahweh, appears as “Lord” (Greek: κύριος, kyrios). Jesus is Lord, the Son of God who has always existed, yet who, over two thousand years ago, also became a man. And just as David chose Yahweh as his portion, Mary chose Jesus as her portion.

Let’s now turn to Psalm 73, a Psalm of Asaph. I’ll read verses 26–28:

26  My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27  For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28  But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.

Again, God is called “my portion forever.” The idea is very similar to what we’ve seen so far. Jesus says that Mary’s good portion would never be taken away from her. Asaph says here that though his body would decay and die, God is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Those who are apart from God will perish. The implication is that those who find their refuge in God will live forever.

Finally, we’ll look quickly at one verse in Psalm 119. This is verse 57:

57  The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep your words.

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm, and it’s the longest chapter in the Bible. It’s a Psalm that praises God for revealing his word. And there’s a strong connection between praising God and praising his word. In a sense, God’s word is an extension of himself. Because God is true and never lies, his word is true. He always says what he means. Our words are an expression of ourselves, but we don’t always say what we mean. I don’t mean that we always lie, though we can be dishonest. Sometimes we struggle to find the right words. Sometimes we say things that aren’t very meaningful. We say things just to avoid silence, we say things that are foolish, we say things that are wrong. We say things just to please other people. God doesn’t do any of these things. There’s a strong bond between him and his word. That’s why the psalmist can say, “The Lord is my portion,” and then, without changing topics, say, “I promise to keep your words.” If God is really your portion, you will pay attention to his words and you will do what he asks you to do.

That’s what Mary is doing. Because she recognizes that Jesus is Lord, she has chosen him as her portion. Because she has chosen Jesus as her portion, she’s sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching. And she’s surely doing that not because his words are entertaining, or because they satisfy her intellectual curiosity. She must understand that his words give life, and she is likely learning from Jesus so that she can live rightly.

As we start to think about what this short passage in Luke has to do with us, how it informs our lives, we need to think about what that “one thing” is in our lives that is most important, that is truly necessary. In fact, if you’re talking to non-Christians with the hopes of sharing the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ with them, you might want to ask them what they think that “one thing” is. What is most important in life? People might say that one thing is family, or being a good person, or doing something that truly matters, like leaving a positive impact on future generations. But Jesus is saying that one thing is God; specifically, he is saying that one thing is him.

Now, that might sound arrogant. If you or I said, “I am the most important thing in life, so choose me!” we wouldn’t be just arrogant, but crazy. But Jesus isn’t just a man; he is God. God the Father sent him to do his will. And if we want to know God, we must know Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus often talks about his relationship to God the Father, how his words are the Father’s words and his work is the Father’s work. In John 6, he talks quite a bit about his own identity and work. In verse 27, he says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” We might paraphrase that, in light of today’s passage, as “Don’t focus on all those ‘many things’ like Martha is doing, because they won’t last. Focus on ‘the one thing that is necessary.’ Make that your food, your portion. I’m the one who can give that to you.” In the next verse, John 6:28, Jesus’ audience says, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).

Jesus says the key to having food that is eternal is to believe in him. That doesn’t mean believing he exists, or believing facts about him. We believe a lot of things to be true, but that doesn’t mean those things give us eternal life. He means that we need to trust that he is the Son of God, and we must trust him personally. We must believe that he and he alone is the one thing necessary to give us eternal life, to make us right with God, to fix our major problem in life, which is our separation from God cause by our sin, which is rebellion against God.

If we keep reading in John 6, we see that Jesus makes this more and more clear. In verses 35–40, he says,

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

What he says here matches up with what he says in Luke. Mary’s good portion will never be taken away from her. Those who make Jesus their “bread of life” will never be cast out, they will never be removed from God. They will be raised to eternal life on “the last day,” the day of judgment. And Jesus makes it clear later in John 6 that if people do not trust him, they will not have that eternal life with God (John 6:53). He says that those who do not believe that he is God (“I am he”) will die in their sins (John 8:24).

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus is the “good portion,” the “one thing” that “is necessary.” Those who make him their good portion will never lose their relationship with him. They will be with God forever. Though they die, they will live forever, raised to eternal life on judgment day. We also see that, somehow, this is connected to Mary choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Now, if we’re thinking about this carefully, we should ask a pretty obvious question: How do we sit at Jesus’ feet? Jesus was there in the flesh, and Mary could literally sit down in front of him and hear his words. How do we do this when Jesus is now in heaven?

The way that we have access to Jesus’ teaching is through the Bible, the written word of God. If Jesus is truly our portion, if we realize that he is the God-man, the bread of life, the only one who gives us eternal life, then we will want to hear from him. In John 6, after all that talk of bread that gives eternal life, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, said to him, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God
(John 6:68–69). The way that we access Jesus’ “words of eternal life” is through the pages of the Bible.

And Jesus’ words are not limited to the “red letter” words of the Gospels. Jesus makes it clear that his words are the Father’s words (John 12:50). Jesus also says that the Holy Spirit would speak to the apostles, and that these words were also from him and the Father (John 16:13–15). The entire Bible is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), authored by him through human authors (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter says that Jesus’ own commandments came through the apostles (2 Pet. 3:2). And there are times when the New Testament writers attribute Old Testament passages to Jesus (Heb. 10:5–7, which attributes Ps. 40:6–8, written by David, to Christ). So, to know Jesus’ words is to know the Bible.

And we need to come to the Bible again and again, to learn, to revisit what we’ve already read, to think on it again and again. Psalm 1 talks about someone who is blessed, who doesn’t do what the wicked do. It says that this person’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). Then, it says,

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Those who delight in God’s word and think on it are like well-nourished trees that do not wither. Those who reject God’s word whither away.

The Bible uses organic metaphors when it talks about growing in faith, or being connected to Jesus. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15). The Bible doesn’t often use transactional language, like, “Take the treasure that is Jesus and store it up your vault.” A relationship with Jesus is living, and it needs to be nourished constantly, the way that a tree needs water, nutrients, and light. If those things are removed from the tree, it will die. We need God’s word to be nourished. We also need things like prayer and fellowship with other Christians. I think those are also aspects of sitting at Jesus’ feet. Without those things, we wither, we get spiritually sick and weak. Without those things, we are ineffective.

Now, at this point, I’m anticipating an objection. This objection might not come from within this room, but there are certain people who say that we put too much emphasis on the Bible. We do too much Bible reading, Bible study, Bible discussions. There is a kernel of truth in this criticism. The kernel of truth is that we might listen to Jesus’ words but not do what he says. And that can happen. And that is wrong. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He says that we must not only hear what he says, but do what he says. So, it is possible to study the Bible and not live according to what we read. And that is wrong.

But the answer is not to ditch the Bible and just get busy serving. In that case, we would become like Martha. If we don’t come back to the Bible again and again, we’ll end up doing what we believe to be God’s work for us, but we’ll drift away from what God has actually said. We’ll do certain things that appeal to us, but not the things that are hard, that are contrary to our desires and inclinations. And perhaps the greatest danger is that we’ll believe we can achieve a right standing with God by doing certain things.

Last week, we looked at the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), when a Jewish religious scholar who tried to test Jesus asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked this man what the law (the Old Testament commands) said. The answer, more or less, was to love God and love other people perfectly. Jesus showed the man what this looked like, telling him that if he did this, he could have eternal life. But the point is that we can’t do that. We don’t love God and others perfectly.

And if we try to achieve a right standing through our own efforts, however much good work we do, we’re not sitting at Jesus’ feet. We’re not doing the work of God, which Jesus says is to trust him. It’s very possible to a religious person, a doer of good works, and avoid a relationship with Jesus. You can avoid a personal relationship with Jesus by rejecting his words, by rejecting the Bible, and avoiding church. You can also avoid a personal relationship with Jesus by being a very busy person in church, doing a lot of good works, but shutting him up by keeping your Bible closed. If Martha realized exactly who it was that was in her house, she would have served Jesus, yes, but she also would have stopped and listened to him, fallen at his feet and realized that he is the Lord whose words give eternal life.

So, the answer to the criticism that we are a bunch of Bible-worshiping hypocrites is not to make less of the Bible, but to make sure that we are doing what it says we should do. We should adopt Jesus’ views of Scripture. He called it God’s unbreakable word (John 10:35). He quoted favorably Deuteronomy 8:3, which says, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (see Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). Our food is God’s word. But Jesus also said that his food was to do the will of God (John 4:34). We must be hearers of God’s word and doers of it (James 1:23–25).

In fact, I think that we need to be soaked in Scripture, to read it often and meditate on it often, in order to do what it says. God asks his people to do hard things. And we won’t do them unless we believe that the story told in the Bible is true. If we don’t believe that God is the creator of the universe, that we are all sinners who deserve condemnation, that Jesus is the world’s only Savio, and that the only solution to our problem of sin, we won’t understand who he is, let alone trust him. I’m also convinced that if we don’t believe that this life, in this fallen world, corrupted by sin, is temporal, and that life either with God or apart from God is eternal, we won’t have the perspective on life that is necessary to do what God says we must do.

Think about some of the things that God asks us to do. He asks his people to give generously. We’re supposed to give to those in need and give to the church, to support those who preach and teach, to support other Christians. Giving generously is hard for a lot of people. If you believe that this life is all there is, then you will want to live comfortably. You will want to seek as many pleasures as you can. If you give generously, you’re going to make sacrifices. You’re going to sacrifice some vacations, some gadgets, some clothing, some meals in restaurants, or tickets to sporting events or concerts or whatever. You can’t do all these things and give generously. But if you understand that everything you have is from God, that he entrusted these things to you to use wisely, that this life is not all there is, and that if you know Jesus you will live an eternal life in a new creation that is full of pleasures beyond what we can imagine, you can make some sacrifices in this life.

Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), witnesses of Jesus who tell others about him. We’re supposed to share the gospel. We do this because we want God to be known, to be glorified and worshiped. We do this because we believe that those apart from Jesus are truly lost, destined for condemnation. If we love others truly, we will be concerned about their souls. But evangelism is hard. One evangelist called our willingness to open our mouths for Christ crossing “the painline.”[2] Evangelism is hard because it’s hard to change the course of a conversation toward Jesus. It’s hard because when we do that, we might be regarded as fools. It’s hard because we may lose friends, or we might be shunned by others, not we might not receive a promotion at work, or perhaps we may experience some other consequence, including persecution. But if we believe what the Bible says, if we meditate on the biblical narrative again and again, we will cross that “painline” and speak.

Christians are called to believe that certain things are right and other things are wrong. We are called to take unpopular stances, particularly with respect to ethical issues that are controversial. If we hold fast to what God has revealed in his word about sex and marriage, about the exclusivity of Jesus (that he’s the only way to be right with God), or any number of topics, we’ll experience some level of persecution. The world will think that we’re stupid, or bigots, or whatever. There’s a great temptation for Christians to compromise their beliefs in order to fit into the prevailing culture. There’s a temptation for Christians to keep their unpopular views to themselves. The only way to fight against this temptation is to keep coming back to God’s word, to trust that it is true, and to know that the world can often be wrong.

Christians are called to deny some desires, urges that feel natural to us. Sometimes, like in the area of sex, those urges can be quite physical. If you don’t sit at Jesus’ feet, reading the Bible and praying to him, and being part of a group of believers in a church, I don’t think you can fight against your sinful desires. And we all have them. Because of sin, we have distorted desires. We are born into a sinful world, and as a result, our thinking isn’t right, and neither are our hearts. As Paul says it, because of the power of sin, people “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). We have pride, anger, lust, greed, and all kinds of desires that have to be mastered and even put to death. How can we do this if we don’t fill our minds and our hearts with God’s word? If it is true that you are what you eat, you will never rise above the level of what you’re putting into your mind. And I don’t think you can change the desires of your heart if you don’t change your thoughts and your behaviors. They’re all connected. If we understand that this life is not all that there is, that our desires can be wrong, and that in eternity, our desires will be perfected and no joy will be withheld from us, then we can put some desires to death. We can deny ourselves.

Christians are also called to suffer. We’re called to endure difficult situations and circumstances. That might be a health problem, a job that isn’t fulfilling, a marriage that is a struggle, raising kids when it’s really hard. In some of these circumstances, it might be tempting to blame God and quit following Jesus. It might be tempting to get out of our commitments, to leave a marriage, or to abandon a family, to be irresponsible in the name of finding our true selves and making ourselves happy. We might be tempted to escape life through suicide. But that’s not the way of Jesus.

It’s not the way of Jesus because he is faithful. He knows what it’s like to endure, to even put some desires to death. Jesus never had bad or sinful desires. But, in his humanity, he didn’t want to experience God’s wrath. He didn’t want to die on the cross. At the least, he didn’t want to experience that physical and spiritual pain. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant to be rejected, mocked, ridiculed, abandoned, betrayed, tortured, and killed. But he went through all of this to do the Father’s will. He did this because it was his will, to bring glory to the Father, and glory to himself, and also to rescue his people from condemnation. To do all this, Jesus had to stay rooted in Scripture. He prayed often. He knew the biblical narrative because he is its author. He knew the story didn’t end in suffering and death, but in resurrection and glory. So, he endured the cross, despising its shame, because a greater joy was set before him (Heb. 12:2).

So, we need to sit at Jesus’ feet, to have our relationship with him nourished. We need to feed on his words, so that we can be strong in our faith and strong in our obedience. We need to pray to God through the Son by the power of the Spirit to keep a strong connection to our good portion, and to do what that portion tells us to do.

So, what is the one thing? We might answer the way Jesus did: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Everything else will perish, but the kingdom of God will endure, and it cannot be shaken. I urge us all to sit at Jesus’ feet, to trust him, to hear from him, to talk to him,

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism: How to Talk about Jesus When It’s Tough (Croydon, UK: The Good Book Company, 2015), 15.

 

The Harvest

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Imagine something with me. Imagine that someone tells you they have developed a new medicine that will cure every major medical problem. In fact, he says it’s the only way to cure some diseases. For the sake of this story, let’s say it requires a lot of commitment to take the appropriate dosage—you have to take several large, bad-tasting pills at specific times each day. Also, the medicine works slowly. You don’t see results immediately. But the promise is that it really works. And here’s good news: it’s free. You just have to commit to taking it. Suppose you’re in bad shape and desperate for a cure, or the person who has developed this medicine has proven himself to be trustworthy, so you take the medicine.

Over time, you start to feel better. You’re not 100 hundred percent sure if it’s the medicine working. Perhaps it’s a placebo effect. But you believe it’s working. Then, the person who makes the medicine says, “We have to get word about this drug to others. Go tell others about it.” There’s no money in this drug, because it’s free. Mass advertising won’t work. If big pharma hears that a wonder drug is being given away for free, they’ll try to shut this movement down. It’s not FDA-approved. The person who makes the drug explains that the best way to get the word out is to do this personally.

He says that if you go out and tell people about his life-saving cure, there will be people who trust that it will work, and they’ll take the medicine. And then they’ll tell other people, and so on. He says that though you’re not selling the medicine, people will be grateful and they’ll give you some money. At the least, they’ll feed you and, while you’re traveling, they’ll let you stay in their homes.

But he also promises that there will be opposition. Some people will think you’re a fool. They’ll want nothing to do with you. And the major drug companies will try to sue you, to get the government to arrest you. However, getting this drug to people who need it is worth the risk. And he promises that, in the end, you will succeed. You’ll have helped many people get healthier. And, when you reach retirement age, regardless of how many people took your offer, you will be financially secure. You’ll never have to worry about money again.

That may seem too good to be true. Or, it may seem too strange to be true. But Christianity says something similar. It says that God has something for us, a priceless gift that will fix all our major problems. Though it’s priceless, it really is a gift. It’s not for sale. But it requires commitment to take it. And since it’s so helpful and so valuable—the only way to truly fix what ails us—we must tell others about it. Some will trust us, but many—probably most—will reject us. Nevertheless, we’re promised that God will be with us, that no one can ultimately harm us, and that we should rejoice that we will live with God forever.

We’re going to see this in the passage that we’re studying today. We’ve been reading carefully through the Gospel of Luke, one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible. So far, we have seen that Jesus has taught about the kingdom of God and performed miracles. He also called twelve men to himself to learn from him, to witness who he is and what he has done. They are called disciples, students who follow him. Earlier, he had sent these twelve men out to tell other people about God’s kingdom—that the King has come, that people can be right with God if they would turn to the King and trust him, and that this leads to eternal life. Now, Jesus sends a larger group out to tell more people this good news.

We’re going to read Luke 10:1–24. We’ll start by reading the first twelve verses, which describe this mission and how people will respond to Jesus’ message.

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.[1]

Jesus sends a group of seventy-two out to gather “the harvest.” These people are to give a message of peace to those they meet. If people receive this message of peace, Jesus instructs them to heal the sick and to tell them that the kingdom of God—or the rule and reign of God—has come near them. But there will be people who want nothing to do with them. Jesus tells them not to waste their time with those people.

Our translation says there were seventy-two people sent out. There are some manuscripts that say seventy were sent out. (Some translations, like the KJV and NRSV, say “seventy.”) Does this number have any significance? Perhaps it does. In the Old Testament, in Genesis 10, we’re given a list of seventy nations that descended from Noah. The Hebrew Bible has seventy names, but when it was translated into Greek, the number became seventy-two. Perhaps the idea here is that this message that Jesus gives the disciples is meant to go out to the whole world. Earlier, Jesus had sent the twelve out (Luke 9:1–6). Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus told them to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel. If seventy-two or seventy represents the nations of the world, this larger group, while not going out to all the nations yet, foreshadows a day when the gospel, the good news of Jesus, will be sent to all peoples.

Jesus likens this mission to a harvest. It’s an idea found in both the Old and the New Testaments (Isa. 27:12; Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13; Matt. 9:37–38; John 4:31–38; Rev. 14:14–20). It’s a metaphor that says that there are people who are ready to be gathered into God’s kingdom, which, according to one author, can be defined as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] The Bible tells us that God is a perfect being who created the universe. He created us to know him, to love him, to worship him and reflect his greatness. We exist for God, not the other way around. But from the beginning, we have acted as if God doesn’t exist, or is there to serve our needs. We act like we’re the kings and queens of the universe. Therefore, there’s a broken relationship between God and humanity. That broken relationship is the reason why anything bad happens in the world: diseases, natural disasters, our seemingly natural ability to screw things up, and death itself.

But God sent Jesus into the world to reconcile people to himself, to bring them back into the fold. He is gathering people to himself, into his kingdom, the way a farmer gathers grain. And he does this through people, who bring a message that we can now have peace with God.

So, that’s what Jesus is doing here. Luke tells us that Jesus is Lord. Jesus tells his workers to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send more workers. That’s a subtle way of putting Jesus on the same level as God the Father, something we’ll see again later in this passage. It shows that this harvest will be gathered through prayer and through more people bringing this message of peace to more and more people. The answer to the prayer for more workers will come as more people hear good news from God and decide to work for him.

Jesus tells this larger group that the task won’t be easy. They’re being sent as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Matt. 10:16 says they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” because of the danger.) He also tells them to take no supplies: no moneybag (which was something that traveling philosophers used, because they sold their teaching), no knapsack, and no (extra?) pair of sandals. They should go with a sense of urgency, not pausing to chit-chat with others (cf. 2 Kgs. 4:29). They should trust that God will provide for them.

Jesus says that they should say “peace” to people. This isn’t a casual greeting. The idea is that God is offering peace, or wholeness, to others. People can be at peace with God, forgiven for doing wrong, for ignoring God and breaking his commandments. If people receive this message of peace, they will invite Jesus’ followers into their homes and feed them. The disciples should then heal their sick. Jesus has given them authority and power to perform miracles. In a sense, Jesus is telling them that there will be people who accept this offer of peace.

But he also says that if people don’t receive this peace, then the peace offered doesn’t go to them. And Jesus implies that the disciples shouldn’t heal those who reject this offer. Healing only comes to those who accept God’s offer of peace, who want to come under God’s rule and blessing and therefore become part of God’s kingdom. Those who reject the King will have no peace and no healing. If a town rejects the disciples, they should “shake the dust from their feet,” an act that says something like, “We’re done here, we don’t even want to take your town’s dust with us” (cf. Acts 13:51). The disciples should move on, warning the town that though they have rejected the King, his kingdom has still come. The King won’t disappear simply because certain people don’t want to hear about him.

Jesus then talks of “that day,” when the King comes to call all people to account for how they have lived, to sort people into two categories: those who have entered the kingdom and those who haven’t. This is judgment day. Jesus says it will be more bearable for the people of Sodom on that day than it will be for these people who have rejected Jesus’ messengers. This is shocking, since Sodom is known as a wicked city, one that wanted to rape two angels sent by God (Gen. 19:1–28; see also Isa. 13:19; Ezek. 16:48–50). The wicked people of Sodom won’t be judged as harshly as these people who reject Jesus’ messengers.

Jesus then gives a warning to a few cities. The idea is that these cities are without excuse. They will be judged harshly because they had experienced Jesus’ power and yet still rejected him. Let’s read verses 13–15:

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were towns in Galilee, Jesus’ home region. They had witnessed Jesus’ miracles. (Capernaum is mentioned specifically in Luke 4:23, 31–37; 7:1–10.) Jesus had shown them his identity, as the Son of God who also became a human being, who came to bring people into God’s kingdom. And they rejected Jesus. Jesus says that on the day of judgment, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon. These were two cities to the northwest, on the Mediterranean coast, cities in Gentile territory. (Sidon is actually one of the seventy-two nations mentioned in Genesis 10.) Tyre and Sidon were known for their pride and wickedness (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26–28). They’ll do better on judgment day than people who rejected Jesus. This would be shocking for Jewish people to hear, because they assumed they were superior to Gentiles.

Why are Jesus’ words so harsh? Look at verse 16: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Those who listen to Jesus’ messengers, who receive their words, are actually receiving Jesus. It’s not Jesus’ followers that they’re believing, but Jesus himself. Likewise, those who reject Jesus’ followers aren’t rejecting them; they’re rejecting Jesus. And Jesus says that those who reject him are rejecting the one who sent him. That is, they’re rejecting God. God’s message comes through Jesus and through people who talk about Jesus. If people are telling the truth about Jesus and their message is believed, taken to be true and trusted to be what people need, then that person has a relationship with God. If people reject that message, they’re not rejecting the messenger; they’re rejecting the one who is the subject of that message. They’re rejecting the one who wrote the message.[3]

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus has sent his followers out into a hostile word to offer peace to other people. There will be those who receive this message of peace, who welcome good news from the King. Others won’t. There will be “wolves” that are hostile to this message. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about them, but to shake the dust from their feet and move on. In the next paragraph, we see that the disciples come back from their mission. They have had some measure of success. They are full of joy. Jesus assures them of ultimate victory. Let’s read verses 17–20:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The seventy-two return with joy. They claim that even demons, evil spirits, are subject to them—that is, in Jesus’ name. That means that because of who Jesus is and the authority he gave his followers, even demons were subject to them. They probably drove out demons from people, something that Jesus himself did. This causes Jesus to say something stunning: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Some people believe this happened long before Jesus came to Earth. But in the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is pictured as being in heaven (Job 1–2; Zech. 3:1–5). Other places in the New Testament say he was thrown down from heaven at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave (John 12:31; Rev. 12:7–12). I think what Jesus is saying is that as demons are driven away by the work of his followers, he can already foresee the time when Satan is cast out of heaven. He is anticipating Satan’s defeat. Satan will be thrown down because Jesus, though killed by evil people under the influence of Satan, triumphed in his resurrection. And one day, when King Jesus comes back to Earth on “that day” of judgment, Satan will be cast out forever. Jesus knows Satan will lose.

His point is that neither Satan and his demons, nor anyone else, can ultimately harm his disciples. He has given them “authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” I think this is symbolic. I don’t think Jesus means we should go around stepping on poisonous snakes with our bare feet. Serpents and scorpions often represent evil in the Bible (Deut. 8:15; Ps. 91:13; Rev. 9:10, 19). The forces of evil can harm Jesus’ followers in the short-run. Some people who have been missionaries have been killed. But no one can harm Jesus’ followers in the long-run.

And Jesus tells his followers that they should rejoice, though perhaps not for the reasons they’re rejoicing. They might have let their success go to their heads: “Look at us, we did great things!” Jesus tells them not to rejoice in that. After all, some Christians won’t experience that kind of success in this life. He tells them to rejoice that their names are written in heaven. The Bible often talks about a book of life, or a list of names that are registered in the divine census. These are the names of people God chose to save, to reconcile to himself.[4] Jesus is saying that they should rejoice that they have been chosen to receive this message of good news. They should rejoice that they will live with God forever. The reward for a Christian life isn’t success in this world. The reward is being part of God’s kingdom forever, living under the rule and blessing of the King. That is what should bring us the greatest joy. No one can take that away from you if you know Jesus. If you have that gift, praise God that he chose to give it to you.

And this leads to the final words of Luke 10 that we’ll look at today. Jesus began his teaching with a word about prayer, and now we see that he prays to his Father, thanking him that he chose to reveal this message of salvation to the disciples. Let’s look at verses 21–24:

21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

Here, we see that God chooses to reveal himself to certain people. The Bible says that all of us know there’s a God because we live in the world he created (Rom. 1:18–20). But we have har hearts and darkened minds, so we tune out that truth. And creation’s general message that there is a God is not specific enough to tell us how to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God. God has given us his word, written down in the form of the Bible, which tells us a lot of specific information about him and what he expects of us. Anyone can read it. But not everyone will understand it and believe it to be true. Only those to whom God has chosen to reveal this message will receive it.

Jesus says that God the Father has given him all authority (John 3:35). He says that only God the Father truly knows who God the Son is. And only Jesus, the Son of God, truly knows who God the Father is. How can anyone else understand the Father and the Son? Jesus says that those to whom he chose to reveal this information will know. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that the Father has drawn people to the Son (John 6:44, 65; 17:2, 25). Here, he says that he has given understanding to people. What the Father does, the Son does. What the Son does, the Father does. They are not the same person, but they are the same God. They do everything in perfect unity.

God has not chosen the wisest, or the richest or the most powerful, to receive the gift of salvation. He has chosen “children,” or quite literally, “babies.” It’s true that people who are wise and rich and powerful do come to faith in Christ. But they don’t come to Jesus because they’re smart and powerful. They come because they know they need Jesus. They rely on him the way that a baby relies on a parent. If we realize our complete dependency on God, we’ll receive his message of salvation. If we think we can fix ourselves, we won’t.

Another point is that true knowledge of God only comes through Jesus. You can’t have a right relationship with God if you reject Jesus. That’s why Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23), and, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (John 15:23). I’ve been studying Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke, and he says, “No one can really understand the Father or what God is about without listening to the Son and his revelation.”[5]

Jesus says that his followers are blessed because God has given them eyes to see what they are seeing. Many in the past, both prophets and kings, looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, but they died before that day arrived. To know Jesus is a tremendous privilege. It’s a gift that comes from God. And if you have it, you are blessed.

Now that we have looked at this passage, what does it have to do with us? It may seem that some of this doesn’t relate to us. Are we really called to go out into the world and take part in this harvest?

I don’t think all of Jesus’ instructions here are normative. We’re not told in the New Testament that all of Jesus’ followers must travel, and that they must do so without supplies, in order to reach those who don’t know Jesus yet. But we’re all called to be ambassadors of Christ, witnesses who represent him, who tell other people the good news of how to be reconciled to God. Some people will be missionaries, traveling to foreign lands. Some people will be pastors and evangelists. But all are called to take part in God’s mission. Are you part of that mission?

I think that many people who call themselves Christians are not part of that mission in any way. And I think the reason we are not is because we don’t truly believe the gospel. If we believed that the only way to be made right with God was to trust Jesus, and that without that relationship, people were going to hell, we would do more to tell other people the good news. If you knew that by consuming a certain pill each day, people would be made well, you would tell them about it. Why don’t we tell people about Jesus? Why don’t we view this with a sense of urgency?

I suppose because we either don’t think it’s that important or we’re afraid of rejection. Perhaps it’s both. But if we don’t take it upon ourselves to tell others about Jesus, who will?

If we care about souls, if we care about God and his glory, we should want other people to know Jesus. We should view ourselves as part of God’s mission. We should pray that God would send more workers into the field. Pray that God would raise up more evangelists and pastors and missionaries. But we shouldn’t just pray. We need to act. The way that God raises up more workers is by using people like us to tell others about Jesus.

That’s one thing to keep in mind. Another thing is that when we tell others about Jesus, some will receive us and others will reject us. Jesus is quite clear about that. He acknowledges that people will be hostile. The world is full of “wolves.” But we need to keep in mind that when people reject our words, they are not rejecting us. They are rejecting Jesus. They are rejecting God. We’re just messengers. But some will receive our message, which means they are received by Jesus and by God.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us

Those words were written by Martin Luther about five hundred years ago.[6] Another point we should see is that though there is evil in the world, and though we may be persecuted because we dare to speak about Jesus, nothing can ultimately harm us. The worst that someone can do to us is cause us physical pain and kill us. But even that can’t separate us from God (Rom. 8:31–39). Jesus said that nothing would harm his disciples. He didn’t mean they couldn’t feel pain and die. Jesus felt pain, both emotional pain and physical pain. Jesus died. But pain and death were not the last word for him, and they are not the last word for his followers. We are never told to fear death or other people, or even Satan himself. We are told to fear God, who has the power to give us life or to condemn us (Luke 12:4–5). And if we are united to Jesus by faith, we will never face condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

That’s an important point related to our message about Jesus. We can warn people about God’s judgment, but we don’t condemn people. We can say certain things are right and wrong, but we don’t sit on God’s throne, judging others in that final, decisive way that he can. We simply tell people the truth and leave the results to God. And God is in control.

Jesus says that God is the one who chooses to reveal the truth to certain people. God opens up the eyes of the spiritually blind to help them to see. We don’t know who will receive the message. In faith and in obedience to Jesus, we tell others about him. From our perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that many people will believe. But God is in control. He has chosen certain people to believe. He will bring his word into their hearts and minds and use it to bring them to spiritual life. But we must cooperate with God. The fact that God will bring people to faith doesn’t mean we don’t have to act.

If we realize that we are blessed because we know Jesus, because our names are written in heaven, we will tell others. If you know who Jesus is, you have been given a priceless gift. If you have a Bible, you have been given something that people in other parts of the world wish that they could have. If you have faith in Jesus, you are blessed beyond measure. You are more blessed than the rich. Billionaires have a lot of money, but that doesn’t fix their biggest problems. And I’m not sure any of us would want to trade places with Bob Kraft this morning. But if you’re a Christian, you have been given the greatest treasure. Share it with others.

If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to do everything you can to learn about him, to put his teachings into practice, and to trust him. Jesus makes this harvest possible. In John’s Gospel, he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus died to give us eternal life. No one else can offer that to you. Receive Jesus and you receive all of God’s blessings.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. Jesus’ words in Luke 10:16 sound like things he says in John 13:20; 15:23.
  4. A list of passages that deal with this topic is quite long: Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1012.
  6. They come from his famous hymn, “A Might Fortress Is Our God.”

 

The One Who Is Great

This sermon was preached on February 17, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

“Who is the greatest?” That’s a question that we hear a lot in sports. There’s a lot of talk about G.O.A.T.S. in sports. It used to be that a goat was a villain, someone who made a big mistake and cost his team the game. Now, G.O.A.T. is an acronym for “Greatest Of All Time.” There’s a lot of talk about Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T., the greatest quarterback of all time. And there’s a debate about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the NBA’s G.O.A.T. Some might say it was Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even Bill Russell, who has eleven championship rings.

The question of the greatest isn’t limited to sports. People ask who the greatest singer is, or the greatest actor or rock band. People come up with lists of the greatest movies, the greatest paintings, the greatest restaurants. If we can rank things, we do. There’s something about the human heart that desires to identify greatness. And there’s something in the human heart that wants to be great. This starts at a young age. I can’t tell you how often we tell our kids, “It’s not a competition!”

Today, we’ll see how Jesus defines greatness. We’ll see that Jesus indicates that the road to greatness isn’t through power. Greatness doesn’t come from a desire to be Number One. We’ll see in Luke 9:46–62, the passage of the Bible that we’re focusing on today.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’re studying the Gospel of Luke, which is a biography of Jesus. It tells about his birth, his life of teaching about God and performing miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave. We’re just finishing the portion of the Gospel that is dedicated to Jesus’ activity in Galilee, his home region. Today, we’ll start the beginning of the section of Luke that leads to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified.

We’ll begin by reading verses 46–48:

46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”[1]

“Them” here refers to Jesus’ twelve disciples. They’re debating which one of them is the greatest. It’s ironic that they’re doing this immediately after Jesus told them, for the second time, that he would die (Luke 9:44–45). Jesus is going to die, and all they can talk about it is which of them is the greatest. This shows how much the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is going to do. And it won’t be the first time. A similar dispute occurs on the night before Jesus dies (Luke 22:24–27).

Jesus knows what’s in their hearts. That’s because he’s not just a man, but he’s also God. The Lord knows all our actions, all our words, and all our thoughts.

To answer the disciples, Jesus takes a child, probably one quite young, and brings the child to him. Then he says that whoever receives the child receives him, and whoever receives him receives God the Father. And in God’s kingdom, the least is great.

To understand why Jesus says this, you must know that children at that time were not regarded as great. Today, we often dote on children and cater to their whims. But things were different then. According to David Garland, “Children had no power, no status, and no rights, and they were regarded as insignificant and disposable, as witnessed by the exposure of (usually female) children in the Greco-Roman world.”[2] The point is not that children are particularly special. The point is that children were low in status. If you want to be great, Jesus says, you must welcome the lowly.

I don’t think Jesus means that if you’re nice to kids, you have a right relationship with God. That would go against a lot of what the rest of the Bible says about being justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It’s true that those who receive Jesus, or who trust in him, receive or believe in the Father. If you have a right relationship with Jesus, you have a right relationship with God. But if you do, you’re going to have a right understanding of other people. Everyone, even the lowliest person, is made in the image of God. If you treat other people poorly, you’re disregarding God’s creation. That’s why Proverbs 14:31 says,

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t identify which person is the greatest in God’s kingdom. He only says who is great. The one who is least among Jesus’ disciples is great. That’s another way of saying that everyone who is united to Jesus is great. Greatness doesn’t come from making a great name for yourself. True, eternal greatness comes from God making you great. It comes from bearing the name that is above all names, Christ the Lord. Try to make yourself great, and you won’t be. Humble yourself and have a relationship with the greatest, Jesus, and you will be great indeed.

Let’s move on and read the next two verses, verses 49 and 50:

49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

It may be strange for us to read about casting out demons, but this is something that appears fairly often in the Gospels. When Jesus walked the earth, there was heightened demonic activity. Jesus exorcised demons, and he gave his disciples authority to do the same (Luke 9:1). There are still many stories of demon possession and oppression today, though I suppose it’s a somewhat rare phenomenon.

What we should focus on is that John, one of the disciples, says this right after Jesus makes his comment about receiving the child. Jesus has just said to receive the lowly, but now the disciples can’t tolerate the idea that someone else might minister in Jesus’ name. The story is parallel to something that happens in the Old Testament. In the days of Moses, Moses took seventy elders of Israel and gathered with them. The Holy Spirit rested on all the men, and they prophesied. They were able to speak a message from God. But this only lasted for a short time. Two other men who weren’t part of that gathering had the Holy Spirit come on them, and they also prophesied. Word about this reached Moses, and Joshua, his assistant, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:24–29).

Now, John is basically saying, “Lord, stop them.” Jesus says. “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” The name of Jesus isn’t limited to one small group of people. There are others who were following Jesus. Jesus is not the exclusive property of one person, one nation, one tribe, one church, or even one denomination. That doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian is really a Christian. People do bad things in the name of Jesus. But these other people weren’t doing that. All people will either be with Jesus or against him (Luke 11:23), but that doesn’t mean they all have to be in one pack. Again, this isn’t a competition. Thinking that you’re the only Christian, or the only one who is right, is another way of insulting God, because there are many different Christians out there. The disciples needed to learn this.

The next paragraph in Luke begins with a statement about Jesus being determined to go to Jerusalem, where he will die. Jesus knew his mission all along. He came not just to teach people about God, and not just to do amazing things, which proved that he is the Son of God and were signs of what he will do for God’s people. He came to live the perfect life that we don’t live, a life of perfect love and perfect obedience to his Father in heaven. But he also came to die, to bear the punishment that our sins deserve.

Let’s read verses 51–56:

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

Luke says that the “days drew near for him to be taken up.” This is probably a reference to Jesus’ ascension to heaven, which is how Luke’s Gospel ends (Luke 24:51). But before that event, Jesus must die. We’re told he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That language is a way of describing people who are determined to do something (Gen. 31:21, for example). Sometimes, the prophets set their face against people to prophesy against them, to announce that they were in the wrong and that God would judge them (Jer. 21:10; Ezek. 6:2; 13:7; 14:8; 15:7; 21:2–6). But here, the language probably echoes something we read about in the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 50:4–9 says this:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;|
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

That person speaking is the servant of the Lord, the one who would die for the sins of his people (Isa. 52:13–53:12). The passage makes it clear that he was not guilty. He wasn’t rebellious. No one could declare him guilty. And yet he “gave his back to those who strike.” He didn’t hide his face from shame and spitting. Those words are quoted in Handel’s Messiah, in the great aria, “He Was Despised.” The very next verse says that God helps him and that he knows he won’t be to put to shame. That’s why he could “set [his] face like a flint.” Jesus knew that his death wasn’t the end of the story. Beyond the cross stood glory. But first, he had to die.

His disciples don’t understand this still. They were traveling in Samaria, about to enter a village there, and Jesus had sent “messengers” to find a place to stay. But the people in that Samaritan village didn’t receive Jesus. Interestingly, we’re told the reason why: “because his face was set to Jerusalem.” It wasn’t God’s plan for Jesus to linger in this village.

Two of his disciples are indignant, and they ask Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven to consume the village. Why would they do this?

To understand, you have understand something about Jewish relationships with Samaritans. According to Darrell Bock, “The Samaritans were a mixed race of Israelite and non-Israelite blood, who were despised by many pure-blooded Israelites because they believed that the Samaritans compromised the faith.”[3] The Samaritans were very distantly related to the northern kingdom of Israelites, who had mixed with Gentiles long ago. A couple of decades after this event, something happened that illustrates the tensions between Galileans and Samaritans. Some people from Galilee were traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles when one of them was killed in a Samaritan town. In response, some Jewish people attacked Samaritan villages and set them on fire.[4]

Perhaps the disciples had in mind something else from the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah once called down fire from heaven to destroy a hundred soldiers sent by Ahaziah, the evil king of Israel who was in his palace in Samaria (2 Kgs. 1:1–12). James and John, whom Jesus elsewhere calls “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), were apparently zealous and thought that these Samaritans deserved the same treatment. Jesus had told them that when a town rejects them, they should shake the dust off their sandals and move on. But these disciples didn’t want to shake the dust off their sandals; they wanted to shake the town to dust.

Jesus simply rebukes him. There are some manuscripts, which probably don’t reflect the original writing, that say, “the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” (You can find those words in the ESV footnote.) That’s certainly true. The first time Jesus came, he didn’t come to bring judgment, but salvation. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). One day, Jesus will return, and he will judge those who have rejected him (John 5:25–29; 12:47–48). But that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose when he came the first time, and it’s not the way we do things during this age.

Let’s move on to the last paragraph of this chapter. Here are verses 57–62:

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Here, there are three people who say they will follow Jesus. The first one comes up to Jesus and says that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. But Jesus says that while animals have homes, he doesn’t. Jesus probably had a home while he worked as a carpenter, but after he begins his public ministry, he goes from one place to another, staying with disciples and friends and others who would receive him. But, more importantly, Jesus left his true home in heaven when the Son of God became Jesus of Nazareth. And those who follow Jesus are “strangers and exiles” on the earth (Heb. 11:8–10, 13–16; 1 Pet. 2:11). In a way, Jesus is warning this man that if he follows Jesus, he will no longer be at home in the world.

Jesus then calls another person to follow him. The man says he will, but first he must bury his father. This seems like a reasonable request. The fifth of the Ten Commandments requires people to honor their parents, and in Jewish culture, burying dead parents was one way to honor them.[5] But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” That may be an expression that simply means something like, “That will take care of itself.” Or he might mean that the “spiritually dead,” those who don’t follow Jesus, will take care of mundane things like that. The point is that this man shouldn’t delay. He should honor Jesus above his family because Jesus is God. So, Jesus asks the man to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

The third person says he will follow Jesus, but first he wants to say goodbye to those at home. Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, don’t look back, look at straight ahead at me and move forward.

What are we to make of these sayings of Jesus? They seem harsh. Perhaps Jesus is using hyperbole to show how following him is more important than anything else. To see that, we have to once again consider something related to the prophet Elijah, who casts a long shadow over this chapter of Luke. Last week, I mentioned that Elijah ran away from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in order to save his life. He was depressed and wanted to die. But God preserved his life and encouraged him by saying that he had work to do. Part of that work was anointing his successor, a man named Elisha (see 1 Kgs. 19:16). So, Elijah found Elisha and called the man to follow him. When Elijah found Elisha, Elisha was plowing a field. Elisha said he would follow Elijah but first he wanted to kiss his father and mother goodbye. Elijah allowed him to do that. Then Elisha took the animals with which he was plowing, sacrificed them, and fed the people with their flesh. That sounds strange, but I think it was a way of showing that his old life was done. He then went with Elijah (see 1 Kgs. 19:17–19).

Jesus might be alluding back to that passage. He might be saying that following him is even greater than following a mere prophet. Elisha was allowed to go back home first, but Jesus wants his followers to put him first. Elisha went from plowing to prophesying. Jesus takes people and has them start plowing, metaphorically speaking, for the kingdom of God.

The main point is that Jesus demands total commitment. He must come first. He must come before family and everything else. And those who follow Jesus must not look back. When Lot and his family were rescued from the wicked city of Sodom, Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26). When Israel was delivered out of slavery in Egypt, their tendency was to look back and romanticize their time in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). There’s something in the human heart that looks backward, probably because we know what has happened in our past, and our future is unfamiliar and feels uncertain. But Jesus wants his followers not to look back, but to look forward.

Now that we’ve learned the basic meaning of this passage from the Gospel of Luke, what do we learn? What do we learn about Jesus? And how should we live?

I want to make four points that line up with the four parts of today’s passage. The first is that to be great, we must be willing to be lowly. Jesus tells his disciples to receive children, who were considered lowly. We must be willing to associate with the lowly, for they are made in God’s image, just like us. We shouldn’t think that we are greater than other people. The apostle Paul tells us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). We shouldn’t see life as a competition, a survival of the fittest. That’s a different worldview, not the Christian one. Life is not a competition. To be great, we must be associated with Jesus. And putting our trust in Jesus means humbling ourselves. It means acknowledging that we are sinners, rebels against God. We begin life as his enemies. If you don’t know your lowly position as someone who has failed to live life on God’s terms, you can’t understand Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace. God made us to live for him. He is supposed to be at the center of our lives. And we ignore that and make ourselves or something else the center of our lives. This is nothing less than a war against God. We deserve death.

But God did something amazing. He sent his Son, his only child, to die in our place. If we would humble ourselves and receive that special Child, we will receive God himself. Jesus humbled himself because he’s great. If Jesus can humble himself and become a human being, experiencing all the pain and suffering that came with a human life, humbling himself to the point of being killed though he was innocent, we can humble ourselves. If we do that, we are great. Everyone who does that is great. Everyone who is united to Jesus is on the same team.

And that leads me to the second point. The Christian life, as I said, is not a competition. All Christians are on the same team. We shouldn’t compete with other Christians, with other churches. If other people are doing the work of Jesus, we should rejoice. We shouldn’t covet other people’s successes or spiritual gifts. If people are teaching the truth about Jesus and loving others the way that Jesus would want them to love others, then we should be satisfied with that. God gives us a specific role to play. We may not all see great success, or have our names prominently displayed. That doesn’t matter. All Christians are great in God’s eyes. The important thing is to be faithful, to do what God has called us to do. We can rejoice that there are Christians throughout the world, who sometimes do things a bit differently than we would do them. Jesus isn’t our exclusive property. It’s the other way around: we’re Jesus’ exclusive property.

The third thing we see in today’s passage is how to respond to those who reject us. If we live as Christians, people will hate us. They will hate that we’re different, that we don’t endorse their views or condone their practices. When we try to share the message of Christianity with others, there will be times when we’re rejected. How do we deal with this?

Jesus teaches us to respond not in anger, not to avenge ourselves, but to respond in love. When we’re wronged, we don’t retaliate. Sometimes, we just walk away. Jesus already taught us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27). That sentiment is taught in the book of Romans, too. Romans 12:17–21 says,

17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The reason why we can let people do wrong things to us, and why we can tolerate people doing evil in general, is because we know that vengeance is God’s. In the end, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). He will avenge his enemies, all those who refuse to trust in him. That means we don’t always have to defend ourselves. Jesus didn’t defend himself. He let evil people do the most evil thing possible: to kill the Son of God.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stop evil when we can. That doesn’t mean that governments can’t punish evil. In fact, right after Paul’s words in Romans about not repaying evil, he talks about government’s role in punishing evil (Rom. 13:1–7). But we can’t respond to evil with more evil, and we don’t respond to evil with a wish to put all our enemies to shame.

The Christian message spreads not through the power of man, or through violence. It is spread through the power of God, which works through words of persuasion. Islam was first spread through violence. It worked its way through the Middle East and northern Africa through violence. That happened in the seventh century. It’s a matter of historical record.[6] Christianity is very different. The early church had no political power or military might. They lived out their faith, loved people, and told them the good news. That’s because the Son of Man didn’t come to squash his enemies with power. Instead, he died for his enemies.

The last point is that when we turn to Jesus, we must put him first, and there’s no looking back. Jesus might have been speaking in hyperbole when he told those men that they couldn’t bury a father or say goodbye to family. Christians should do those things. But he certainly meant that we can’t delay making a decision to follow Jesus. We can’t use lame excuses. (We’ll read a parable about people who make excuses in Luke 14:12–24.) We can’t say, “Oh, I know I should follow Jesus, but things are really busy right now. I’ll do that later.” The time to follow Jesus is now. Following Jesus is more important than whatever else is going on in our lives. Don’t delay following through on a commitment to Jesus. Perhaps you know Jesus wants you to do something and you’ve been waiting. Maybe it’s a personal thing, or a commitment to Jesus’ church. Don’t make excuses; don’t delay.

When we turn to Jesus, there is no looking back. The apostle Paul said he didn’t look back at his old life, his accomplishments or what he used to be. Instead, he looked forward to being more like Jesus and to the time when he would see Jesus face to face (Phil. 3:13–14). We can look back for all kinds of reasons. We can look back at the things we used to do before we became Christians, how we used to have fun. But we must realize that we were doing things that were unhealthy for us. Some things that are bad for us can be fun at that time, but they’re also self-destructive. I’m sure doing drugs is fun for a moment, but I wouldn’t advise you do it. Don’t look back to the “glory days,” because the best is yet to come.

Sometimes, we look back at our old sins, our regrets. When we do that, we should look further back in time. Look back to an event almost two thousand years ago, when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died for sins, even the worst things we could do. Even before you did those things, the Son of God knew them, and he went to the cross to pay for them. He stared straight at it and was determined to go forward. He looked ahead, not back, knowing that after death came glory. The same is true for us.

If we give up trying to be great, we become great. If we let go of trying to be powerful, God will give us his power. If we stop trying to avenge ourselves, we can trust that God will right every wrong. And if we give up our lives to Jesus, we will find true, eternal life.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 404.
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 969.
  4. Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.12.3–4.
  5. See the non-biblical book of Tobit 4:3–4.
  6. See Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

 

Follow Me

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 3, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

I have a question for the Patriots fans here: How many of you want the Patriots to lose today? Anyone? Do you think any of the Patriots woke this morning in Atlanta hoping that they would lose? Of course not! We want our team to win. Why? Because that will satisfy us. That will make us happy.

About sixteen hundred years ago, the great theologian Augustine observed this in his great book, The City of God: “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all men desire to be happy.”[1] In his Confessions, he writes, “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?”[2] Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants the good life. But how can we be happy? How can we have the good life?

We often find happiness by getting things, whether it’s money or fame or, perhaps, by winning the big game. But experience tells us that we can’t gain happiness, or ultimate satisfaction, by winning. Fourteen years ago, Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl with the Patriots. A few months later, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. This is what Brady said:

Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? . . . I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?

Of course, Tom Brady now has five Super Bowl rings, and today he has an opportunity to get a sixth. Yet something tells me that six championships won’t satisfy him. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.”[3]

After saying that in the interview, Brady was asked, “What’s the answer?” And Brady responded,

I wish I knew. I wish I knew. . . . I love playing football, and I love being a quarterback for this team, but, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find. I know what ultimately makes me happy are family and friends, and positive relationships with great people. I think I get more out of that than anything.[4]

I think that’s admirable of Tom Brady to say. Relationships certainly last longer than Super Bowl victories. But even those relationships, like all things in this life, come to an end.

So, the experiences of the rich, the famous, the accomplished tell us that happiness, that real life, doesn’t come through the greatest accomplishments.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible tells us the same thing. For example, read the book of Ecclesiastes. Most of the book consists of the words of the Preacher, a wise and wealthy king. He finds that life “under the sun”—in this world, from our perspective—is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). In other words, things don’t last. Even if we should have great pleasure, wisdom, and accomplishments (Eccl. 2), we will find those things empty. They won’t satisfy. And they don’t last. We could gain the whole world and lose it to decay and death.

According to Jesus, there is only one way to true happiness—to an abundant life that will ever end. Those things come not from winning, but from losing, which is contrary to what we would expect, and yet, it rings true with experience. If we first lose, we will gain, but if we strive to gain, we will lose.

Today, we will see that, and we will see once again who Jesus is and why he alone is the key to happiness and real life.

We’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in chapter 9, which we started last week. So far, Luke has told us about Jesus’ birth and then the beginning of his ministry as an adult. He has been teaching people about the kingdom of God and performing miracles, and he has called twelve disciples—twelve special followers who are learning from him. As Jesus does amazing things, the question of his identity keeps coming up. When he healed a paralyzed man, he also said the man’s sins were forgiven, which led people to ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). Later, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Herod, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus and asked, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9). Now, this question will be answered.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:

18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”[5]

Jesus was praying alone. Luke frequently mentions prayer, and I think it’s important that what happens is a response to Jesus praying. After praying, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. Jesus isn’t trying to get polling data. He’s not worried insecure about whether his message is coming across or not, as if he were a politician. What he’s doing is making sure that the disciples know who he is. The crowds say the same things that we heard last week, several verses earlier, when Luke told us about what Herod heard (Luke 9:7–9). But when Jesus asks the disciples who he is, Peter answers for the group: “The Christ of God.”

“Christ” is based on the Greek word that means “anointed one.” Another word for this is “Messiah,” which is based on a Hebrew word. It was used of priests (Lev. 4:5, 16; 6:15), the king (1 Sam. 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14, 16; 19:22; 22:51; 23:1), and to a special Anointed one (Ps. 2:2) who is also called God’s Son in Psalm 2:7. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of a coming King, a son of David, who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–5; Jer. 23:5–6). It might be that Peter had this kind of king in mind, a powerful political ruler who would be just and righteous.

In Matthew’s Gospel, he records a fuller answer given by Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). (I suppose Luke has his reasons for only recording part of the answer.) When Simon Peter says this (in Matthew), Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Peter has come to realize something true about Jesus, and this can only be known because it was revealed to him by God. Jesus’ true identity is not some bit of guesswork on our part. We don’t say he’s the Christ, the Son of God, because we’re speculating. We say that because God has revealed it to us through his written word, the Bible.

Even though the disciples were coming to realize who Jesus was, they still didn’t fully understand his identity. They didn’t fully understand why he came. So, Jesus starts to tell them more. Let’s read verses 21–22:

21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

This is the first time that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in clear terms. He refers to himself as the Son of Man, which is a name that comes from Daniel, who sees a vision of a figure “one like a son of man,” who comes to God and receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13–14). But before Jesus assumes that position of glory, he must first be rejected the Jewish religious leaders, suffer, and die. This must have been quite a shock to the disciples. Luke doesn’t record what happens next, but Matthew does. We’re told that Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter couldn’t imagine that the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would die. It’s like he’s saying, “They can’t do that to you, Jesus. We’ll protect you. We’ll make sure they don’t harm you.” But Jesus’ response is harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Remember that Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer.” That means it is part of God’s plan. To try stop Jesus’ suffering and death is to do the work of Satan, the devil, the one who is opposed to God.

If Jesus does not suffer and die, then God cannot save his people from their sin. He is not only the anointed one, the King of kings, but he’s also the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 52:13–53:12), the one who would take the penalty of his people’s sin, be punished in their place, so that they could go free. God takes our sin very seriously because it is a rebellion against him. It’s a personal affront to him. But it’s also corruptive. It poisons his creation and destroys everything. The reason we can’t be completely happy and satisfied in this world, even under the best circumstances, is because of sin, which leads to our separation from God. We have a broken relationship that can only be healed if someone takes our punishment and unites us to God. That’s exactly what Jesus came to do.

The kingdom of God cannot come without the cross. You can’t know who Jesus and have a right relationship with him if you don’t acknowledge both his status as King and his suffering on the cross for our sin. You can’t know Jesus unless you realize that it was God’s plan to have him die in our place, to pay for our sin. And this was Jesus’ plan, too, as he knew full well. There are people today who say they are Christians who don’t seem to realize that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. They reduce him to a symbol of “love,” an example of how to be nice. In their view, it’s not clear that Jesus is God, and it’s not clear why he had to die. They call themselves “progressive Christians,” but their views have been around for a long time. About eighty years ago, Richard Niebuhr said this about this view: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[6] That kind of Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. It’s useless. We need God to have wrath over injustice, because he cares about right and wrong, and sin corrupts his creation. We need a Christ with a cross or else we would die in our own sins.

But Jesus didn’t come just to teach us to be nice, to be kind to one another. He came to rescue us from condemnation and to transform us. And if you want to be united to Jesus, which is the only way to have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, you have to be changed at the very core. Jesus starts to teach his disciples this in verses 23–27:

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus says that his followers need to follow in his footsteps. They must be willing to suffer as well. First, he says that his followers must deny themselves. They’re something within us that must be denied. He does not say, “I love you just the way you are.” He says, “There’s something wrong within you. You must change. You must deny your wrong desires, some of your natural inclinations.”

Second, he says that his followers must take up their crosses daily. Now, the cross for us has become a nice symbol. People wear it on necklaces. We see it in all kinds of designs. And we trivialize the saying, “We all have our cross to bear.” “Your husband snores? Well, we all have our cross to bear.” In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death, reserved for slaves, for enemies of the state. It was reserved for terrorists. They were made to carry the crossbeam to the site of their death, the same beam upon which they would be impaled and hanged for hours or even days until they died, bearing that shameful death in public view. Perhaps we could recover a bit of the original shock of Jesus’ words if we imagined him saying something like, “You must be guillotined daily.” Though that was a quick death and crucifixion was not. C. S. Lewis once said, “He says, ‘Take up your Cross’—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp.”[7]

What Jesus is saying is that we must be willing to suffer. We must also put to death those wrong desires, and we must do that daily. We don’t enter into a relationship with Jesus because we’re good. We are saved by grace, which means it’s a gift from God, not something we have earned. So, when we become Christians, it’s because we realize how messed up we are. We are not what we should be, and we realize that only Jesus can help us. As we follow him, we are a work in progress. Our old desires haven’t magically disappeared. Even when we feel like we’ve controlled them, they can still pop their ugly heads up. And when they do, we must cut those heads off again. We have to crucify the old desires—if they’re contrary to God’s ways. Not all desires are wrong. But there are some that are wrong and destructive, and they must die.

We also must be willing to suffer as Christians. Life as a Christian isn’t easy. It requires discipline, effort, work. We don’t work to earn God’s favor, but once we’ve received salvation, we’re supposed to “work it out,” or put it to use. The good news is that God gives us the strength to do that (see Phil. 2:12–13). He works in us through the Holy Spirit. But change comes slowly through effort, through practice. So, we have that internal battle. But there’s also an external battle. People will hate Christians. Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). The world killed the most loving, perfect man who ever walked the face of this planet. It will not treat Christians differently. We must be willing to bear whatever hatred the world throws our way, including name-calling, being excluded, and even being persecuted.

Third, Jesus tells his disciples to follow him. We follow his example, but we must also obey his commands. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Hearing and following means obeying what Jesus commands.

Now, if this all sounds too difficult, there is great news. Those who trust Jesus, take up their cross, and follow him will gain the whole world. They will be acceptable to God. They will experience God’s love and favor forever. But those who reject Jesus and try to gain the world on their own will lose it. This seems like a paradox.

There is something paradoxical about seeking meaning and happiness in this life. If you seek primarily after happiness, you likely won’t find it. That’s because we seek happiness in money and the things it can buy, often stuff, whether that’s clothing and jewelry or houses, cars, and gadgets. We think we’ll be happy when we’re more comfortable, or better entertained. But happiness often comes through focusing on others. When we help other people, when we live for something beyond ourselves, we find happiness. Seek after happiness, and you will likely lose it. Seek after something greater than happiness, and you’ll get happiness thrown in.

That same principle could be applied to so much in life. Want a good marriage? Don’t focus on trying to get your spouse to please you, or to create a romantic environment. Focus instead of loving your spouse. Want a good worship experience? You can try to manufacture a good experience of worship, by having the right physical environment and the right songs, but you can’t guarantee it will come. My best experiences in worship come at really odd times, like hearing someone sing a song about Jesus a cappella, or without accompaniment. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said this about trying to create an experience of the Holy Spirit: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove, and it flew away.”[8] The point is that if you want a great religious experience, focus on Jesus and you’ll get it. But if you focus on a great religious experience, you won’t get it.

If we try to find ultimate meaning or happiness in the things of this world, or in ourselves, we won’t find it. But if we seek those things in God, we will. Augustine knew this well, which is why he writes things like these statements in his Confessions: “When I seek for you, my God, my quest is for the happy life.”[9] “That is the authentic happy life, to set one’s joy on you, grounded in you and caused by you.”[10] Christianity isn’t a joyless march to suffering and death. Christianity is actually about finding the greatest joy. But we find that joy in the very source of our lives, in God. If we seek for true life in anything less than God, we will only find death. We can gain the whole world and lose it, or we can give up control over our lives to God and find, in the end, that we haven’t lost anything, but we’ve gained everything

And after the suffering of this life comes glory. Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and die, but he also said they would see the kingdom of God. We’ll look at this more next week, but after this passage, Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray. And as he prays, his appearance changes. His face starts gleaming. His clothes become a dazzling white. And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (See Luke 9:28–36.) This is a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity and a glimpse of what he is like after he dies and rises from the grave. Though he died, he rose in a body that is indestructible, a glorified body that can never die again. And all his followers will experience the same. Though we suffer and die in this life, one day we will be raised again in indestructible bodies and we will live with God forever in a perfect world. We will experience perfect, unending happiness, infinite joy. But that only comes after we first are willing to put our old selves to death.

So, what does this mean for us? The only way to be right with God, to have true peace, happiness, and to live forever in a perfect world, is to be united to Jesus. To be united to Jesus means being willing to come after him, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. We have to put the old self to death and put on the new self.

Here’s what this doesn’t mean. Dying to self isn’t becoming a Buddhist and eliminating all desire and attachment. It doesn’t mean being stripped of all your personality and becoming a mindless slave or a robot. Christianity teaches us that we can enjoy God’s creation, when we use it rightly, according to his design. We can have fun. We have personalities. Not all desires are bad. Not every single aspect of us must change completely when we become Christians, though we the overall trajectory of our lives will change, our motives and purpose for living will change, and we will come under the rule of Jesus, not ourselves and our desires.

But Christianity does teach that things do have to change. And we need to use Scripture to know which things must change and how we must change. I think one passage of Scripture teaches us quite clearly.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he indicates what the life of a Christian should look like. At the beginning of chapter 3, he says that Christians should seek Jesus and have their minds fixed on him, not primarily on all the things of this world. He says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). He also says that Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). In his letter to the Galatians, he says something similar. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus now owns us and lives in us. Our old identity, our old selves must die so that we can truly live.

Then, Paul writes the following, which is worth reading. This is Colossians 3:5–17:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

So, what do we put to death? “Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” “Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” Lying, a feeling of being superior to people who are different from us. In short, we have to stop being greedy, stop grabbing every kind of pleasure, stop making something other than God the ultimate reason why we live. Whatever we love most, whatever we trust in most, whatever dictates the course of our life—that is our God, that is what we’re truly worshiping. If any of the things we do causes us to worship a false god and reject God’s design for our lives, we need to kill it.

But it’s not enough to kill something bad. We must replace the bad with the good. So, what do we do? We become compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We love—not some generic love, but the way God instructs us to love. We thank God. And we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” Notice that you can’t have a new self without God’s word, the Bible. And we can’t do it alone. We must meet together regularly and teach and admonish one another and sing together. And “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

That’s what it looks like to deny our selves and follow Jesus. And that can only come if we give ourselves—our whole selves—to Jesus.

Jesus never said, “Invite me into your heart.” That silly saying isn’t in the Bible. I hate some of the clichés we have because they give the wrong impression. That sounds like you can give Jesus a tiny portion of your life. Jesus doesn’t just want a little place in your heart. He wants your whole heart, you whole body, your whole mind, and your whole soul. When we invite Jesus into our lives, he takes them over. And that’s how things should be. If we try to retain control of our lives, we will drive them into a ditch. Controlling our lives leads to disaster. But if we let Jesus take over, he will bring us home, to God and all that comes with a right relationship with him: peace, meaning, happiness, security, and true, unending life.

C. S. Lewis had so much to say about this. I encourage you to read his Mere Christianity, one of the great books on Christianity. I’m tempted to give you a whole heaping of Lewis quotes on killing the old self, but I’ll end with just a short one: “The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”[11]

Notes

  1. Augustine, City of God 10.1, trans. Marcus Dods (1950; New York: Modern Library, 2000), 303.
  2. Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196.
  3. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 94–95.
  4. This interview was conducted in June 2005. The relevant part of the transcript is available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-tom-brady-part-3/ (accessed February 5, 2016).
  5. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  6. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 193.
  7. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 197.
  8. Quoted in Vaughan Roberts, True Worship (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), 91.
  9. Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196.
  10. Augustine, Confessions X.xxii, 198.
  11. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 213.

 

They All Ate and Were Satisfied

This sermon was preached on January 27, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?

What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?

How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?

There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.

There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.

I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.

We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.

So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:

1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.[1]

So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.

Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.

So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.

So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.

As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.

Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.

But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.

Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.

Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).

Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.

The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.

Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.

I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.

I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:

26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.

How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.

This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.

But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.

And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?

God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.

And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.

Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.

The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.

Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December.[2] As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.

Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:

Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.[3]

Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?

If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.

Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.

Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible.

  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222.

 

Your Faith Has Made You Well

This sermon was preached on January 20, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What’s the hardest thing that we can face in this life? I don’t think it’s loss of money or income. We can always get another job or hope that more money comes in. Is it rejection from people we love? I don’t think so, though rejection from loved ones is devastating. Even if our family and friends disown us and unfriend us, we can always find new people to love and be loved by. I think one of the hardest things we face in this life is the decay of our own bodies—and also of the bodies we love.

Many of us know what it’s like to be seriously ill, or to have had—or to have right now—some serious injury or condition that keeps us from being completely healthy. When your body is weak or in pain, it’s hard not to think about it. Other difficulties in life are ones that we can forget for some periods of time. Even those who are mourning or hurting over a rejection can have times when they laugh or feel happy. But a body in pain stays in pain always. And sometimes illnesses or conditions keep some people from getting out, from engaging in life the way that others do. In those cases, health problems can isolate us and make us feel alone, unproductive, and unwanted.

Of course, this hits home when it’s happening to our bodies. But it also hurts us when our loved ones have these major health problems. And regardless of whether we’re healthy or not right now, or whether our spouses or kids or parents or friends are healthy or not right now, all of us will die. Before we die, we will lose many loved ones to death. And that reminds us of our own impending deaths.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: there’s an interesting book called A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by a French philosopher named Luc Ferry, who happens to be an atheist. He describes philosophy as basically an attempt to figure out how to live in a world in which we will all die. He says this of man (and of woman, too): “He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.”[1] What is it that all humans want? “To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.”[2] Ferry says that all religions and philosophies are an attempt to find salvation from the fear of death.

Now, this might not be a very cheerful way to begin a sermon. But the reality is that all of us will face health concerns and all of us will face death. Those are things that every human being deals with, and some of us are dealing with that right at this moment. And if that was all there was to the story—your body breaks down, everything and everyone you love will pass away, and you will die—there would be no hope. But there is hope. Christianity has something amazing to say about hope in the face of illness, decay, and death. Luc Ferry, that atheist I just mentioned, says, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity—provided, that is, that you are a believer.”[3] I suppose the reason he says that is because Christianity promises life after death to believers. It promises that death is not the final word. The problem for Ferry is that he doesn’t believe it. But he admits that French students in his generation weren’t exposed to Christianity and the Bible. He likely never bothered to read strong defenses of the truth of Christianity.

At this church, we try to think about why we should believe Christianity to be true. And the greatest reason to believe is Christ himself. And the best way to know Jesus Christ is to read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each one a biography of Jesus, focusing on his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave.

For most of the last thirteen months, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re look at Luke 8:40–56. We’ll see here that Jesus performs two miracles that show he has power over both illness and death.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:40–42a:

40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.[4]

Jesus has returned from the eastern shore of Sea of Galilee, the Gentile region known as the Decapolis. Specifically, he was in a place called the Gerasenes, where he exorcised a large amount of demons out of a man. On the way there, Jesus had calmed a storm. We looked at these two miracles last week.[5]

Here, back in Galilee, a man named Jairus comes to Jesus. Jairus was the ruler of synagogue. He would have been in charge of the services at the synagogue. He was something like a lay leader, the one who decided who could read Scripture at the synagogue. He wasn’t a Rabbi or a civil leader, but he provided order and he would have been a well-respected leader in the community.

This man falls at Jesus’ feet, which shows how desperate he is. His only daughter, about twelve years old, is dying. The Greek word that is translated as “only” is μονογενὴς (monogenes), the same word used of Jesus to describe him as God’s only Son or, in older translations, his “only begotten” Son. This man’s one, beloved daughter is dying, and he begs Jesus to help her. So, Jesus goes with Jairus to his house.

Now, let’s read the end of verse 42 though verse 48:

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. 43 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Jesus has been drawing crowds because of his teaching and miracles. People are crowding him, pressing upon him. It’s like he’s a celebrity.

Among the people pressing against him is a woman “who [has] had a discharge of blood for twelve years.” In other words, she’s bleeding both during and between menstrual periods. I guess there’s a technical name for this: menometrorrhagia.[6] It seems she had some type of hemorrhage that couldn’t heal. Luke tells us that she “spent all her living on physicians,” but “she could not be healed by anyone.” There’s some debate about whether “spent all her living on physicians” belongs to the original copy of the Gospel. There are some early manuscripts that don’t have these words, though most manuscripts do. Luke was a doctor, so if he wrote this, it’s quite stunning (Col. 4:14). Mark says the woman “had suffered much under many physicians” (Mark 5:26).

Now, some of you here might be able to relate to this woman. You might be thinking, “I know exactly what that’s like. I’ve seen many doctors who haven’t been able to help me.” We’ve all seen people who couldn’t be healed, regardless of how many specialists they had seen and how much money they have spent.

But this woman’s condition would have caused her greater problems than mere physical ones. This had been going on for twelve years, and I’m sure her condition was inconvenient and possibly embarrassing. But what made it worse was that in her Jewish context, this condition made her unclean. This is a hard concept for us to grasp, because it’s so foreign to the way that we think. In the book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions for how the Israelites should worship and live as God’s people. There are many instructions on how to be clean. The things in the book of Leviticus that make a person unclean are not necessarily sinful, but they are the result of sin in the world. One of the things that makes a person unclean is blood, which, when it’s outside the body, is usually related to death. Various conditions, diseases, and death itself are the result of sin in the world. And sin is our rebellion against God.

When God made human beings, he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means that we were made to worship God, to reflect his greatness, to rule over the world by coming under his rule, to love him and obey him because he’s a perfect Father. But the first human beings didn’t want to live for God; instead, they wanted to be like God, to be gods who lived for themselves. They didn’t trust that God is good. They didn’t do things God’s way. So, God removed them from Paradise and put his creation under a curse, which is a partial punishment for this rebellion. This is our story, too, for we often don’t want to live for God and do life on his terms. This is why we have health problems, diseases, and death.

The book of Leviticus specifically talks about a woman bleeding beyond the time of her menstruation. This is Leviticus 15:25–31:

25 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. 27 And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 And the priest shall use one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.

31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

This woman couldn’t be touched or touch others. She couldn’t worship at the temple and probably not at the local synagogue. She was isolated, and probably frustrated, embarrassed, and apparently broke from spending money on doctors who couldn’t help. When Mark’s Gospel says she suffered at the hands of doctors, it probably means that these doctors made things worse, not better.

This woman touches Jesus in the hopes that he can make her well. Like Jairus, she knew that Jesus was her only hope. She had probably heard that Jesus had healed many other people. In Luke 6, we’re told that people came to Jesus to hear his teaching and to be healed of their diseases. We’re told, And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).

Perhaps this woman touched Jesus in this way so that her condition wouldn’t be found out by everyone. She wanted to be healed quietly, secretly. So, she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ garment.

But Jesus realizes someone has touched him. What this woman has done is not a secret to him. He senses that someone has accessed his power. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of battery with a limited energy source. What it means is that divine power was flowing through him and he was aware of it.

The disciples can’t believe that Jesus could discern that a specific person touched him and that power went from him to this person. There’s a massive crowd—how can Jesus know that one specific person touched him? But Jesus is the God-man, and he has the ability to know things that mere mortals wouldn’t know.

Jesus surely knew who it was who touched him. I say that because we’re told that the woman realized that she wasn’t hidden, that she couldn’t hide from Jesus. Jesus probably asked, “Who was it that touched me?” in order to draw this woman into making a public profession.

Like Jairus, this woman falls down, trembling, but probably for different reasons. She trembles in the presence of Jesus, the Lord who healed her. Even though she was probably afraid of speaking in public—she had been isolated for a long time—she decided to confess what Jesus had done for her.

Then, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She might very well have been older than Jesus, but he calls her, “Daughter.” She is part of his family. What made her well? Ultimately, it’s Jesus and his power, the power of God at work in and through him. But the instrument that she used to access this power was her faith. She trusted that Jesus could heal her. The doctors couldn’t. Only Jesus could fix this problem.

Does this mean that Jesus will fix all our health problems? If we trust him, yes, he will—ultimately. But not in this lifetime. He may heal some of us, usually through secondary causes—through doctors and nurses, through diet and medicine and surgery. Jesus cannot heal all illnesses without rooting out all sin in the world. Sin is the cause of illness. But if Jesus removed all sin, he would have to end human history as we know it. He would have to remove all sinners—or at least their sin. But God hasn’t done that yet because he is giving people a chance to turn to Jesus now, before that great judgment day when all of us will no longer be hidden, but will be exposed for all that we are, all that we’ve done, all that we’ve thought and desired. Our secrets will be laid bare. And only Jesus can cover up our sins.

Jesus didn’t perform miracles to eliminate all evil. He performed miracles to show his identity. He is the great physician who will heal all who come to him. He has not promised to do this now, in this life. But he will do it in the end.

Today’s story started with Jairus and his dying daughter. Then, we were interrupted by the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Now, let’s go back to Jairus and his daughter. What happened to her?

Let’s read verses 49–56:

49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” 50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.

After Jesus has dealt with the bleeding woman, a messenger comes, saying that the girl is dead, don’t bother Jesus anymore, there’s nothing that can be done. This messenger lacks hope. This messenger lacks faith.

Jesus says, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” This might have sounded like a bad joke. Apparently, Jesus said this before he took the parents and three of his disciples inside the house. Those who were weeping and mourning outside laughed at Jesus. They laughed because he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” “Yeah, right, Jesus. That’s a good one!”

But Jesus was serious. The girl was dead, but only temporarily. She was about to be “woken up.” (By the way, Jairus’ name, in Aramaic, would have been Jair, which means, “God will awaken.”) Jesus touched the dead girl—this would have made him unclean (touching a corpse made someone unclean; Num. 19:11). And at his command, the girl rises. Her spirit comes back to her. The “spirit” is generally thought to be the person’s immaterial self that continues after death, though “spirit” (Greek: πνεῦμα) can also mean “breath.” She truly was dead and is now alive. Jesus even tells people to give her something to eat—she’s really alive, in a physical body that needs sustenance.

The people are amazed, and rightfully so, but Jesus tells them not to tell others. He knows that people want someone who can bring dead people back to life. But people don’t want all of Jesus’ teaching. He doesn’t want followers who are attracted to him for the wrong reasons.

So, what do we learn from this?

First, Jesus has the power to heal. He can do what we cannot do. Of course, we have much better medicine and technology than people had two thousand years ago. But there are still many conditions that we cannot fix, or fix completely. And we will never solve the problem of death. Death is the shadow that hangs over all humanity. Only Jesus can fix that problem.

Second, we should know that Jesus has not promised to fix death right now. Even this girl, whom Jesus brought back to life, would die again. And God has certainly not promised his people that they won’t have a physical death. We will die, unless Jesus should return before the end of our lives.

Jesus’ bringing the girl back to life was a sign that he has power over death, that he can bring people to spiritual life, and that there will be a resurrection of the dead. All who trust in Jesus can never die spiritually, but they will live forever.

Jesus famously brought his friend Lazarus back to life. In talking to Lazarus’s sister, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). He is the resurrection. He is life (John 14:6). He will bring life to all who trust him. We have that life now, even though our bodies may wear out and die. But he will give us new bodies, bodies that are indestructible, that will never grow old and never die. Death does not have the last word for those who follow Jesus.

But that indestructible life will only come when Jesus returns. Christianity takes a long view of life, an eternal view. And that’s so important to keep in mind. If there is no afterlife, Christianity is false and useless. But if Christianity is true, then it means we will live eternally, either with God or separated from him and all that is good and right. God promises his people not a quick fix, but an eternal fix.

Third, think of the ways that Jesus steps into our different problems. Jairus says his twelve-year-old daughter was dying. Twelve years in that case seems so short. We have a sense that people should live much longer.

The woman was bleeding for twelve years. Twelve years must have seemed like an eternity for her.

I’m sure there’s no coincidence that the woman suffered as long as this girl was alive. God has a way of orchestrating events like this, juxtaposing things so they cast light on each other. Whether our suffering seems long, or lives are taken short, Jesus cares. And Jesus can heal.

Fourth, Jesus is for everyone. Jesus heals the outcast woman. He heals the beloved daughter of the well-respected Jairus. All who come to Jesus in faith are healed, regardless of their age, gender, skin color, ethnicity, religious background, how much sin they’ve committed, or how much money they have. The key thing is faith.

What does faith look like? It looks like trusting in Jesus, even when the odds seem impossible. It means believing that only he can fix our problems. Yes, if you’re sick, go see a doctor, but a doctor can’t give you eternal life. He or she can’t make you right with God. No amount of science, technology, money, or other human accomplishments can do that. Faith means humbling yourself, falling at Jesus’ feet, and realizing that he is God, that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. Faith means coming to Jesus for the right reasons, accepting not just his healing, but also his teaching, his leadership, his path for us.

This life is hard. Illness, disease, physical problems are hard. Death threatens to swallow everything we love up. But death is not the last word, not for Jesus, and not for his people. Do not fear; only believe.

Notes

  1. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, transs. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Ibid., 261.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. This sermon, preached on January 13, 2019, can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.
  6. http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=10&pid=10&gid=000100

 

Also Some Women

This sermon was preached on December 30, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

It seems like every year, there are new concerns about how women are treated. Not long ago, there were several stories about people in the entertainment industry who have sexually abused, harassed, or intimidated women. Many women came out and told their stories of how Larry Nassar, a doctor, sexually abused them while they were on the USA Gymnastics team. There has been a lot of talk about how much women get paid in comparison to men. Every time there’s an election, there is discussion about how many women are in Congress and if a woman could become president. The women’s rights movement has been going on for decades and discussions about women’s issues won’t stop any time soon.

What these discussions reveal is that many different people assume that women should be treated as well as men. That’s hardly a controversial statement today. But if you study history, you know that women were often not treated as well as men. They were often relegated to second class status. The further you go back in history, the more clearly you can see that.

So, what happened between ancient times, when women were treated more like property than adult human beings, and today, when we expect that women will do everything that men do? What caused us to think that women have rights that should be protected?

I’m sure many people today would say the Enlightenment, that period of time beginning roughly in the 1600s and continuing for a couple of centuries. But is that so?

What if the proper grounding for women’s rights comes not from the Enlightenment, but from the time when God created human beings in his image? What if a refined understanding of this issue came from the New Testament, which states that all those who are united to Christ have an equal status as “sons,” receiving a full inheritance (Gal. 3:9, 26–29; 4:4–7)?

Today, we’re going to look at just three verses from the Gospel of Luke. We had been studying Luke’s biography of Jesus for the better part of this year, taking a couple of breaks to look at other passages in the Bible. As we come back to Luke, we’ll see how he highlights the role that women played in Jesus’ ministry. We’ll see that they serve as an example of how people who come to faith are willing to serve Jesus. And we’ll think about how the Bible—contrary to what many people might think—shows that women are equal to men in value, and that our modern views about women, though a bit distorted, are largely due to the influence of Christianity throughout the world.

Before we read today’s passage, which is Luke 8:1–3, I want to remind us of what Luke was doing in his Gospel. At the very beginning, he states that his goal was “to write an orderly account” that was based on “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” who have delivered their accounts of what Jesus did to those who hadn’t personally witnessed such things. So, Luke was writing history. But not just any history. It’s theological and religious history. Luke’s goal was that his audience “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).[1]

Luke begins his story by telling about all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Aside from telling one story about Jesus’ childhood, he skips ahead to when Jesus begins his public activity as an adult. Jesus went around healing people and teaching. We’re often told that Jesus went around proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The good news is that the kingdom was at hand. The true King had come, and people could enter his kingdom by coming under his reign and rule. People who had been at war with the king could now find peace, which comes through the forgiveness of sins, which is rebellion against the King’s rule.

Jesus called a special group of twelve disciples, or followers. But they weren’t the only ones following Jesus, as we’ll see in this passage. There were other people who followed Jesus, including a group of women.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 8:1–3:

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke begins by saying “afterward.” The last episode we saw in Luke was about a woman whom Jesus had forgiven for her sins. She was grateful, and she expressed her love for Jesus in an act of service: washing his feet.

Now, we see Jesus continue to travel throughout Galilee, preaching the “good news of the kingdom of God.” The twelve disciples are with him, but so are some women. They had been healed by Jesus from infirmities and evil spirits. As I said last week, while looking at Revelation 12, evil spirits are real, and there was heightened demonic activity during Jesus’ lifetime.[2] These three women whom Jesus healed followed Jesus, serving him out of gratitude, just like the sinful woman who had been forgiven.

The first woman named is Mary Magdalene, who was from the town of Magdala, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is later mentioned in the Gospels at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. She witnessed Jesus’ death and she saw Jesus after he rose from the grave (Luke 24:1–10; John 19:25; 20:1–2, 11–18). Mary had seven demons driven out of her. Seven is a number of completion or perfection; this might be a way of saying Jesus exorcised all her demons, once and for all.

The second woman is Joanna, who was married to a man named Chuza, who served Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Chuza was either the manager of one of Herod’s estates or a high-ranking official. Either way, this means that Joanna was a woman of status and some wealth. This shows that not all early Christians were poor.

The third woman is named Susanna. We don’t know anything else about her.

As I said earlier, Luke claimed to write history. But some skeptics doubt whether his Gospel, as well as other books in the Bible, are truly historical. Legendary writings during this time wouldn’t have such details as all these names, particularly ones that weren’t further explained, like Susanna. Luke’s writing has an air of history about it, even when he reports miraculous things like exorcisms. The writing style isn’t fantastical. It’s restrained and fact-oriented. But more importantly, if you were going to fabricate a story about Jesus to make him look more impressive than he was, you would never have women among his followers.

Why is that? People in Jesus’ day had a lower view of women. It would have been shocking to learn that Jesus had women following him. Jewish teachers, rabbis, didn’t have women accompany them on journeys. Jewish oral tradition taught that women were not to speak in public and shouldn’t be taught the Torah, the law that God gave to the Israelites. Women weren’t normally allowed to testify in court.[3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples “marveled that he was talking [alone] with a woman” (John 4:27).

To be clear, this was a cultural view, not a biblical one. We have to make that distinction when we’re thinking about religions and cultures. There’s nothing in the Old Testament that suggests that women couldn’t be taught or couldn’t speak in public. In fact, there are two books in the Old Testament named after exemplary women: Ruth and Esther. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

The important thing to note is that Luke’s reporting concerning women was not something that he would have created to make the Jesus story more acceptable or believable.

And yet Luke often writes about women in favorable ways. In the first chapter of his Gospel, we have reports of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who comes across much better than her husband, Zechariah. We also have Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was likely a teenager at that time yet who trusted God when she heard the amazing news that she would become pregnant though she was a virgin. Luke gives favorable reports of a prophetess named Anna (Luke 2:36–38), a widow whose son died (Luke 7:11–17), that sinful woman who had been forgiven (Luke 7:36–50), Mary (not Magdalene), the sister of Martha (Luke 10: 38–42), a widow who gives everything (Luke 21:1–4), and the women who were witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 23:49, 55–56; 24:1–12). This is all the more remarkable given how often the twelve disciples look foolish.

These women flocked to Jesus because they knew his message was good news. He said that all kinds of people could be part of God’s kingdom, both men and women, rich and poor, old and young, and Jew and Gentile. Women were not second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t afraid to talk to them, teach them, and include them in his ministry.

Jesus knew that both men and women were made in God’s image. This is what the first chapter of the Bible says:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the ancient world, people worshiped many different gods, and they built temples to these gods. In these temples, they would place statues or other physical representations of these gods. The Bible says that God made the universe to be his temple. And the Bible strictly forbids making physical representations of God, because human beings are made to represent him on Earth. We were made to rule over the world by coming under God’s rule. We were made to reflect his glory, to worship him. And we were made after his likeness, which means we were made to be his loving, obedient children. This is true of both men and women.

In the New Testament, it is quite clear that both men and women are part of God’s kingdom and have roles to play. Women financially supported Jesus and his apostles. It’s possible that they might have served in other ways, perhaps in terms of providing food and clothing for the apostles. Women hosted house churches (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Phoebe was a deacon who probably carried the letter of Romans to its audience (Rom. 16:1–2). Priscilla was involved in ministry with her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom. 16:3–4; 1 Cor. 16:19). The apostle Paul called Euodia and Syntyche his “fellow workers” (Phil. 4:2–3).

The Christian view of women was very different from other views of women in the ancient world. It was different from the Greek view. Greek women “lived in semi-seclusion,” had no property rights and could get married and divorced against her wishes.[4] “The Greek wife had virtually no freedom.”[5] Greek women were not educated.[6]

The Christian view of women was different than the Roman view of women. Roman women had limited education and property rights. A married woman was under the rule of her husband and control of her husband.

In both Greek and Roman culture, women were often married quite young, sometimes before puberty, which wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world. And women were of such low value that they were often killed as infants.[7] Rodney Stark says, “The exposure of unwanted infants was ‘widespread’ in the Roman Empire, and girls were far more likely than boys to be exposed.”[8] In fact, there’s a letter dated roughly 1 BC, written by a man named Hilarion to what we assume is his wife, Alis, and to Berous and Appollonarion. In the letter, he writes, “I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If—good luck to you!—you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.”[9] We assume this man is telling his wife to kill the baby, to expose it to the elements, where it might be eaten by wild animals or starve, if it were female.

Beyond the ancient world, the Christian view of women was and is very different than the ones found in other cultures. In Muslim countries, particularly ones that more closely follow the Qur’an and other Islamic traditions, women have little freedom. Just this year, a small group of women in Saudi Arabia were finally allowed to get driver’s licenses. Less than two hundred years ago, it was common in India for widows to be burned on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. The practice was outlawed in 1829 by British authorities.[10] The British missionary William Carey played a significant role in helping abolish this practice. In China, the practice of binding women’s feet, supposedly to make them more attractive as they sashayed on their toes, was made illegal in 1912.

Alvin Schmidt, in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, asks, “where else do women have more freedom, opportunities and human worth than in countries that have been highly influenced by the Christian ethic?”[11] It’s no accident that how women have been treated in the West is very different than how women have been treated elsewhere. And when laws have changed in other countries, it has been due to Western influence. And this is because of the Christian view of women, who are made in the image of God, just as men have been, and who can be children of God and coheirs with Christ if they turn to Jesus in faith.

Again, the Bible says that men and women were created with the same basic purpose. The Bible teaches that men and women have the same problem, which is sin. The reason why bad things happen, including the oppression of women, is because of sin in the world. We were made for a certain purpose, as I said earlier. The problem is that we don’t live according to that purpose. As a punishment, God has removed us from his direct and special presence and he has given us over to our sinful practices. The consequences of sin include fighting, oppression, natural disasters, diseases, and death.

The Bible teaches that the same solution to this problem of sin is available to both men and women. Because we do not tend to love God as we should, because we tend to do wrong, we cannot find our way to God. We cannot earn our own right standing with him. We can’t merit our way to heaven. So, God came down to Earth. Jesus was, of course, male, but he was born of a woman, so both men and women played a role in salvation. But this was all God’s initiative, God’s doing. God sent his Son to the world to live perfectly, fulfilling God’s design for humanity. And Jesus, though perfect, was put to death, ultimately as a sacrifice, to pay the penalty for our sin. God is a perfect judge who must punish sin, and Jesus took that punish on himself willingly. Everyone—man or woman—who trusts Jesus is a child of God and is part of his kingdom. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile], there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This does not mean, however, that men and women are the same. God made men and women to be similar, yet different. This is true physically and often emotionally. Men and women were made to play different roles. Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar, writes the following in an article about today’s passage:

This does not mean that Jesus abrogated all sexual, social, or creation order distinctions recognized under the Old Covenant. Indeed, it seems rather clear that He affirmed the headship and authority of the man when He chose twelve men from among His disciples to be leaders of the community and that Luke wishes to reaffirm this by giving special stress to the twelve and their distinct roles.[12]

He then adds:

Being Jesus’ disciple did not lead these women to abandon their traditional roles in regard to preparing food, serving, etc. Rather, it gave these roles new significance and importance, for now they could be used to serve the Master and the family. The transformation of these women involved not only assuming new discipleship roles, but also resuming their traditional roles for a new purpose.[13]

Christianity doesn’t teach, as many people do today, that men and women are alike in every way other than biologically. Men and women play different roles. But this does not mean they have different values. Both have the same worth in God’s eyes. This is because our worth isn’t based on physical strength, or the role we play, or how much money we have. Our worth is determined by our position in Jesus Christ. That is what makes Christianity unique. We become acceptable to God and a treasured part of his kingdom if we are united to his Son.

So, what do we learn from today’s passage?

First, the kingdom of God is for everyone who turns away from patterns of sin and rebellion against God and turns in faith to Jesus. Men, women, rich, poor, old, young, people of different skin colors, ethnicities, backgrounds—all kinds of people will be part of God’s kingdom.

Second, we should also see that women played a key role in Jesus’ ministry. They supported him financially. They probably served him and his apostles in practical ways. They also were witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, if this story were made up, no one would ever think of having women be the key witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s also possible that Luke got some of his information about Jesus from these women. Many scholars believe Luke was able to talk to an elderly Mary about Jesus. He might very well have met Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna.

Third, here’s an even more important thing for us to get out of this passage. Notice that the women whom Jesus had healed then followed Jesus and served him. This is the pattern of God’s people throughout the Bible. God rescues us from sin and the condemnation that we deserve not so we can live for ourselves. He saves us so that we can serve him. And people who truly realize what God has done for them thankfully and willingly live for him.

So, if you claim to be a Christian, how are you serving God? Are you following the example of these women?

As we come to a new year, what kind of resolution could you make to serve God better?

There are many ways to do this. We can grow in our knowledge of God by reading the Bible and by coming to church to participate in Bible studies and to hear the word of God preached.

We can spend more time in prayer.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word in our homes. The New Testament has many things to say about how husbands and wives should live, how parents should raise their children, and how children should obey their parents.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word at the workplace, working with integrity and, whatever our job is, working as if our boss is Jesus.

We can be more devoted to telling other people about Jesus. To do that, start by praying for those who don’t know Jesus. Pray that God would give you new relationships and new opportunities to share your faith. Then make sure you know the gospel. Learn about common objections to Christianity and how to answer them. I can help you with this. Talk to me if you’re interested.

You can find ways to help the poor and needy. Find an organization to donate to or to help through volunteering.

But one of the best ways to serve God is by serving his church.

God has instituted his church as the “place” where he is worshiped, where he is made known, where his people come together and love and serve one another, where disciples are made. And people who truly love God love his church, and they serve in his church.

How would these women serve in a local church? I think they would do what they did for Jesus. They would contribute financially. Giving to the local church is a way of supporting the ministry of the gospel. We turn around and give a good percentage of what comes in to the church to missionaries and Christian organizations. The more money we have, the more we are able to do here and abroad.

These women would meet practical needs at the church, whether that’s helping take care of children, helping clean things, organize things, or whatever else they could do. We always have a need for help in very practical ways.

The biggest thing that these women—and all the early disciples showed—was commitment. I’m convinced that one of the biggest idols of our age is the idea that we should always keep our options open, always be free to do whatever we want. And this means that we lack commitment. This is seen in our families, as people walk out of marriages. It’s seen at work, as people are not very loyal to their jobs. And it’s seen in church.

One of my great frustrations is that Christians aren’t more committed to the church. And this is the same frustration that pastors everywhere experience. Some people who are members of a church don’t attend regularly, or they attend but don’t help out. Other people don’t become members at all. I really don’t understand this. No, there is no one verse that says, “You must officially join the local church.” But it is presupposed everywhere in the New Testament. God gave the church leaders to help hold people accountable, to teach them the Bible and make sure that they’re living according to it. And one of the ways we can hold people accountable is through membership. Members of a church can be excommunicated if they are unwilling to repent. But we can’t do this without some sense of membership. People who don’t become members of a church are basically saying that they will not come under the authority of that church.

But God has instituted authority everywhere: in civil government, in the workplace, in the home, and in the church. Authorities are good for us. The Bible does teach that wives should submit to their husbands. And it teaches that children should submit to parents, and employees to employers, and people in church to their leaders, and citizens of a country to their governmental leaders, and everyone to God. To serve God means to come under his authority, which means coming under God’s appointed authority structure, even within the church.

Coming under authority helps remind us that life is not about us. Service reminds us of that, too. Some people who are Christians seem to act as if life revolves around them and their needs. But if we serve God, we’ll become less selfish. We’ll be concerned with the welfare of the church. We’ll be concerned that only a few people do most of the work, and we’ll want to help our brothers and sisters. We’ll be concerned about those who don’t yet know Jesus and we’ll help reach them, individually or as a church.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. Why not resolve to serve in the church? Why not resolve to join the church? I would love to talk with you if you are not yet a member. I would love to talk to members about how to serve more. Some of you have been asked or will be asked to join the church or to serve. Please think about it and pray, and then respond.

And if you’re not yet truly a Christian, I would urge you to turn to Jesus. Maybe you need to learn more about him. Please come and talk to me. I would love to answer any questions you might have. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot about Jesus but haven’t committed to him. Now is the time to follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See the sermon I preached on December 23, 2018, “She Gave Birth to a Male Child,” https://wbcommunity.org/she-gave-birth-to-a-male-child.
  3. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 102.
  4. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 122–23.
  5. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 98.
  6. Ibid., 99.
  7. Stark, Triumph, 126–27.
  8. Ibid., 126. Stark here cites William V. Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 84:1–22 (specifically page 1).
  9. Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-privatelife249.shtml.
  10. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 117.
  11. Ibid., 122.
  12. Ben Witherington III, “On the road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other disciples: Luke 8:1-3,
    Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 70 no. 3 – 4 (1979): 245.
  13. Ibid.: 247.

 

The Seed Is the Word of God

This sermon was preached on January 6, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

How many resolutions have your broken so far in this new year? I’m not asking if you’ve broken any resolutions. It’s January 6, after all. I’m asking you how many resolutions you’ve broken.

Resolutions are made to be broken, or so it seems. That means that either we’re quitters, or we set our goals to high. I have a friend from college—I’ll call him Seth, because that’s his name—who said he only makes resolutions he knows he can keep. He said one year his resolution was to wear his bathrobe inside his house every day. Another year, he resolved to never say “oh” instead of the number “zero.” Maybe there’s something to be said for setting the bar low.

But no matter how high or how low we set the bar, we realize that most of us don’t achieve our goals. Only some people seem to cross the finish line. Many resolutions involve diet and exercise. We realize that some people never bother to do those things. Some people start out with the best of intentions, work hard for a week or a month, and then give up. Only some people will achieve their diet and exercise goals.

The same is true when it comes to pursuing a relationship with God. In the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re told that some people won’t bother with the things of God. Some people will seem to have a relationship with him—they may seem to become Christians and talk about Jesus, attend church, and read their Bible—but then trials come, or they get too busy with other things in life, and they change. Only some people will truly pursue a relationship with God. These people will have a life-long relationship with God and are part of God’s family.

Today, we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. If you haven’t been with us so far, you can catch up by visiting wbcomunity.org/luke. We’re still in the first half of the Gospel, so there’s a lot more to learn about Jesus, his teachings, and his death and resurrection.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:4–8:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”[1]

Notice that Jesus is attracting a great crowd of people that have come from various towns. Jesus is still in Galilee, the region where he grew up. And perhaps because there’s a great crowd, he teaches in a parable. We’ve already seen a couple of short parables in Luke (Luke 5:36; 6:39), but we’re going to see many more of them, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them. A parable is a way of teaching that isn’t direct, or straightforward. Sometimes, parables are like proverbs, short, colorful statements that teach theological truths. Other times, parables are stories that teach a theological truth, but not in direct way. The word parable comes from a Greek word that literally means something cast alongside. A parable comes alongside a truth and communicates it in an indirect way.

There are a lot of ways to communicate something. If I wanted to tell you about God, I could tell you things in short, propositional statements. I could say that God is all powerful. That’s a direct way of teaching something about God. But I could also tell you that by telling a story about a king who has complete control of his kingdom. I could tell you that God is merciful. Or I could tell you a story about how a king forgave his dishonest servant. I could tell you that God is loving. Or I could tell you a story about a father who loves his rebellious son.

There’s a lot to be said for teaching things in a direct way. But parables are different. They get you from point A to point B, but not in a straight line. They get there in a roundabout way, kind of like the way parabolas are curved. Parables get us to think. They’re colorful and memorable. To those who understand, they’re clear as day. But those who don’t understand may be stumped and might scratch their heads. This is why Jesus teaches in parables.

This parable is pretty easy to understand on one level. In Jesus’ day, people were all familiar with the basics of agriculture. To grow crops, you had to sow seed. We hear of a sower who sows seeds. Some seed fall on the path, where they get trampled on and the birds eat them. The path would have been hard ground, so the seed would have no chance to get into good soil to grow. Some seed fell on rocky ground. There would be a thin layer of soil above limestone. This seed would grow up to a point, but it couldn’t develop deep roots and it couldn’t draw in enough moisture to withstand the hot weather. Other seed grew up amidst thorns, which choked the plant and caused it to die. And some seed fell on good soil, where it grew and produced a large crop.

On one level, the story is easy to understand. But why is Jesus teaching about agriculture? What’s the point of this story?

The disciples want to know, so they ask Jesus, and he answers. Let’s read verses 9–15:

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

There are a couple of things to see here. The first is what Jesus says about “the secrets of the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God, to use a definition we studied recently in our Bible study, is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] Not everyone is part of God’s people. Only those who turn to the King and come under his rule will find his blessing. Luke clearly presents Jesus as this King, the one who has come to establish his kingdom on Earth. And the secrets of this kingdom, or what we might call the ways of this kingdom, are not communicated clearly to everyone. To Jesus’ disciples, he gives them the clear meaning, but others will only hear in parables that are not interpreted.

Jesus then quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was sent to Israel, which was supposedly God’s people, to send them a message of warning about their sin, but also a message of hope for those who would hear. Israel had rebelled against God. They had worshiped false gods. They rejected the very reason why God made them, which was for his glory, so that they would know him, love him, and worship him. They rejected the true God and went after gods that seemed to please them, but who couldn’t help them. So, Isaiah was told to speak to them. But Isaiah was told that the people were hardhearted. They could see, but they couldn’t really see the truth. They could hear, but they wouldn’t hear God’s words and act on them. Because they worshiped idols, they became like them. Idols have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear.

In a way, that’s our story. The Bible says that because we live in God’s creation, and because we were designed by God, we know certain things about God. We all know there is a God who exists, who created everything, who is powerful and eternal (Rom. 1:20; cf. Eccl. 3:11). But though we know this, we don’t pursue God. That’s because we don’t really want there to be a God who is both Creator and King. That kind of God tells us that he made things to function in a certain way. That kind of God is the ultimate authority. We tend to want to be the ultimate authority of our lives. We want to determine the course of our lives. We’re going to set our own goals, our own resolutions, thank you very much.

Because of our rebellious nature, God lets us go our own way. But he graciously reveals himself more clearly to some of us, those whom he is calling into his kingdom. This is what Jesus means when he prays to God the Father. This is what he says in Matthew 11:25–27:

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

It’s God’s gracious will to reveal himself. That means that knowing God is a gift. And so is salvation. Christianity teaches that we can be reconciled to God not because we deserve it, because we work hard or because we’re good. No, Christianity teaches that we’re so bad that the only way to be made right with God is if he gives us the gift of salvation. And if he has given us that gift, our lives will change forever.

The second thing we need to see is the meaning of the parable. For anyone who cares to read the Bible, the meaning is made clear. In the story about the sower and the seed, the seed is the word of God. Jesus has been sowing that seed, speaking God’s words. Those words will fall on deaf ears, who hear but don’t seem to understand (see Matt. 13:19), or perhaps who aren’t interested at all. Jesus says the devil comes and snatches the word away from such people. Elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that “the god of this world” blinds “the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The second type of soil is rocky, shallow soil. Jesus says these people appear to receive the word of God with joy. In other words, these people seem to believe for a while. But he says they have no root, and in a time of trial, and in that “time of testing” they fall away. The third type of soil is similar: this represents people who seem to believe for a while, but that faith is “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Does this mean that people can truly believe that God’s word is true and then later not believe?

I think that’s possible, but I also think that’s different from trusting in God himself. I believe that the Bible, in its totality, teaches that no one can truly understand who God is and what he requires of us, and then have a right relationship with him, unless God draws that person to himself and gives them eyes to see the truth. In other words, we can’t come to God unless we’re born again of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says in John 3. We can’t come to God truly unless he transforms us. And if he changes our hearts, we will be changed forever. We will not fall away from that kind of faith.

But the Bible also teaches the possibility of false conversions. Some people say they believe in Jesus. Some people will act like it for a while. But then they experience difficult times, perhaps hardships or temptations, and they walk away from Jesus. Others will care more about things that seem to be pressing realities, the “cares . . . of life.” They may say, “I’ll read the Bible when life slows down, when my kids are off to college, when I have some extra time.” Others will be consumed with “the riches and pleasures of life.” And these people will walk away from Jesus, too. These people were never “born again,” or regenerated by God.

This seems easy to understand. It’s easy to say you believe. Anyone can do that. Anyone can take a few steps toward following Christ. They can go to church, get baptized, read their Bible. They can appear quite sincere. But it’s one thing to do this for a little while and quite another to do this for a long time, particularly when life is difficult and when so many other things compete for our attention, affection, energy, time, and money. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that hard to get a gym membership, to show up to the gym for a while, and to eat a healthier diet. A lot of people can do that for a week. But how many can do that for a month, or a year? How many people make that a new lifestyle? You can’t realistically say, “I’m going to get really buff by working out for a week,” or, “I’m going to lower my cholesterol by 50 points in the next week.” To become healthy, your life needs to change permanently, not just for a little while. The same thing is true of pursuing a relationship with God.

Those people who appear to have faith but don’t follow through in their relationship with God never had true faith. As the apostle John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These people who end up walking away from the church were never “of us,” they were never transformed by God, they were never born again of the Holy Spirit, they were never saved.

Some people have a hard time accepting that. In my experience, those people are usually parents whose kids went to church, made a profession of faith while they were young, were baptized, and then went off into the world and didn’t live as Christians. These parents are often in denial about the true spiritual state of their kids. If your kids abandon the church as adults, I am quite sure that they didn’t have a real faith to begin with. Don’t fool yourself and say, “Oh, they know the Lord, they’re just not walking with him now.”

Here’s a quick story: the year that I came to this church, 2014, I had applied to a number of churches to be their pastor. One of these churches pursued me and was interested in calling me to be their pastor. We visited the church a couple of times and I preached one sermon for the congregation. I had preached on a passage from Colossians 2, where Paul urges Christians to stay rooted in Christ. And I mentioned that the Bible teaches about the possibility of false conversions. Those who aren’t rooted in Christ fall away from him. They don’t have real faith. They aren’t really Christians. I was supposed to preach a second time before they offered me the job, but I didn’t feel that it was a good fit, so I called the head of the search committee to let him down. When I did that, he mentioned that one man didn’t like my sermon. I knew who this man was. He taught a Sunday school class. In it, he mentioned that his adult daughter wasn’t “walking with the Lord” and didn’t even want him to pray for her. But he also was quick to say he knew she was “born again,” so she was okay with God. If the Spirit of God resides in a person, that person will never reject prayer. I think this man had fooled himself because he couldn’t bear the thought that this daughter rejected Jesus.

The Bible calls those who don’t walk with Jesus unbelievers, not “backsliding Christians.” There are no perfect Christians in this life. And our faith can go through valleys, when we fall into sin. But a real Christian repents, again and again, and keeps turning to Jesus. If the Spirit of God dwells in you, he will bring you to Jesus. Your life will bear the fruit or the marks of a Christian.

And that’s what Jesus says about the fourth type of soil. This soil represents those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” These people are truly Christians. They hold fast to the word of God and they bear fruit “with patience.” They are in it for the long haul. They’re like the people who, seeking better health, stick with their diet and exercise program even when it’s hard, doesn’t seem like fun, or doesn’t seem to produce great results in the moment. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

It seems clear that Jesus commends only this last group of people. They are the ones who are part of his kingdom, who are forgiven of their sins, and who will live forever with Jesus. Again, Jesus doesn’t mean that these people earned those things. Salvation is a gift. But if it has been received, it will be put to use by those who have received it.

That’s more or less what Jesus says in the next paragraph, verses 16–18:

16 “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world.” He says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus comes to reveal things as they truly are. He reveals our true spiritual condition. He exposes our sin, our rebellion against God. But he also illuminates the path to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He himself is that path. If you understand and believe that Jesus is the light of God, you would hang on to that light and shine it in all parts of your life. You wouldn’t hide it in a box or stick it under the bed, like an unwanted Christmas gift. People do that, of course, but these are not the people who realize who Jesus truly is.

Jesus says that even if you do that, his light will be revealed. “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.” You can try to cover Jesus up, or shut him up, but in the end he will prevail. He is in heaven now, but when he comes to Earth a second time, everyone will see that he is Lord, the true King. And he will bring everyone into judgment. There will be no hiding him, no silencing him on that day. All will come to light, including our sins and whether we have truly believed Jesus or not. If we do believe in Jesus, our sins will be covered. They have already been paid for when Jesus died on the cross almost two thousand years ago. But those who have rejected Jesus will have nowhere to hide. They will have to pay for their own sins.

Since that is so, Jesus says, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” If you receive God’s word and are faithful to what God has given you, he will entrust you with more. But the one who truly doesn’t have a relationship with God, “even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” I believe there will be many people on that last day who will be surprised by the judgment that Jesus makes on their faith. There will be people who say, “But Lord, I made a confession of faith. I prayed that prayer I was told to say. I was baptized. I went to church.” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus is giving us a warning. We are hearing the word of God. What are we going to do with it?

Jesus makes it clear that hearing the word of God and believing that it is true leads to action. Those who belong to the family of God hear the word and do it. We see that in verses 19–21:

19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus’ biological family wanted to see him. Instead of saying, “Oh, thanks for telling me. I’ll be right there,” Jesus takes the opportunity to define his real family. His real family consists of people who hear and do the word of God. Again, we don’t earn our way into the family of God by doing his word. Did you earn your way into your family? No, you were born into it. But no one is born biologically into God’s family. We must be reborn, which is a work that only God can do. But once we’re in the family, we’re supposed to act like it. And Jesus says that the people who are in his family show themselves by their actions. It’s easy to say you believe something. Act like it, Jesus says.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, how do we respond?

I simply ask three questions. One, is there room in your life for the word of God? Two, are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Three, are you acting according to God’s word?

Is there room in your life for God’s word? Are you listening intently now? Are you reading the Bible? Are you studying it to make sure you understand what you’ve read? There are many things that will crowd your life so that you don’t read the Bible. There are many concerns that we have. We’re worried about our family, our health, our job. Don’t let these things choke out the word of God. There are many pleasurable things to do, and not all of them are wrong. Don’t let these things take up all your time so you have no room for God’s word in your life. Trials will come, and you may doubt God’s word, or temptations may come, and you may not want to hear from God because you know he will correct you. But this is a mistake. We need to run to the one who can correct us, forgive us, and heal us.

Make sure there is room for God’s word in your life. You can do this in many ways. Reading the Bible regularly is the best way. I recommend getting a study Bible like the ESV Study Bible and reading systematically. We have Bible plans available here and on our website (wbcommunity.org/bible). You can read through the Bible in a year. But if that’s too fast of a pace, do it in two years. You can also listen to the Bible. There are different apps you can use. Christianaudio.com has an app and you can find cheap recordings of the Bible to purchase. You can read alone or with your family. One of my only New Year’s resolutions was to have a regular time of worship as a family. So, three times this week we read a Psalm, sang a song or hymn, read a question and answer out of a catechism, and prayed. It was quick—maybe 10 minutes—but over a long time, that practice will help mold and shape us as a family. Ten extra minutes of exercise every day adds up to big changes over a long period of time. Likewise, our daily diet affects our health. You are what you eat, and we cannot be better than what we put inside ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian and a pastor in Massachusetts, made several resolutions when he was a young man. Most of them involved actions and attitudes. But one of them was this: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”[3] Resolve to study the Bible.

Are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Do you let God speak into area of your life? Do you let him expose your sins, the ways you are not doing life according to his terms? Or do you try to silence God and cover up his light? You can do this for a time, but in the end Jesus’ light will shine. His voice will roar. It is better to respond now so that he can heal you. If you are not yet a Christian indeed, I would love to talk to you about what it would look like to follow Jesus. I urge you to let God’s word and light into your life.

Are you acting according to God’s word? We all fail to do perfectly according to God’s word. But are you trying? Are you acting on what you know? It’s not enough to be hearers of God’s word. It’s not enough to nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s right.” We must act.

Jesus’ brother, James provides a great commentary on today’s passage. This is James 1:16–25:

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This comes from Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.

 

She Gave Birth to a Male Child

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 23, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written manuscript.

This past week, my sons and I watched the original Star Wars trilogy. We don’t normally watch many full-length movies—certainly not three in a week. But I’ve been very tired, physically and mentally, and as we come to the end of the year, we let our boys have a little more screen time than usual. Also, my boys had heard about the Star Wars movies and I figured it was time to introduce them to the originals. I think it’s good to introduce kids to good stories.

What makes a good story? A good story usually starts with some sense of normalcy, or equilibrium. Things seem to be okay. In the case of Luke Skywalker, he had a normal life on the planet Tatooine, living with his aunt and uncle. A good story then introduces conflict of some kind. Usually, there’s bad a guy, or a group of bad guys, who need to be defeated. Luke and his uncle happened to purchase two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2. R2-D2 just happened to have a message from Princess Leia intended for Obi-Wan Kenobi. So, R2-D2 goes looking for Obi-Wan, and Luke and C-3PO go to find R2-D2, only to get attacked by the sand people. Kenobi rescues them, and then he tells Luke about the Force, how he had trained his father, and how Darth Vader killed him. He also listened to Leia’s message and asked Luke to join him on his journey to her planet of Alderaan. Luke doesn’t want to go at first, but when he comes home, he finds that the Empire, looking for the droids, has killed his aunt and uncle. This conflict is what makes Luke the unlikely hero of the story.

Of course, a good story must have resolution to that conflict. In Star Wars, the Empire must be defeated. The Death Star must be destroyed, Darth Vader must be faced, the Emperor must be killed.

While Star Wars has its own definite plot, many other great stories feature those basic elements: equilibrium, conflict (usually involving a bad guy), and resolution, with good winning out over evil.

It’s no surprise, then, that the greatest story ever told has those basic elements. Do you know what the basic story of the Bible is? Kill the dragon, get the girl. If you thought that came from some comic book or fantasy novel, you’re mistaken. It was first found in the Bible. And Christmas is a key plot point in that story.

There are a lot of ways of telling the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. We could home in on the stories of Jesus’ birth that are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I’ve done that before, and you can find sermons about those stories on our website (wbcommunity.org/jesus and wbcommunity.org/luke). Another way to understand the birth of Christ is to zoom out and look at the story that came before. My original plan was to look at many of the Old Testament prophecies that talked about a coming child of Eve, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Judah, a prophet who would speak God’s words, a son of David who would be king, a child who would be called Mighty God, one born in Bethlehem to a virgin, and so on. But then my plans changed this week when I was listening to a podcast. Several theologians were talking about which texts they would use to preach an Advent message, and one of them said he would use Revelation 12.[1] And I thought about it a bit and changed my mind.

So, this morning we’re going to think about the birth of Jesus in a very different way. We’re going to zoom out a bit further and see the birth of Jesus in its larger context. We’re going to see not a sentimental story of a little baby. Instead, we’re going to see how Jesus’ birth comes in the middle of a war. And, whether we realize it or not, we’re caught up in this war, too.

Before I start to read Revelation 12, I want to describe very briefly this last book of the Bible. Revelation is a very different type of book of the Bible. You may not realize this, but the Bible is a collection of diverse writings. It has histories, poems, proverbs, hymns, prayers, laws, and letters. Most of these types of writings we can understand, though a lot of us are less familiar with how to make sense of poems. But the Bible has another type of literature, something called “apocalyptic,” which is very different. This type of literature tries to get us to see realities that we can’t see right now. It tries to show us what is going on in the spiritual realm, and in heaven. Because we have never seen these realities before, apocalyptic literature tries to convey these realities through pictures that we can understand. These images might seem fantastical and strange, and that’s part of the point—they’re illustrating something that we have never seen before, but something that is very real. Apocalyptic literature enables us to see those realities in a shocking light. To understand this kind of writing, we have to understand its symbols and decode them. I’ll try to do that for us today, but I’ll be focusing on the most important details.

A lot of people think that the book of Revelation (not “Revelations”!) is all about the future and what happens when Jesus returns. That’s not really true. It tells us what happens between the first and second comings of Jesus, too. And chapter 12 gives us a sense of what happened when Jesus was born—and what happened afterwards.

Without further ado, let’s read Revelation 12:1–6:

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Now, you may be thinking, “What in the world is that about? There’s a woman who gives birth to a male child, but other than that, what does that have to do with Christmas?” I get it, I do. Remember that this is a heavenly reality, something that we can’t see now. The book of Revelation is like removing the veil that blinds us to supernatural realities. Last week, I said that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Revelation lets us see that reality.

To understand this story, first we need to understand the characters.

First, there’s a woman. The details about the sun and the moon and twelve stars remind us of Joseph’s dream back in Genesis 37:9–10. What this means is that the woman represents Israel, the people of God. The twelve stars stand for the twelve tribes, though it’s possible that the woman represents the people of God, and the twelve could also stand for the twelve apostles. This “woman” is wearing a crown because she is royal—she’s associated with the King. And she’s about to give birth to a special child, the Messiah. This is the child promised in the Old Testament. If this were Star Wars, the woman would be the Alliance, the group of rebels, the good guys.

Second, this story has a bad guy, “a great red dragon.” Some of the features of this dragon are strange to our eyes and ears. He has seven heads and ten horns. In ancient mythologies, there was an evil seven-headed sea monster. The Bible says, “These myths grasped something true. There is an ancient evil being.” But as we’ll soon see, this ancient dragon is Satan, a rebellious angel. On its seven heads it wears seven diadems, or crowns. It claims to have royal authority, but it doesn’t. Later in Revelation, we read that Jesus is the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16) who wears “many diadems” on his head (Rev. 19:12). The ten horns are an allusion to something in the Old Testament book of Daniel (see Dan. 7:7–8, 20, 24). Horns were a symbol of strength—think of animals that use their horns as weapons. The point is that this dragon is the enemy of God’s people, he is powerful, and he is trying to usurp the authority of God.

We also see that this dragon “swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.” The stars probably represent angels. The idea is that Satan, a rebellious angel, led other angels into rebellion. I’ll explain what that means in a bit. The key thing to see is that this bad guy was ready to destroy the child that the woman was about to give birth to. If this were Star Wars, the dragon might be Darth Vader, and the fallen angels might be the forces of the Empire.

Third, we have the male child himself. He is “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.” The one who will rule all nations is the Christ, or Messiah, which means anointed one. He is the true King, the Son of David who will reign forever. This is Jesus. Now, this chapter of the Bible doesn’t give us a full picture of who Jesus is. It telescopes his life on earth, which means that it sees the big picture but skips over a lot of details. It skips right past his death and resurrection. Instead, it focuses on his ascension back to heaven. But elsewhere in the book of Revelation, Jesus is called the Lamb, which means that he was a sacrifice for sin. (If you were expecting me to say that Jesus is like Luke Skywalker, please don’t. Jesus is much more than Luke Skywalker. Perhaps a better metaphor would be that Jesus is like George Lucas entering Star Wars and sacrificing himself—almost like Obi-Wan—to save the Alliance.)

So, what does this all mean, and what does it have to do with Christmas?

According to the Bible, there is a war going on. And we have all been part of it. The Bible says that we are at war with God. God made the universe for his glory, to demonstrate his greatness. And he made human beings to be in a very special relationship with him. The Bible says that God made us in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). That means that we were made to reflect God’s glory, to represent him, to rule the world by coming under his rule, to worship him, and to love him and obey him like perfect children would relate to a perfect father. But we don’t do that. From the beginning, humans have lived life on their own terms. They have rejected God’s authority. Some of us have been hostile to God. Others are just apathetic, ignoring God without any feelings of ill will. But either way, we’re rejecting God because we’re rejecting the very reason why we exist. Really, we’ve rebelled against God. We’re at war with him.

But this war reflects a greater war, one that we’re only given glimpses of. Satan is a shadowy figure in the Bible. His origins aren’t very clear. We know from the book of Job that he was an angel in heaven. But he questioned God’s goodness and authority. Jesus said that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He’s a murderer from the beginning because he tempted the first human beings to rebel against God, and their sin brought death into the world. So, before we were at war with God, Satan was at war with God.

Satan isn’t the only one warring against God. He led a number of angels to rebel against God. Some people think this happened at some point early in the creation, before God created human beings. But the way this vision is described, and from what we see in the rest of the Bible, Satan is actually in heaven until he is “thrown down” at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, perhaps he led these angels to rebel against God at roughly the time when Jesus was born. That would account for the heightened presence of demons during Jesus’ time on Earth. We don’t read much about demons in the Old Testament, and suddenly, in the Gospels, demons are afflicting and possessing people.

Now, at this point, I want to address an objection that some people have to the Bible. Some people think the idea of the supernatural is nonsense. Just yesterday an atheist said on Facebook that I was incapable of rational thought because I believed in “magic.” (I don’t believe in magic, though I do believe in miracles.) Is there really such a thing as the devil and demons? Well, in this month’s issue of the magazine The Atlantic, there’s a story about how exorcisms are on the rise. In this story, the author, who is clearly skeptical about the existence of demons, says that the percentage of people who believe in the devil has risen in recent decades. According to Gallup polls, 55 percent of Americans believed in the devil in 1990. That number was 70 percent in 2007.[2] Most of the story concerns a woman who has a history of strange occurrences that can only be described as demonic oppression. Though most secular psychiatrists would try to describe this kind of behavior in scientific terms, believing that it was “dissociative identity disorder,” even this woman’s secular therapists realized that what was happening to her was beyond any scientific explanation. Such behavior might include speaking in languages the person never learned, possessing abnormal strength, and being hostile to anything associated with God.

I firmly believe that there are realities that cannot be explained in scientific terms. There are things that happen that cannot be explained by a secular, naturalistic, materialistic worldview. What the Bible says about preternatural evil makes sense of what we see in the world. And the more that people are hostile to Christianity, the more that what the Bible says about our rebellion makes sense.

Now, back to the story: Satan must have known that this male child, the Messiah, was God’s plan to defeat him and to reconcile sinners back to him. So, Satan wanted to devour the child when he was born. That happened primarily when Herod the Great tried to destroy Jesus by having the male babies in Bethlehem slaughtered (Matt. 2:1–18). However, Jesus was taken by Joseph and Mary to Egypt until he was 2, avoiding Herod’s murderous plan. But when Jesus was an adult, Satan still had his designs on him. He tried to attack him through the religious leaders of the day, who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, much less the Son of God. They had him killed because he claimed to be equal to God. This was Satan’s plan. But it was also God’s plan. God sent his Son, who has always existed, to become a man so that he could live the perfect life that we don’t live and die the death that we deserved. God is a perfect judge, and a perfect judge makes sure that all crimes are paid for. The amazing thing is that Jesus paid the penalty for the rebellion of every enemy of God who would lay down his or her arms and come to Jesus for salvation.

Jesus then rose from the grave on the third day in a resurrected body, one that can never die again. He did this to show that his death was a sacrifice acceptable to God. He did this to show he has power over sin and death. He did this to foreshadow what will happen at the end of history as we know it: all of God’s people will live forever in resurrected bodies that can never die.

Jesus then ascended into heaven. And now “the woman,” the people of God, is in “the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” The wilderness is outside of Paradise, but it’s also a place of protection. In the Old Testament, God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He brought them into the wilderness, where he provided for them. The “1,260 days” is three-and-a-half years, which is symbolic for a definite and limited period of time. The period of time might be very long from our perspective, even thousands of years, but it won’t last forever. God is protecting his people from Satan. Satan cannot tear God’s people away from God.

But Satan does his best to thwart God’s plans. Yet he has been defeated. We see that in the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 7–12:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Again, we’re getting a glimpse of a heavenly reality, something that we couldn’t normally see. We’re told there was a war between the archangel Michael and his angels and the dragon, Satan, and his angels. Notice that Satan is no match for God. He doesn’t fight God—that’s not a battle he could possibly win. But he fights Michael and he loses. And he is then cast down from heaven. I think this happened at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It matches what Jesus says when he was about to die. He said, in John 12:31, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” The apostle Paul writes that when Jesus died on the cross, instead of Satan winning, Satan was actually defeated. He writes about Jesus, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).

So, though Satan tried his best to attack God’s army, he was whupped. He was thrown down. And, at that time, a loud voice from heaven declared, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” This reveals more of who Satan is. The word “Satan” literally means “adversary.” The word “devil” means “slanderer” or “accuser.” One of the things that Satan does is accuse us of our sin. (This is pictured quite beautifully in Zech. 3:1–5.) But God already knows our sin, and if we are united to Jesus by faith—if we trust that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything we need to be reconciled to God and that he is the only one who can make us right with God—then our sins have already been removed. Jesus paid for them when he died. There is no more guilt.

That’s why, in verse 11, it says of Christians that “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” How do we conquer Satan? Not through our own power or cleverness. Not through willpower and moral living. We conquer him through the blood of the Lamb, through Jesus’ sacrifice. We conquer him through “the word of [our] testimony.” Now, in Christian circles, you often hear people talk about their “testimony,” which is usually a story of how they came to faith. But the Bible doesn’t stress our personal, subjective stories. This testimony isn’t our subjective experience of faith. No, it’s the objective story of Jesus. It’s the gospel. The gospel means “the good news.” It’s the core message of Christianity. It’s what I have been saying about God creating us to live in a certain way, our rebellion against God, and the salvation offered through Jesus. It’s good news because we deserve to be condemned, yet God gives us salvation as a gift, something that we could never earn. It simply has to be received. Those who receive it realize it is a priceless gift, worth more than life itself. That’s why we’re told that Christians “loved not their lives even unto death.” Real Christians would rather die than renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. They would do this—and they do this today in certain parts of the world—because they know that death isn’t the final part of the story. There is a life beyond death. Jesus once said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

What Jesus has done for us is a cause for rejoicing. That’s why we rejoice at Christmas. The angel Gabriel told Joseph, “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The name Jesus basically means “God saves.” And he saves through his perfect life of obedience and his sacrificial death. His perfect righteousness is credited to his believers, and he takes on their sin. This is called the “great exchange.” This salvation and this conquering of Satan is a great cause for celebration in heaven and among God’s people. That’s why in verse 12, it says, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!” Yet it also says, “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” Satan, though defeated, is still active. He knows he can’t win, but he’s doing everything in his power to mess with God’s plans. He is so powerful that he is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). In the next paragraph, we see how he tries to attack “the woman.”

Let’s now read verses 13–17:

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

Satan tries to attack “the woman,” which represents God’s people, the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Yet God gives “the woman” “two wings of the great eagle” so that she can fly away from Satan and into the wilderness, where God nourishes her. Again, this period of time is described as three-and-a-half years. It’s a time that’s limited. It won’t last forever. Elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that God has prepared a table for his people in the presence of their enemies (Ps. 23:5; 78:19).

Still, Satan tries to destroy God’s people. We’re told that he tried to sweep away the woman with a flood of water that came from his mouth. This might represent his lies. Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). He says things that sound good. But they are lies. And God thwarts Satan’s attacks. Here, we’re told that the “earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.” This might be a subtle allusion to what happened when Pharaoh’s army tried to capture the Israelites at the Red Sea. God miraculously parted the waters, and then the waters closed in on the army. Moses’s song of victory says, “You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them” (Exod. 15:12). God turns back his enemies.

Yet, still, the dragon is furious and wants to attack “the woman.” He tries to make war with “the rest of her offspring,” all those who come to Jesus in faith. These are the people who “keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Real Christians hold fast to the gospel message. They believe the Bible is God’s word, even when it says unpopular things. And they obey this word. To be clear, we do not become Christians through obedience. We don’t become acceptable to God because we’re so good. No, we become Christians because we realize we’re so bad that God had to become a man and die for our sins. But once we come to faith, we start to obey God, even if imperfectly. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). He also said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

The real message of Christmas isn’t some sappy, sentimental story of a little baby and cute little angels. It’s a war story. The war had been raging on for millennia. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). God chose to do what almost no one saw coming. He entered into his own creation in the form of a vulnerable baby in order to defeat a dragon. And one day, he will slay that dragon and “get the girl,” “the woman,” his bride. This will happen when Jesus comes to Earth a second and decisive time. When that will happen, we do not know. But it will. God has promised it.

Before that time, we must decide which side of the war we’ll be on. Will we be on God’s side? If so, we must receive the gift of salvation by faith. We must realize we cannot rescue ourselves from death and condemnation. Only Jesus can. But if we accept this gift, we must realize that Jesus isn’t just a baby. He isn’t just a man. He’s God. And he’s the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one who will rule the nations with a rod of iron. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we follow him. We obey him. We would rather die than betray him.

If we reject this, we are on the side of the dragon. I’m not saying you’re Satan incarnate or demon-possessed. But if you reject Jesus, whether you’re apathetic or hostile, you’re on the dragon’s side, and you will lose.

The message of Christmas is one of comfort and joy, but only for those who are on the side of the one born to die. If you’re on that side already, hold fast to the gospel. Keep Jesus’ commands. Follow him even to death, if that should come. Jesus has already conquered the devil by outwitting him. Satan can accuse you, but you’re not guilty. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

If you’re not yet on the side of Jesus, I urge you to switch sides now. There is no neutrality. There is no spiritual Switzerland. You are part of this war, whether you like it or not. And if you don’t love Jesus more than you love your own life, if you aren’t keeping his commands, then you’re not on Jesus’ side. Don’t fool yourself. If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you want to learn more about him, if you want to know how you can follow him, I would love to talk to you.

Jesus came to get his girl, and one day he will kill the dragon. This is the story of Christmas. And we can be a part of it if we turn to Jesus.

Notes

  1. Andrew Wilson said this on an episode of Mere Fidelity: https://mereorthodoxy.com/mere-fidelity-texts-advent.

  2. Mike Mariani, “Why Are Exorcisms on the Rise?” The Atlantic, December 2018: 64. The article can be viewed online: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943.

 

He Called His Disciples (Luke 6:12-16)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 23, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Our younger son, Simon, started playing soccer this fall. He’s only 6 years old and he’s playing in a league of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. He had his second game yesterday and it’s interesting to see how, even at that young age, different kids have different athletic abilities. Some are bigger and some quite small. Some are faster than others and some are more coordinated. Some have a good sense of the game, where the ball is going and where it needs to go.

I don’t know how these kids are assigned to different teams. But it would be pretty easy to pick which kids you’d want on your team. There was one kid yesterday, on the other team, who could dribble through traffic and who scored two goals—one with the right foot, and one with the left. I’d pick that kid first if I were building a team.

Did you ever have that experience as a kid when captains were picking teams to play a sport? Maybe you were the one who did the picking. You know how this goes: all the people who want to play are lined up and two people take turns picking these players to be on their team. Usually, the first choices are obvious. The fast, coordinated, strong players are picked first. If you’re playing basketball, you’d pick the tall people quickly. Then you pick the average players. Eventually, you pick the people who look like they couldn’t run if they were under cooked eggs. Maybe you were always the last one picked and this whole idea brings traumatic memories to mind.

But imagine for a moment that you were building your own professional sports team. Imagine you could build your own Dream Team of the very best players in that sport. Money is not an issue here, and there’s no salary cap. Most of your picks would be pretty obvious ones. You’d pick the fastest, strongest, most coordinated, winningest athletes.

Now, imagine you were building a company from scratch. Let’s say this is some kind of tech company. Who would you want on your team? You’d want the genius computer whizzes. You’d want the best designers, the best financial officers, the best marketing guys. You’d want people who could design a product, make a product, sell the product, manage the money, and manage the personnel. You’d want the smartest, the best educated, the most creative.

Imagine you were a political leader, and you’re assembling your cabinet. Who would you want? You also would want the smartest and best educated people. But you would want other people, people who were connected, people who were powerful, people who could get things done. You’d want public policy wonks and power brokers, ideas people and influence people.

Now imagine that you’re building something far more important than a sports team, a company, or even a nation. Imagine that you’re going to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Let’s say that you happen to be God, and you come to Earth and you want to pick a dozen guys who will witness the things you do and say, who will train with you, and who will carry on your work after you’ve gone back to heaven. Who would you pick? You’d pick the religious leaders, right? You know, the people who know the Bible the best. Or you’d pick powerful people, like kings and princes. Maybe you’d want some rich people, and you always need a few smart, egghead types. You’d want people who are calm-headed, even-keeled, not people who act rashly, right? So, who would you pick?

Well, those are very hypothetical situations. The bad news is that none of us will be owners of professional sports teams or Fortune 500 companies. I’m pretty not one of us is going to be president or governor. But there is good news: none of us is God. And when it comes to that last situation, it’s not so hypothetical. God did come to Earth and he did pick a dozen men to witness what he did and said, and they did go on to tell other people about this God. But the men God picked were not the kind of guys that you or I would likely pick. And that’s another thing about Jesus that is stunning.

Today, we’re continuing our series through the Gospel of Luke, and we’re going to focus only on five verses. In these verses, we see that Jesus, who is still toward the beginning of his public ministry, is going pray and then choose twelve men out of his larger number of followers to be his apostles, his specially-commissioned messengers. And, suffice it to say, the twelve men are not the most powerful, most influential, or even the smartest men there are. But God knows what he’s doing, and he has a surprising way of doing things.

So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 6:12–16:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.[1]

This passage is short, and if you don’t know who Jesus is and what he came to do, you wouldn’t understand the significance of this passage. So, I’ll give us some context.

We’ve already seen in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is unique. He is no ordinary man. He had a conception unlike anyone: he was conceived in a virgin, without sex. Miraculously, the Holy Spirit caused Mary to be pregnant. And even before that time, we have strong clues that Jesus won’t simply be a miraculously-conceived man. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And even before this, the prophet Isaiah foretold of a time when it would be announced, “For unto us a child is born . . . and his name shall be called . . . Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). How could a child be born who is called “Mighty God”? How can God be born a child?

Well, that’s one of the greatest claims that Christianity makes. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe. And over two thousand years ago, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Son of God became a human being, first as an embryo, then a baby, then a child, then a man. And he did this without ceasing to be God. It’s a bit hard to grasp that Jesus is both God and man. We say that he’s one person with two natures, one divine and one human. This is one of the hardest things about Christianity to grasp, along with the Trinity. Just as we believe that there is one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we believe that Jesus is both God and man.

We believe that because it’s revealed in the Bible, and we believe that the Bible is God’s written word. Already in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve had some hints that Jesus is God. Gabriel said he was the Son of God, and Jesus claims to forgive sins—sins that were not committed directly against the man Jesus. When Jesus makes this claim, some of the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). And that’s the point; Jesus is God. We’ll get other hints as we go through Luke. One of the clearest passages in Scripture that says that Jesus is God is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The “Word” here is the Son of God, Jesus. And he is somehow both with God and is God. He is God—the Son of God—and he was with the Father from what is known as eternity past.

What’s interesting here is that Jesus prays to God—to God the Father, more specifically—before he chooses twelve men who will serve as his apostles. We may wonder why Jesus has to pray at all. If he’s God, can’t he just go ahead and pick these men? Doesn’t he know who he’s supposed to choose? And even if he has to pray, why does he pray all through the night?

The answer is that though Jesus is God, he lived his life primarily as a man. He never stopped being God, but he didn’t rely on his divine attributes to go through life. Every once in a while, he could call on his divine powers to heal and to forgive and to know things that ordinary people don’t know. But most of the time, he lived as a man, using the same resources that are available to us all, things like reading Scripture and praying. The reason why Jesus became a man was to fulfill God’s design for humanity. He came to live the perfect human life, because no one else has. We were made to love God and represent him and worship him and obey him. But we don’t do any of these things well or often, and certainly not perfectly. So, Jesus comes to live the perfect human life, to be the true image of God. That’s one of the reasons why he came.

Jesus came to do the will of his Father (John 6:38). The man Jesus relied completely on the Father during his time on Earth. As the perfectly obedient Son of God, Jesus spent time with his Father in prayer. When he was about to do something important, he prayed. The man Jesus wanted to talk to God the Father. He wanted to know the Father’s will.

So, we see Jesus praying on a mountain all through the night. Perhaps he went up a mountain simply to get away from the crowds that were following him. Perhaps we’re supposed to see echoes of Moses meeting with God on Mount Sinai. But the important thing is Jesus is praying before making an important decision. He’s about to choose twelve men who will be spend the next two or three years with him, men who will go on to tell the world about Jesus. To but it bluntly, Jesus couldn’t afford to screw this choice up. He had to get the right men, the ones God wanted.

So, Jesus prays throughout the night. And when it was day, Jesus calls his disciples to himself. This must be a larger group of Jesus’ followers. Literally, a disciple is a student. There were people who wanted to learn from Jesus. And out of this larger group of people, Jesus chooses twelve men, whom he named apostles.

The word apostle means someone who is sent, usually to be a messenger. The apostles are later said to be people who were with Jesus the whole time of his pubic ministry and who saw him after he later rose from the grave (Acts 1:21–22). Jesus’ life, his miracles, his teachings, and, later, his death and resurrection are so important that there must be witnesses, people who could go to the world and tell what they saw Jesus do.

Before we look at who these men are, we should ask an important question: why twelve? Why does Jesus choose twelve? Why not ten or fifteen? Jesus chooses twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. We know that because toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, he’ll say this to his disciples:

28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28–30).

Jesus is restoring, renewing, and recreating Israel, the people of God. This reminds us slightly of the book of Numbers, when Moses and Israel were still at Sinai. At Mount Sinai, God told Moses to take a census of the people of Israel. God told Moses that he would be assisted by one man from every tribe (Num. 1:1–44). Something similar is happening here. That’s why at the beginning of the book of Acts, when there are only eleven apostles, they must name a twelfth apostle. Jesus is rebuilding Israel. He will use these unlikely men to gather the true Israel, the people of faith.

Now, let’s take a look at who these apostles are. We’ve already met some of them in Luke 5. The list begins with four fishermen. Simon is better known as Peter, a name that Jesus gives him. He is the leader of the group. He’s often bold, even acting rashly. When Jesus is later arrested, he takes a sword and cuts off a soldier’s ear (John 18:10). Yet after that bold move, he is cowardly and denies knowing Jesus so he can save his life (Luke 22:54–62).

Simon’s brother, Andrew, is not as prominent among the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ earliest followers. In John’s Gospel, we see that he introduced Simon to Jesus (John 1:40–42). That’s when Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means “rock.”

The next two disciples are another pair of brothers and fishermen, James and John. They were partners with Peter and Andrew. It’s possible that they were cousins of Jesus (compare John 19:25 with Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40).[2] James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples, along with Peter. John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20), the one who wrote the Gospel of John and John’s letters and the book of Revelation. James and John were known as the “sons of thunder,” probably because of episodes like one we’ll see later in Luke. This is Luke 9:51–54:

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Jewish people looked down on Samaritans. Add to that the fact that the people in this village didn’t receive Jesus, and you can see why James and John might be a bit put out. They were probably thinking of the good old days of the prophet Elijah, when he would call fire to come down from heaven to consume God’s enemies (see 1 Kgs. 18:20–40; 2 Kgs. 1). But Jesus rebukes them (verse 55).

We don’t know a lot about the next disciples. Philip was from Bethsaida, just like Peter and the other fishermen. He invited his friend Nathaniel to meet Jesus (John 1:45–46). Bartholomew is probably the same man as Nathaniel, since we only read about Nathaniel in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew appears in the other Gospels.

Matthew is the same person as Levi, the tax collector we met in Luke 5:27–32. Tax collectors were known as traitors since they served the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that had power of Israel. They were also known as being dishonest.

Thomas is most famous for doubting that Jesus rose from the grave (John 20:24–25). But when he saw the risen Jesus, he made the great confession, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He had also said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16).

We know very little about James the Son of Alphaeus. The same is true of Simon, who was also called the Zealot. Some have assumed that he was a revolutionary, part of a group of people who were against the Roman Empire. But this group of Zealots didn’t emerge until a few decades later and it’s just as possible that Simon was zealous for the Jewish law. We also don’t know much about Judas the son of James. He’s called Thaddeus by Matthew and Mark (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). John simply refers to him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” so we don’t confuse him with the more famous Judas (John 14:22).

And that brings us to Judas Iscariot. He was the treasurer of the apostles, handling their money. But we’re told by John that he helped himself to that money (John 12:4–6). Judas is infamous for betraying Jesus, telling the Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus how they could arrest him away from the crowds. That’s why Luke says that Judas “became a traitor.” Jesus’ arrest led to his trial and death. After Judas had realized what he did, he regretted his actions and gave back the money that he was paid to betray Jesus. But he couldn’t live with what he did, so he hanged himself (Matt. 27:3–10).

These are the men that God led Jesus to choose. There were no Bible scholars, no religious leaders, no politicians, no particularly wealthy men in the bunch. In most ways, these men were thoroughly unimpressive.

  So, why does God choose these men? We’re never told explicitly. But the Bible states that God does as he pleases, that his will is perfect, and that he governs everything that happens. So, we trust he has good reasons for what he does.

We also know something else: God often chooses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish (in the world’s eyes) to shame those who are supposedly wise.

Consider this passage by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Paul is saying that God is truly wise, but God’s perfect wisdom is not what the world regards as wise. In the eyes of most people, what God does doesn’t make sense. At the time of Jesus, it didn’t make sense that God would become man and die on a cross. That’s because Jews knew that those who died in that way were cursed by God. Gentiles knew the cross was for enemies of the state, and the whole idea that there’s one true God who became man, died, and rose from the grave didn’t make sense to them.

But God truly knows what he’s doing. Paul says that Jews demand signs, or miracles. What greater miracle is there than for God to be come man and then rise from the grave after dying? Paul says Greeks seek wisdom. What wiser way to take care of the problem of sin, our rebellion against God, than for Jesus to bear that sin himself, absorbing the punishment that we deserve, so that all who are united to him can be forgiven?

God shows his wisdom by using unlikely people, the average person, the weak, the poor. God doesn’t need to use the powerful, the rich, the smartest guys in the room. That’s because God has infinite power, and he can do what he wants in spite of our limitations. If God were picking a team, he might pick all the chubby kids with two left feet. He does this so that he can take all the credit for his works. We cannot boast because God is the hero of the story. We are only recipients of God’s grace.

The fact that God used very ordinary men to build the church is something of a miracle. In fact, we might even say it’s proof that Christianity is the true religion. I’m taking a course on apologetics now. Apologetics is basically the study of why Christianity is true. The word comes from the Greek word apologia, which can mean “defense” or “reason.” The idea comes from 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word reason is a translation of apologia.

At any rate, I’ve been studying apologetics, including the history of how people have defended the faith against objections and how they have given reasons why people should put their trust in Jesus. And some of the older apologists said that the truth of Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that God grew the church out of a small group of common men. This is what one preacher, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), said

How many did the Church win over? Not two, or ten, or twenty, or a hundred, but almost every man living under the sun. With whose help did it win them over? With the help of eleven men. And these men were unlettered, ignorant, ineloquent, undistinguished, and poor. They could not rely on the fame of their homelands, on any abundance of wealth, or strength of body, or glorious reputation, or illustrious ancestry. They were neither forceful nor clever in speech; they could make no parade of knowledge. They were fishermen and tentmakers, men of a foreign tongue. They did not speak the same language as those whom they won over to the faith. Their speech—I mean Hebrew—was strange and different from all others. But it was with the help of these men that Christ founded this Church which reaches from one end of the world to the other.[3]

The point is that unless God were working through these ordinary men, there’s no way a new religious movement could have spread throughout the world. These men didn’t have any political power or wealth. Judaism was tolerated by the Roman Empire, but Christianity was something new, something not protected by law. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar, the emperor, is not. This challenged the Roman Empire. Christians refused to bow down to the emperor and worship him or any of the other false gods in the Empire. To become a Christian was to go against Rome and the old order of Judaism. You wouldn’t do this, and you wouldn’t succeed if you did, unless God were behind it.

What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t just choose some ordinary men. He chooses a man who will be a traitor. The fact that Judas sold Jesus out wasn’t something that surprised God. God knew this all along. He always knows everything. Yet God chose Judas. I suppose someone had to betray Jesus so that he would die. One of the things the Bible says is that God has a plan for everything and that people are responsible for their actions. We see this most clearly at the cross (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). The fact that Judas was chosen was not an accident. Judas was responsible for his sin, but he was part of God’s plan.

And Jesus’ death was not an accident. Yes, people didn’t believe him and hated him, and that’s part of why he died. But ultimately, Jesus’ death was God’s plan to rescue his people from their sin. Earlier I said that Jesus came in part to live a perfect life, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity. The other reason why he came was to pay the penalty for our sin. Our sin is so offensive to God and so destructive to his creation that he must remove it. God is a perfect judge who sees all the evidence, and he must punish sin. Jesus’ death is the way that God punishes sins without destroying sinners.

Jesus prayed before choosing his disciples. He prayed before Peter made the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Luke 9:18–20). He prayed before he was transfigured, revealing his divine glory to Peter, James, and John (Luke 9:28–29). And he wrestled in prayer on the night he was arrested, the night before he died, because he knew that he was about to experience hell on earth (Luke 22:39–46). Jesus prayed for our benefit. And he still prays for us. He came and lived the perfect life for us and he died for us. If you put your trust in Jesus, you are freed from condemnation and the fear of death, you are forgiven, and you are a child of God.

So, what do we do with this passage? I think we should see a few things.

One, the fact that Jesus chooses the weak and the poor and the foolish should give us hope. We don’t have to be the world’s smartest, most powerful, and most talented people in order to know God. What we really need is to realize our need for salvation. When we realize our spiritual poverty and weakness, we’re in a place where we can come to Jesus. God chose twelve foolish men to be Jesus’ disciple, and God chose a vast amount of foolish people to be Christians. That may injure our pride, but it should give us hope.

Two, the fact that the disciples often made mistakes after Jesus called them should give us hope. Even Peter, who denied knowing Jesus, was forgiven. I think it’s possible that even Judas could have been forgiven, but he didn’t understand that. The difference between Judas and Peter is that one couldn’t see any hope. No matter what we’ve done, we can run to Jesus for forgiveness.

Three, Jesus prayed. He regularly spent time with his Father in heaven. And we should pray like Jesus. But we should remember that when we pray, God may not give us what we want. God doesn’t always give us easy answers. But he always gives us what we need. Remember, God led Jesus to pick Judas. Jesus had to go through great pain and suffering. If we trust Jesus, we don’t have to experience the punishment that he endured on the cross. But we may experience quite a bit of pain and suffering. Yet whatever trials we face are for our good and they are not the final chapter in the story. The final chapter for God’s people is eternal life in a restored, renewed, recreated world, a life in Paradise with God.

So, let us be thankful. Let us boast in Jesus and trust in him. And let us pray like him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 544. Bock asserts that they are cousins, though I don’t think this as clear as he insists.
  3. John Chrysostom, A Demonstration against the Pagans that Christ Is God 12.9, in William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader, to 1500, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 199.

 

Lord of the Sabbath

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 16, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

How are you feeling today? Do you feel well rested? In general, does your life feel at rest, or do you feel anxious? Do you feel at peace or ill at ease in this world?

Today we’re picking up our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, after taking a six-month break. If you weren’t here months ago, you can catch up on this series by visiting wbcommunity.org/luke. This is a good time to get to know the true Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible.

This is what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke is writing this biography of Jesus to provide an orderly account of the story of Jesus. He says his writing is based on what he has received from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2).[1] Luke is writing history, but it’s a theological history. He wants us to know what God has done in and through Jesus.

Luke tells us that Jesus had supernatural origins. His miraculous conception by a virgin was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Right at the beginning of this story, we’re told that Jesus is more than just a man. Gabriel tells Mary,

32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).

Luke tells us that Jesus grew and he gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus at age 12. When he is fully grown, Jesus is baptized, an event that begins his public ministry. When he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and the voice of God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). There are echoes here of the beginning of the Bible. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over these waters, where the Word of God is present. Just as God created a universe out of nothing, he has created a new man out of “nothing” (a virgin’s womb). Just as God pronounced a blessing over the first creation, calling it “very good,” God pronounces a blessing over this new creation. God has stepped into the universe that he has made and Jesus, the God-man, will fix what is broken in the first creation.

He does this in part by withstanding the devil’s temptations. Luke tells us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when Satan tempted him. Jesus stands up to Satan’s attacks by quoting Scripture back to him. Jesus is the only one who doesn’t give in to evil.

Then we see Jesus begin his public ministry. He does this by teaching and by healing. He teaches in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, telling those who are gathered that he fulfills the Old Testament. But he is not well received. We see that Jesus’ teaching is divisive, and he gets run out of his hometown.

Jesus heals people who had various diseases and he heals people who were under the influence of unclean spirits, or demons. This shows that Jesus attacks the results of evil in the world and evil itself. According to the Bible, all bad things in the world are the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of sin in the world. Angels and people have rebelled against God, and as a result, God has given the world over to things like diseases and death. But God hasn’t given up on the world. Jesus’ becoming a man is God’s rescue mission to save a lost world. And Jesus’ miracles indicate that he has the power to fix what is broken.

We also have seen Jesus call his first disciples and get into various controversies with some of the religious leaders in his day. These are usually the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that was devoted to a strict interpretation of the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus hung out with people who were regarded as particularly sinful. This was controversial. But he called them to a new way of life, a better life. And Jesus even claims that he has the power to forgive sins.

Today, as we begin Luke 6, we see those controversies continue. We’ll see two controversies over the Sabbath. Let’s first read Luke 6:1–5:

1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

To understand what’s happening here, we need to understand what the Bible says about the Sabbath. So, let’s take a quick tour of what the Old Testament says about the Sabbath.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, we see God creates, or orders and arranges, his creation. Over six days, God establishes realms of sky and sea and land and he fills them. There are a lot of different views on whether those days are twenty-four periods or longer ages, or if the week is analogous, but not exactly equivalent, to our week. But we won’t get into that today. What we do want to see is that on the seventh day, God rests. This is Genesis 2:1–3:

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

This doesn’t mean that God was really tired from those six days and need a break. It meant that his work of creating and arranging was done. God had established the world to be his temple, a theater for his glory, and he was done. He could now sit on his throne, as it were. The drama of the Bible’s big story could now begin.

This seventh day of rest established a pattern for Israel. In fact, God commands Israel to rest on every seventh day in honor of the pattern he established at creation. The Sabbath is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. This is the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:8–11:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The word “Sabbath” basically means rest. It was also a day of worship, a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Holy means “distinct, withheld from ordinary use, treated with special care,” the opposite of “profane” or “common.”[2] The seventh day was a “Sabbath to the Lord,” a day that belonged to God (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15). The Israelites were supposed to take a break from their regular work. This taught them to trust in God’s provision and to realize that they were not in control of time.

The Sabbath reminded the Israelites both of creation and salvation. Exodus 20 mentions creation. The Ten Commandments are also given in Deuteronomy 5. There, we are told another reason why Israel should observe the Sabbath: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he created a new people, a people who could rest, instead of working as slaves. The Sabbath is the link between creation and salvation.

The Sabbath was so important that it was a sign of the covenant (Exod. 31:12–17; Ezek. 20:12), just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 9:12–17), and circumcision was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). We may not understand the word “covenant” very well, but it’s sort of like a treaty. It’s similar to a marriage contract. It’s something that binds two parties together and sets the terms for that relationship. In this case, the covenant was how God would relate to his people and how they would relate to him. It spelled out what was expected of God’s people. The Ten Commandments were like the founding principles of Israel, something similar to the Bill of Rights. But instead of rights, the Ten Commandments told Israel what God expected of them.

Observing the Sabbath was so important that the punishment for breaking it was death (Exod. 31:14–15; see the story in Num. 15:32–36). Breaking the Sabbath was associated with idolatry, the worship of false gods (Lev. 19:3–4; Ezek. 20:16–24). It seems that breaking the Sabbath was one of the reasons why Israel went into exile (2 Chron. 36:21; Jer. 17:19–27; 25:11–12; Ezek. 20:12–24). After Israel returned from exile, the Sabbath was one of the concerns of Nehemiah.[3]

By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws.[4] Keeping the Sabbath had become synonymous with Judaism. It set Jews apart from the people of other nations and religions. On the Sabbath day, Jews met in synagogues for prayer and Scripture readings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws that accumulated over time, forbade thirty-nine activities on the Sabbath day.[5]

So, that’s a quick study of the Sabbath in the Old Testament.

Now, let’s go back to Luke 6:1–5. Jesus and his disciples were going through a field on the Sabbath. They took some grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff, and ate. This is hardly work, but according to strict Jewish interpretations of the law, this violated the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. This is a serious charge. Yet Jesus doesn’t answer directly. As he often does, he asks a question. He reminds them of a story from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 21:1–6). The story was about David, the greatest king of Israel. Before David became king, was on the run from Saul, the first king of Israel, who was jealous of David and who wanted to kill him. David had to flee from Saul just to stay alive. At one point, David and his men were so hungry that they ate the bread of the Presence, which was bread that was in the tabernacle, the holy place where God dwelled among Israel. This bread was holy. It symbolized Israel eating in God’s presence. It was bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Now, Jesus brings this up and challenges the Pharisees to say that David was wrong. The implication is that David didn’t do wrong, and just as David didn’t do anything wrong by eating that bread, because he was hungry, Jesus and his disciples didn’t do anything wrong by eating some grain that they “worked” for on the Sabbath.

Jesus doesn’t deny that there might have been some violation of the Sabbath, at least according to the way the Pharisees understood the law. Instead, he seems to say that when two principles clash, some things are more important than others. David and his men were starving. So, the priest decided it was okay to let them eat holy bread. It was more important to support these men than to uphold laws regarding the bread. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and need some sustenance. The grain was there for the plucking. In Mark’s telling of this passage, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was supposed to help people, not hurt them.

The Sabbath was for the benefit of the Israelites. It told them to rest in God’s provision, to trust in him. It wouldn’t make sense for Sabbath observance to put them in harm’s way. And there must have been some understanding of this. Sometimes, two laws clash, even two biblical laws. Israelite boys were supposed to be circumcised on the eight day. If a boy was born on a Sabbath, he would have to be circumcised on the following Sabbath day. Either that doesn’t count as work, or it does and you violate the Sabbath commandment, or you circumcise the boy on the seventh or ninth day, thus violating another commandment. Sometimes, laws must bend. What’s important in those cases is upholding the spirit of the law.

Here’s an example we can relate to: We know that lying is wrong. But what if you’re living in Europe in the early 1940s, you’re hiding Jewish people in your attic or your basement, and Nazis come to your door, asking if any Jews are there. What do you do? Do you lie and save lives, or do you tell the truth and let them be led to slaughter? I know what I would do.

Mature Christian thinking understands this. There are times when we feel like two moral principles are clashing against each other, and we have to find ways to accommodate the spirit of both of those principles. For example, we’re called to welcome the sinner, but we have to have safeguards against the destructive power of sin. An abusive person can be forgiven and yet there can still be consequences for that person’s behavior.

In this passage, however, Jesus does something besides suggesting that laws can bend. He says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. “Lord” could be used to address people of authority, but it was also the way God’s name, Yahweh, was translated from Hebrew into Greek. And Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. That sounds like he’s making a claim to be God. After all, the Sabbath was the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10). Jesus is saying it’s his. He owns the Sabbath. And if it’s his, he can do what he wants with it. This should have given the Pharisees pause. Jesus is coming quite close to saying he’s God.

Let’s look at the next paragraph, Luke 6:6–11.

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

It’s another Sunday, not necessarily the very next one. The Gospel writers weren’t terribly concerned about precise chronology. Luke (and Matthew in Matthew 12 and Mark in Mark 2) wants us to see the connections between these two Sabbaths. On this one, Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There happens to be a man with a withered hand there. His hand must have been crippled, his muscles atrophied. Perhaps he had suffered some kind of accident in the past, or perhaps he had a birth defect. The Pharisees and the scribes, the strict religious leaders of the day who were so concerned about how to follow the Old Testament law, carefully watched what Jesus would do. They were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They would have loved to have some dirt on him, to put him on trial and put an end to him.

Before I go on, notice the irony. This is a day of a rest, a day of worship. And what do the religious leaders do? They work at trying to capture Jesus in some violation. They aren’t thinking about God; no, they are looking for a way to trip Jesus up. Who are the ones violating the Sabbath? And who is the one who is maintaining the spirit of the law?

Jesus asks the crippled man to come to him, and then he asks a rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Who could argue with that? Later in Luke’s Gospel, during another Sabbath controversy, Jesus will ask, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5). Wouldn’t you help a person or even an animal that was in trouble, even if it were on a Sabbath?

Confident that no one will argue against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus then asks the man to stretch out his hand. The man does, and when he does, his hand was healed. The man listens to Jesus’ voice, does what Jesus tells him to do, and then finds healing. We could say the man had faith that Jesus could heal him, he responded, and Jesus healed him.

One thing we can learn from this episode is that the Sabbath was intended for the good of humanity. It is better to do good than to allow one to suffer.

But think about this: the man with the withered hand was not in dire need of healing. Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to heal him, but Jesus intentionally heals him on the Sabbath, even though this wasn’t an emergency. In healing on the Sabbath, he was making a point. To understand the point, we need to think about the relationship between sin and Sabbath. In the Gospels, healing is a physical symbol of the salvation that Jesus offers. All physical problems come from sin, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why anyone gets sick is because the world is tainted by sin, a powerful force of rebellion that entered into the world when the first human beings decided not to trust and obey God. Sin violated the first Sabbath.

Think back to the original Sabbath, the one in Genesis 2. There was nothing but peace and rest. The Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe was a taste of that peace and rest. It was almost a way of recapturing the original harmony of the world before sin corrupted it. But the Sabbath also pointed to one who would come, a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David. It pointed to the Prince of Peace, the only one who can bring rest, the only one who can restore us to harmony with God.

The four Gospels that we have in the Bible have similar material, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before these two Sabbath controversies that we’re reading about today, Jesus said,

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).

The fact that this saying of Jesus comes right before his actions on the Sabbath shows us that Jesus is the true Sabbath. He fulfills the Sabbath. He is one who gives us rest.

But how does Jesus do that?

In the Gospel of Luke, there are seven different Sabbaths. There were two in chapter 4 (Luke 4:16, 31) and now we’ve seen two in chapter 6. One more appears in chapter 13 (Luke 13:10) and another one comes in chapter 14 (Luke 14:1). I suppose there’s no accident that there are seven Sabbaths in Luke’s Gospel. Seven is the number of completion or perfection, and the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The seventh Sabbath in Luke is the one when Jesus was in the tomb, after he died on the cross. He was killed on Friday, the sixth day of the week, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, which began on Friday at sundown. He rested in the tomb on the seventh day of the week, after he completed his work. Remember, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work, at least in part, was to come and die for our sins. He completed that work in full when he died on the cross. There is nothing that you and I can do to pay for our sins. Our crimes against God are so great that only the death of the Son of God can pay for our sins. And we can have our sins paid for if we simply trust in Jesus. He asks us to stretch out our arm to him and if we do that, trusting that he alone can make us right with God, we are healed. No amount of law-keeping makes anyone more righteous. We can’t fix ourselves. The only way we can be healed is to rest from our striving to save ourselves and to let God save us. Only Jesus can remove our sin and make us right with God. Only Jesus can get us to heaven. Only Jesus can make us live with God forever.

After Jesus died on the sixth day and rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, he rose from the grave on the eighth day. Or, we might say that he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, a new era. For these reasons and others, I believe that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath for us, just as he fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul writes,

16 Therefore [because Jesus died for our sins and has given us new hearts—see Col. 2:6–15] let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16–17).

The Old Testament Sabbath was meant to point Israel to Jesus. It foreshadowed the rest that only he can give. But now that Jesus has come, we don’t need to keep the Sabbath in the way that Israel did. To keep the Sabbath today is to stop striving to save yourself and to start resting in the give of salvation that Jesus has given you.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first installment of a new creation. He established something new. His death inaugurated a new covenant. This new deal promises that God’s people will be forgiven of sin, they will have his law written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, and they will truly know him. Jesus’ resurrection also promises new life. We don’t feel completely at rest in this life. We struggle, and we die. But a day is coming when Jesus will return, when all who have trusted in him will be raised from the grave in bodies that can never die. At that time, God’s people will live with God forever in a recreated, or renewed world. They will experience perfect rest.

Again, we can experience some of that rest now, but we also look forward to the ultimate rest that will come when Jesus returns to Earth, when he establishes a new creation. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). That means we rest from trying to earn our salvation. But we must also work. Jesus said that God is always working (John 5:17). It’s not as though God stopped working on the original seventh day. He always upholds the universe. If God didn’t do that, things would cease to exist. So, even though we rest in one sense, we also continue to work. We don’t work to earn something from God, but we work because we are thankful, because we love God and he has given us work to do. So, we work and rest, and we urge other people to find rest in Jesus.

The Sabbath is a reminder that each person is spiritually restless and that the only rest available to satisfy our souls is offered by Jesus, who beckons the weary to come to him. Augustine understood this reality when he prayed to the Lord, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[6]

Nothing else in this world can give our restless souls rest. But in order to receive true rest, we must give up. We must stop working. We must trust that God will provide for us. We must realize that Jesus is our Boss, our Master, our King, and our Lord—the Lord of the Sabbath.

The religious leaders “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Matthew says, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). How do you respond to Jesus? If you’re not resting him, I urge you to do so now. If you don’t truly know Jesus as your Lord, I would love to talk with you. But for now, let’s pray.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century. New American Commentary in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 87.
  3. Nehemiah recalls the giving of the Sabbath in his prayer of confession (Neh. 9:14) and he states that no buying or selling should be done on the Sabbath (10:31). When he discovers that the Sabbath commandment was being broken, he confronted the leaders of the people and then made sure the gates of the city were shut on that holy day, so that no buying or selling of goods could be done (13:15–22). He likely did not want the people to be exiled again for their lack of observing this important commandment.
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49.
  5. Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95.
  6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.

 

Slaves

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 26, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Religion can be very controversial. I know that well, and I suppose there’s something within me that likes to address controversial topics, especially when they find their way into the public square. Well over five years ago, there was a controversy related to Barack Obama’s second inauguration, after he was reelected as president. Whoever organizes inaugurations had invited a rather mainstream evangelical pastor named Louis Giglio to give the benediction. Later, some people had discovered that Giglio actually believes what the Bible says about homosexuality, and that he once preached a message on Romans 1 and addressed that topic. So, Giglio was basically uninvited. A “liberal” pastor who doesn’t believe what the Bible says about homosexuality replaced him.

Now, I’m not going to preach on the issue of homosexuality this morning. That may or may not be a relief to you. But I remember watching something on TV when this controversy with Giglio emerged. One of MSNBC’s hosts, Lawrence O’Donnell, gave a commentary on this controversy. He noted that Giglio would be replaced with a pastor who doesn’t believe parts of the Bible, the same parts of the Bible that Obama doesn’t believe. And he suggested that we shouldn’t believe all of the Bible, and that no one really believes all that’s found in the Bible. I think O’Donnell would have been happy to ditch the Bible altogether.

But this is the part that really got me. Here he was, behind a desk with a closed Bible on it, one that he surely has not read in its entirety. And he said this:

This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendant of slaves. [He’s referring to Michelle Obama.] But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting somewhere near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.[1]

As someone who has actually read the Bible several times and someone who has studied it, I had to stop and think. Does the Bible contain no words that condemn slavery? Is that true?

Whether you agree with O’Donnell or not, I think we should step back and think about some questions, ones that we might not have good answers for right at the moment. We all know that slavery is wrong, but why is that so? Why is slavery wrong? Where did that idea come from? What societies were the first ones to forbid slavery? And, since we’re in a church, what does the Bible actually say about slavery?

Well, I hope to answer those questions, at least in part, today. And I’ll do that as we continue our study of 1 Timothy, which is a book in the New Testament of the Bible. If you’re joining us for the first time, we usually study a book of the Bible in its entirety, going passage by passage. Sometimes, a passage is a paragraph, or a whole chapter of the Bible. Today, I’m going to look at just two verses, 1 Timothy 6:1–2. And just to give us a little context, I’ll tell you this much: The book of 1 Timothy was written by the apostle Paul, a messenger of Jesus Christ and a man who started some churches throughout the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago. He wrote this letter to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. Paul had left Timothy to help a church in the city of Ephesus (in the western part of what is now known as Turkey). This church had its share of problems, and Paul wanted Timothy to know how “one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).[2]

In this part of the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how different groups of people should behave in the church. And, at the beginning of chapter 6, he talks about slaves. And this is what Paul says:

1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves][3] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved (1 Tim. 6:1–2).

It’s a bit jarring to read about slaves and masters, because it seems so foreign to our experience. That, and we know slavery is wrong. And what Paul tells Timothy doesn’t match our expectations. We might expect Paul to tell Timothy to contact his senators and representative, or start a petition at change.org, to put an end to slavery. But Paul doesn’t do that.

To understand why Paul says what he does, we have to understand slavery in context. Today, I’m going to give us three contexts in which we should understand slavery. The first is the context of the whole Bible.

“In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and he made human beings in his image and likeness, which means that we are unique in all of God’s creation. We alone are made to reflect what God is like, to display his glory, to rule over his creation by coming under his rule, to worship him, and to love and obey him as his children. What God made was good, and there was no hint of division, greed, or exploitation. If you knew nothing other than the first two chapters of the Bible, you would never imagine that such a thing as slavery could ever exist. Everything was peace and harmony.

But something changed. The first human beings didn’t trust God. They failed to obey him. They violated his commandment, deciding that they knew better than God. And the consequences have been horrific. Because human beings rebelled against a holy, perfect, righteous God, he could not allow that rebellion to go unchecked. So, he removed them from the sacred space of the garden of Eden, and he put a curse on all of creation. In a sense, he gave them over to their rebellion and let them go their own way. And when we reject God, who is the source of truth, beauty, goodness, and life, we find lies, ugliness, evil, and death. The reason why we’re at war with each other is because we’re first at war with God.

The first mention of slavery in the Bible comes in the context of a curse. In the story of Noah, after the flood has ended, his son Ham violates him. And Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). The New International Version says, “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

I’ll add this here: slavery was a universal institution in the ancient world. Every ancient society had slaves. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon and far beyond, all ancient societies had slaves. While the Bible never commands people to enslave others, it does assume that the practice exists. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, after all.

So, the Bible talks about creation and the entrance of sin into the world, which we call the fall. And the fall is the reason why anything bad, including slavery, exists. The next part of the story is called redemption, which I will come back to later. The final part of the Bible’s story is restoration, when God makes everything right in the universe. And while we only get glimpses of what a renewed and restored world will be like, there is no hint of slavery there. That is because there will be no sin in that perfect world.

The second context in which we should understand slavery is slavery in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament. As I said, slavery was universal. It existed for a long time before the time of Jesus. It was found in ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire. There are several things to know about slavery in the Roman Empire. One, there were a lot of slaves. Exact figures are hard to come by in the ancient world. One estimate I read was, “Slaves accounted for something like 2 to 3 million of the 7.5 million inhabitants of Italy.” That same author, James Jeffers, says, “Slaves were probably closer to 10 percent of the population elsewhere in the Empire.”[4] That’s a low estimate. Another author says, “Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and [the] peninsula [of] Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries A.D. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage.”[5] Let’s assume the truth is somewhere in between those figures. Perhaps 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire were at any given time slaves and many more were freed.

Two, people could become slaves in a few different ways. Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts. That may sound odd, but as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, people could go to prison for debts. When I was a doctoral student in music, I studied the life of Richard Wagner, the famous German composer, and I read that he spent time in debtor’s prison. There was nothing like bankruptcy then. In the ancient world, you could work off your debts through slavery. People could also become slaves by being captured by slavers, or because they were children of slaves, or because they had been abandoned by their parents and raised to become slaves. More likely, people became slaves because they were conquered by the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire expanded, prisoners of war became slaves.

Three, slavery in the Roman Empire was much different than what we think of when we think of slavery. Slavery wasn’t based on skin color. I don’t like using the word “race” because there is only one human race, but slavery then wasn’t based on race. Masters and slaves often had the same ethnicity. In fact, that’s true of much of slavery in the world. In the Roman Empire, slaves could have certain rights. They could earn money and they could eventually buy their freedom. If they had rich masters, they might live better than the poor free people. They were often freed, usually at a relatively young age; we don’t have evidence of people dying as slaves.

Four, the way slaves were treated could vary greatly. The slaves with arguably the worst lives were those who were used for sex. Many slaves worked in mines, which apparently was the most physically demanding and miserable job. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked in the mines, and sometimes they were worked to death.[6] The largest group of slaves were farmers. Slaves could also be domestic servants, artisans, artists, and managers of their masters’ businesses. I’m sure a slave’s quality of life largely depended on his or her role.

All of that is to say that slavery was different than what we think of when we imagine slavery. No one would argue that slavery was a good thing, but slavery did not necessarily mean a person was worked to death or degraded. But the reality is that could happen, too. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations.

The final context I want us to see slavery in is the context of the New Testament. When we read Paul’s words, it’s hard for us to understand why he wouldn’t speak out more against slavery. Well, we should realize one thing: O’Donnell was wrong. (Unless we read the Bible as fundamentalists, which is something that unbelievers, ironically, tend to do.) There are some words against slavery in the Bible. At the beginning of 1 Timothy, Paul says that the Old Testament law can be used to reveal those who are “lawless and disobedient,” those who are “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:8). He then gives a vice list, and he includes “enslavers” among the list of “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:10). So, Paul quite clearly says it’s wrong to capture people and force them to be slaves.

Paul also wrote a short letter to a slave owner, a man named Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and he had a slave named Onesimus. We don’t know why, but Onesimus ended up with Paul. Many assume Onesimus ran away from his master, but we don’t know the whole backstory. At any rate, Paul writes to Philemon to encourage him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not a slave. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon to let Onesimus go. He had the ability to do that. He even says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philem. 8–9). Instead of commanding Philemon, he appeals to theology. He reminds Philemon that he, Paul, is (quite literally) “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (verse 9) and he says that he has become like a father to Onesimus. He tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus, “my very heart,” back to him. He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, because Onesimus served Paul while Paul was in prison. But Paul knows it is right to send Onesimus back, “in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (verse 14).

And here’s the main point: Paul says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [slave] but more than a bondservant [slave], as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philem. 15–16). Instead of treating Onesimus as a slave, Philemon should treat him as a brother, because that’s what he is—a brother in Christ.

Paul concludes by telling Philemon that he should receive Onesimus “as you would receive me” (Philem. 17). He tells Philemon that if Onesimus owns anything, he should charge it to Paul’s account (Philem. 18), which sounds like Paul might be willing to pay the price to free Onesimus. Paul also casually mentions that Philemon owes him “even your own self” (Philem. 19). Paul means that Philemon became a Christian through his ministry. In that sense, Paul has given Philemon the gift of eternal life. Philemon owes Paul everything. The least he could do would be to free his own slave. Paul then comes to this conclusion: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philem. 21).

This is a radical move by Paul. He is saying that Onesimus doesn’t have a lower status than Philemon. They are one in Christ Jesus. They have equal access to God, equal standing, an equal inheritance. That’s why Paul writes, in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (See also Col. 3:11). When Paul writes to churches and tells slaves to act in a certain way, and masters to act in a certain way, we should imagine that slaves and their masters were worshiping together. If you look at Paul’s references to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 (Eph. 6:5–9) and Colossians 3 (technically Col. 3:22–4:1), you see that he reminds slaves that they are really serving Jesus, so they should work hard and work honorably. And he tells masters that they should remember that they and their slaves both have the same Master, Jesus. Again, Paul puts slaves and masters on the same footing, telling them that they are both slaves of Jesus. They belong to the same Master, they are part of the same family, and this should change their relationship.

We might still wonder why Paul doesn’t write more forcefully against the institution of slavery. I think there are two reasons why he doesn’t. The first is that the early church had no political power or influence. None. And the Roman Empire wasn’t a democratic republic. They couldn’t send a lobbyist to Rome. If early Christians tried to put an end to slavery through force or by sending a prophet to Caesar, it wouldn’t work, and it would likely backfire. The Roman Empire would crack down hard on Christians and put an end to the church. This is why we should study the Bible in its historical context. If we fail to understand and historical and cultural context of the Bible, we’ll end up misunderstanding its meaning.

But we should also note that Paul does tell slaves that, if possible, they should buy their freedom. This is what he writes in 1 Corinthians 7:20–24:

20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant [slave] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [slave] of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slaves] of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

He tells slaves that if they can, they should buy their freedom. But as long as they are slaves, they should know that they are truly free in Christ. To those who are not slaves, Paul says that they should realize they are slaves of Christ. No matter what position they found themselves in, they should ultimately serve God. They can do that as slaves or as freedmen.

Another reason that Paul doesn’t speak forcefully against slavery is that he knows some things are more important than politics and public policy. The reason he doesn’t command Philemon to free his slave is because he wants Philemon to think about the gospel, the message of good news at the heart of Christianity. At the least, he wants Philemon to realize that his slave is now his brother. They belong to the same family. And that reminds me of something else, some words from that Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” The words are “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” While Christianity has given hope to literal slaves the world over, promising ultimate freedom in eternity, it also has something powerful to say to all of us: all of us are slaves.

Jesus once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Elsewhere, Paul says that all people will either be slaves to sin or slaves of God (Rom. 6:16–22). The apostle Peter says, “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19). We like to think that we are free. One of the gods of our age is the idea that we can do whatever we want, that we are free agents with free wills that cannot be constrained. We can determine who we are and what we’ll do. But the Bible’s message is, “No, you’re not really free. You’re enslaved by your sinful desires. You often know the right thing to do but you don’t often do it because your selfishness, your greed, your pride, and your lust really are your masters. You’re in chains.” We’re not really as free as we think we are.

But the Bible’s message doesn’t end there. It says something quite amazing. It says that though we were enslaved, God came to free us. And he came to free us by becoming a slave. Consider this famous passage, from another one of Paul’s letters. This is Philippians 2:5–11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [a slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Though Jesus was and is the Son of God, which is to say he has always been God, he didn’t cling to that glorious status. He didn’t stand on his rights. He humbled himself by becoming a slave, by becoming a human being. And not only did he do that, but he put up with sinful human beings who doubted him, mocked him, rejected him, arrested him, tortured him, and killed him. He did this so that he could pay the penalty for our rebellion against God. Our sin must be punished, because God is a perfect judge and he can’t allow rebellion and evil to go unchecked. But if God punished us for our sins, we would be destroyed. Fortunately for us, God gave us a way to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the perfect man who became a perfect slave. Everyone who trusts in him is credited with his perfect obedience. Everyone who trusts in him has their debt of sin removed. Their chains are broken. They are forgiven. They receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who empowers us to trust God, to love God, and to obey God. Though our lives may be hard, we, like Jesus, will be exalted. Though we die, we will later be resurrected to live in a perfect world with God forever.

This part of the Bible’s story is known as redemption. It has given many people great hope. Slaves have been comforted by this news. Though they might be powerless to change their status, they could hope in Jesus, the God who became a slave. Though they were in physical chains, they knew the chains of sin were broken, and one day they would have eternal freedom. The apostle Peter wrote to slaves who were suffering unjustly. And he wrote these words (1 Pet. 2:18–25):

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

The message of Christianity is what brought about emancipation for slaves. Over a long period of time, slavery disappeared almost entirely from Europe. By the middle ages, there was almost no slavery in the Christian world. Sarah Ruden, a professor of the classics and hardly a Bible-thumping evangelical, says, “the early Christian church, without staging any actual campaign against slavery, in the course of the centuries weakened it until it all but disappeared from Europe. Slavery was doomed simply because it jarred with Christian feeling—the same basic circumstance that doomed it in the modern West.”[7]

It’s true that slavery reemerged in Christianized nations sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is a shameful thing. Yet Christians have always been the ones who pushed for the abolition of slavery. They realized that enslaving people was contrary to treating them like fellow image bearers of God. As many as two-thirds of abolition leaders in the United States were Christian pastors.[8] Many of the celebrated figures who pushed for the abolition of slavery in America were Christians and they were led by Christian motivations.

Some people might think slavery was ended by the Enlightenment, by people who were motivated by secular reason. But this isn’t true. Many famous figures of the Enlightenment, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Voltaire, supported slavery. David Hume, a famous philosopher who was a skeptic (what we might call an agnostic), was not in favor of abolition.[9] Worldviews that don’t believe all human beings are made in God’s image don’t give us good enough reason to free slaves. To free slaves, we have to go against self-interest. This would actually have us go against the survival instinct that we supposedly have. If we truly believed in any form of Darwinian evolution, we would believe that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that we are engaged in a competition. It’s a survival of the fittest, and if the weak become slaves to help the strong, well, so much the better for us.

But Christianity gives us a proper motivation for putting an end to slavery. In England, one of the leading figures in the abolition movement was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a Member of Parliament and a Christian. Largely due to his work, the British Empire banned the slave trade (in 1807) and then slavery itself (in 1833). And they did this at great cost. Slavery only existed in the more remote colonies of the British Empire, places like the West Indies, islands in the Caribbean, where sugar was made by slaves. The British Empire knew that the cost of abolition would be huge for slave owners. So, the Emancipation Act of 1833 paid slave owners to compensate for their losses. The cost was “equal to half of the British annual budget.”[10]

Freedom always comes at a cost. We see that most clearly with Jesus’ sacrifice. And there are many ways for us to respond to that sacrifice today.

If you are not a Christian, I urge you to put your trust and your hope in Jesus. Right now, you are not truly free. You’re not free to live out your God-given purpose in life, which is to know God, love him, and serve him. You’re not free from the fear or death. But Jesus came to destroy the power of death (Heb. 2:14) and to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). The only way to be right with God, to be forgiven of all wrongdoing, and to have eternal life in a perfect world is to trust in Jesus. I would love to talk to you more about what this looks like in your life. It first comes with the realization that you are enslaved and you can’t deliver yourself.

There are many ways that Christians should respond to this message. One is that there are things that are more important than politics. We often get caught up in defending our first amendment freedoms. We get caught up in trying to fix the world through politics. But there is something more important. Paul told slaves that, more important than their freedom, they should make the gospel look good. He told slaves to honor their masters, “so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Tim. 6:1). Paul told Titus that slaves “should be submissive to their own masters in everything . . . so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:9–10). Making God look good is more important than our own personal vindications. We should be willing to suffer for God. Jesus, the truly righteous one, suffered unjustly, and so should we.

We can also learn to serve God in all circumstances, regardless of our position in society. If you are an employee, you should work as though your boss were God. Ultimately, he is. If you’re an employer, treat your employees well, knowing that you have a greater boss to answer to. Regardless of our position in this world, we were called to serve the greatest Master there is. Any other master will ruin us and eventually destroy us. Jesus is the only Master who would become a slave to set us free, to die for us so that we could live forever.

Notes

  1. Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible,” NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. Both articles quote O’Donnell as saying “someone” instead of “somewhere”; surely, this is a mistake.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. The ESV formerly used “slaves” with “bondservants” appearing in a footnote. The actual Greek word, in the singular, is δοῦλος (doulos). Now, they have reversed this, probably so that we wouldn’t think of chattel slavery in America instead of Roman slavery. As we’ll see, the institutions were quite different.
  4. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 221.
  5. Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 881. He cites Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 105–131.
  6. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 297.
  7. Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 168.
  8. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 279.
  9. Stark, For the Glory of God, 359.
  10. Ibid., 351.

 

Keep These Rules without Prejudging (1 Timothy 5:17-25)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 19, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I haven’t used the Proverbs much at all in my preaching, which isn’t by design. Proverbs is a very important book of the Bible, full of wisdom and insight. And there are some very funny proverbs, like this one:

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (Prov. 11:22).[1]

You have to think about that a little bit to get it.

Another one of my favorite proverbs is this:

A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating (Prov. 18:6).

That’s a good one, isn’t it? The idea is that foolish people speak before they think. They rush to judgment, and the consequences aren’t good.

There are a couple of proverbs near that one that address similar issues. The next verse says,

A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
and his lips are a snare to his soul (Prov. 18:7).

So, the words of a fool lead him into trouble. That’s because they’re not based on knowledge, but only opinion. Proverbs 18:2 says,

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.

A lot of times, we form opinions quickly. It seems like people don’t think, they just react. They see a person and they quickly form an opinion. They hear of something on the news, and they quickly have a theory. The problem is that opinions don’t require a lot of thought. In fact, they often don’t require any conscious thought at all. Often, our opinions are no more than gut reactions.

But Christians are supposed to seek wisdom and understanding. We’re not supposed to go on gut reactions and quickly-formed opinions. Proverbs 18:15 says,

An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.

Knowledge is often very different from opinion. Our first reaction to things may very well be wrong. Proverbs 18:17 says,

The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.

Our first impressions and our “hot takes” can be wrong. What first seems right can later seem wrong.

Why do I bring this up? Because in the passage that we’re looking at today, the apostle Paul tells his younger associate, Timothy, that he shouldn’t prejudge, that he shouldn’t do anything from partiality. In other words, Paul tells Timothy that he wouldn’t act rashly. He shouldn’t make decisions unless they are based on real evidence. And that’s a good lesson for all of us to learn.

Today, we’re going to look at 1 Timothy 5:17–25. This book of the Bible is a letter from Paul, the preeminent evangelist and church planter of the first century, to his younger associate, Timothy, who was responsible for the health of a church. In this passage, Paul tells Timothy about some things related to the leaders of the church. Here, they’re called elders. Elsewhere, they’re called overseers (1 Tim. 3:1) or shepherds (Eph. 4:11). We often just call them “pastors.” Now, that might not seem very relevant to you if you’re not a pastor, or if you’re not a member of a church. But the principles that we see in today’s passage should inform the way that all of us live, particularly those of us who trust our lives to Jesus Christ.

So, let’s read today’s passage, then we’ll break it down into parts to understand it, and finally we’ll think about how it should affect our lives. Here is 1 Timothy 5:17–25:

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.

Let’s walk through this passage together.

As I said, this paragraph is about elders, or pastors. The first two verses state that elders should be paid. Paul says that those “who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” “Double honor” may refer to receiving both respect and financial support. It’s not enough to give a pastor one or the other. Other passages in the New Testament teach this idea. Some passages teach about respecting and submitting to leaders of the church (1 Thess. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:17). Others teach about the importance of financially supporting ministers. Galatians 6:6 says, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Paul also talks about this in 1 Corinthians 9. He says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” (verse 7). And then he says, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (verse 11).

There are many reasons why a pastor should receive financial support. We can talk about the value of spiritual leadership, the eternal value of the word of God, the fact that a financially-supported pastor is free to work without stress, and so on. But it comes down to simple, proverbial wisdom. Everything that is of benefit comes at a cost, and someone has to pay that cost. I’ll come back to that idea later.

Before I move on, there are a couple of interesting details in verse 17 and 18. In verse 17, Paul refers to those who rule in the church, and then he says, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some churches have taken this to mean that there are ruling elders and preaching elders. But that clause could be translated, “namely those who labor in preaching and teaching.” That’s a picky grammatical point that rests on how we translate one Greek word (μάλιστα, malista). But I think that’s probably the right translation. What Paul is saying is that those who labor are those who preach and teach. The work of a pastor is largely preaching and teaching the Bible. He leads with the word of God.

The other interesting point is that in verse 18, Paul quotes two other passages in the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Paul calls both of these passages Scripture, which is a way of saying that they are the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). The first passage, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” is from Deuteronomy 25:4. It teaches a basic principle: an animal who is treading the grain, in order to separate the kernel of grain from the husk, should be able to eat some of that grain. Paul applies that principle to supporting pastors. The idea that we should take away is that though the Old Testament law is not in force today, we can and should apply basic principles of that law to our lives. The second passage, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is from Luke 10:7. Jesus spoke these words. I just want to point out that Jesus viewed the Old Testament as God’s word (see John 10:34–35, for example), and Paul viewed Jesus’ words as God’s word. The apostle Peter believed that Paul’s letters were Scripture, too (2 Pet 3:15–16). There are many such verses that indicate that the whole Bible is God’s written word.

In verse 19, Paul shifts gears. He says that charges against elders must be based on two or three witnesses. This is a biblical principal. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Interestingly, that passage in Deuteronomy goes on to talk about a “malicious witness” who accuses someone of wrongdoing. Paul may have that in mind here, too.

Why does Paul single out accusations made against an elder? It may be that people are more willing to wrongly accuse pastors of something. It may also be that Paul knows that all it takes is one false accusation to ruin a man’s life. So, if people accuse a pastor, there should definitely be multiple witnesses who can attest to the pastor’s sin. And when we’re talking about sin, we mean a sin serious enough to address publicly, something that, if not repented of, could disqualify a pastor.

Why would people make false accusations against an elder? Because they think the church is “theirs” and they don’t like the way the pastor is leading. Power struggles are behind a lot of ungodly behavior. The thirst for power can lead an otherwise good man to do a bad thing.

And lest you think I’m making this up, I can tell you that multiple pastors have told me that they have been falsely accused of something by people who want to gain or reassert their power in a church. Less than two weeks ago I met a man who has been the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania. He has been at that church for seven years. He told me that the same married couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against him. (I believe the husband in the couple is a leader in the church, possibly the youth group leader—I can’t remember.) This pastor explained to me that his church’s by-laws clearly state that there are two reasons to dismiss a pastor: for teaching false doctrine and for immoral behavior. Early on in his tenure at the church, he switched the Bible translation that the church used. They were using the King James Bible, and he switched to the English Standard Version, the same translation we’re using here. This couple tried to accuse him of teaching some kind of false doctrine. I can’t remember the details. But more recently, the wife in this couple tried to start a whisper campaign against the pastor. He had preached a sermon in which he happened to address the men. He said that lust and pornography were serious problems for men, and they are. This woman then started to whisper in the church that the pastor had an “eye problem.” She meant that the pastor was looking at things he shouldn’t be looking at. So, the pastor and the other elders had to address this couple. He said he put the man “in quarantine;” if he wanted to continue to be the youth group leader, he had to meet with the pastor and the other elders to study what it meant to be an elder in the church. So, this couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against this pastor, but their attempts have been thwarted.

Now, there are times when accusations against pastors are backed by multiple witnesses. And if that is the case, the pastor can either confess his sin and repent, or they may “persist in sin,” as Paul says. Paul tells Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Unrepentant elders should be rebuked in public, in front of the congregation. This will cause the other elders—“the rest”—to stand in fear, lest they fall into sin as well. Publicly addressing sin serves as an example. It says, “This kind of behavior won’t be tolerated here.” Paul is clearly talking about those who continue in sin, probably some kind of egregious sin. He doesn’t mean that those who sin once are kicked out of a church.

Since disciplining a church leader is difficult, and since we’re so prone to have our emotions and biases get in the way, Paul tells Timothy not to be prejudiced and not to be biased. In verse 21, he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” Timothy shouldn’t be prejudiced against an elder. He shouldn’t show partiality towards an elder or an accuser. Instead, he should act as though he were standing in the presence of God, Christ, and angels, because in reality we all stand in their presence, though we can’t see them. We all should act as though God is witnessing everything we do, because he is.

While on the topic of rebuking and possibly dismissing sinning elders, Paul tells Timothy not to put someone into that position of leadership too quickly. In verse 22, he says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” Paul may be thinking of installing new elders. Or he may be thinking of reinstalling an elder who had sinned. Either way, Timothy shouldn’t act too quickly. If he puts a man who is unfit for the job into a leadership role, it could harm the church.

Paul also tells Timothy not to participate in the sins of others and to keep himself pure. Earlier in this letter, Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). There is always the possibility that any of us could fall into sin. So, be careful.

But it’s possible that Timothy might take that command to be pure in the wrong way. In Ephesus, where Timothy was located, there were false teachers who taught that people shouldn’t eat certain foods and that they shouldn’t marry (1 Tim. 4:1–5). They might have taught that people shouldn’t drink any alcohol whatsoever. Timothy might have been observing that supposed rule. But in verse 23, as a bit of an aside, Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” There’s nothing wrong with drinking some wine—at least if you’re not addicted to it. If you’re an alcoholic, stay away from it! The Bible doesn’t forbid all drinking; it warns against drunkenness, but it also says that wine is a gift (Ps. 104:14–15). In Timothy’s case, Paul says he should drink wine for his stomach problems and for his “frequent ailments.” We don’t know what these were. Perhaps Timothy had experienced a great amount of anxiety and stress, and a little wine might relax him. That’s a bit of speculation, but I think it makes sense given how difficult leading a church can be, and how Timothy was probably experiencing opposition in Ephesus, at least from the false teachers.

In the last two verses, verse 24 and verse 25, Paul returns to the idea of not making hasty decisions. Timothy shouldn’t quickly put someone into a position of leadership because a man’s qualities are not always easy to see. Some sins or character defects are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. Some good works or good characteristics are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. That’s what Paul means when he writes, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” Sometimes, our initial view of people is wrong. We don’t know everything about a person. We should refrain from making judgments until we’ve given things time. In this case, when someone is being considered as an elder candidate, the church needs to know who he really is. Some men can appear godly, but they have sinful characteristics that they are hiding. Some men may seem rather ordinary, but their godliness comes through in the end. The basic principle is that you can try to hide sin, but you can’t hide sin forever. Your sin will find you out. And you can’t hide your good works. In the end, those will be revealed. That is certainly true when we are all judged by God on the last day. Everything done in darkness, whether bad or good, will be brought into the light.

Now that we’ve walked through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives.

There are some obvious applications to life in the church. The church should pay pastors, those who labor in preaching and teaching. I am grateful that the church takes care of my family. If you are here and you’re not giving generously to the church, please consider doing that. The finances of the church don’t all come to me. Twenty percent of what goes in the offering plate goes to missionaries. We also need money to maintain and upgrade this facility, to have materials to use, to pay for utilities and insurance, and so on.

We should also be careful about making accusations against pastors. Pastors are flawed, sinful people like anyone else. And some egregious sins must be addressed. But some people will attack pastors if they feel threatened, usually because the pastor has made some decisions that they don’t like. And all it takes is one accusation to end a man’s pastoring career. As another pastor friend of mine told me, some people will chase off a pastor and not think twice about what that does to the man’s life, to his family. As long as they can have control of the church, as long as the church can be “theirs” or go the way they like it, false accusers don’t care. So, there must be real charges against a pastor and they must be backed by multiple witnesses.

Another application to the life of the church is that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a candidate for leadership. If we don’t really know a person’s true character, we shouldn’t rush to make them a pastor, or a deacon, or a teacher, or any other position of authority. We should get to know a person. Again, our first impressions can be wrong—so can our second and third impressions. We shouldn’t rush to judgment.

Now, all of that may not seem very relevant to your life right now. To be honest, you might not care at this moment about what happens to pastors. I understand. But this passage still applies to you. Just as we can learn basic principles from the Old Testament and apply them to our lives, we can do the same with this passage. And one basic principle we all can learn is that we shouldn’t rush to judgments. We shouldn’t be hasty in forming our opinions.

One of the great problems in our society today is that we rush to judgments. We are all very reactionary. This is most true when it comes to political issues. But it also seems to be true of any potentially controversial topic. We are all very quick to have an opinion, to believe that we’re right about something, even if we don’t really know what we’re talking about. It’s like we’re rooting for a sports team. If you’re a Red Sox fan—and you should be—then you don’t need to know who plays for the Sox or who plays for the Yankees. You know the Sox should win and the Yankees should lose. You don’t care if the Sox players are using steroids and corked bats. All you care about is that they win. You know the Yankees are a detestable lot and they deserve to lose.

Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic here. But that’s how people react to heated political and religious issues. And it’s a problem. We shouldn’t rush to make judgments about complex issues. Perhaps we should slow down and think.

There’s a great book I read recently called How to Think, written by Alan Jacobs. I think the subtitle of the book tells us what it’s really about: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.[2] At the beginning of the book, he says that most of us don’t want to think. Instead, we just emote. He quotes T. S. Eliot: “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”[3] We tend to view anyone different from us as a “repugnant cultural other.” Before they open their mouth or write a word, we just know they’re wrong.

Jacobs says we should be more virtuous than this. We should actually listen to people and try to understand them. We should slow down and not react when we hear something we think may be wrong. We shouldn’t mischaracterize other people in order to win an argument. We should value learning over debating. In other words, we should slow down and think, and we should treat other people with respect, even if they may be wrong.

Christians should be leaders in doing this. It’s embarrassing that more Christians don’t know how to think deeply about a complex world. It’s embarrassing that Christians don’t act virtuously. And I think some Christians don’t apply their theology to their own lives. Christianity teaches us that we’re all sinners. We have all turned away from a holy God who created us to know him, love him, and worship him. Because of that turning away from God, the power of sin is at work in us. Even Christians struggle with the lingering effects of sin. And sin can affect the way we think. We can be wrong in our judgments. So, we should slow down and consider whether we actually know what we’re talking about. We might very well be wrong. Christians should be the most humble people of all, willing to consider their own faults instead of pointing fingers at others.

Earlier, I said that any benefit we receive comes at a cost. That’s the way the world works. Every gain we have comes at a cost. The thing we can never forget is this: Our ultimate gain—being reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, and granted eternal life—came at an ultimate cost. Our sin is so bad—we’re so bad!—that it took nothing less than the Son of God becoming a human being and dying for us to fix the problem of sin. The gospel—the core message of Christianity—teaches us that all humans are sinful. Our desires are messed up. We want the wrong things. We make wrong judgments. We go astray. The only way we can be restored is for Jesus to come, to be the perfect man, and to die in our place. That way, his perfect righteousness is credited to our account and the debt of our sins is wiped away. It’s as though we owed trillions of dollars to God, and Jesus paid off that debt and left an extra trillion in our account. But we only receive that benefit if we trust him. This should humble us.

I would urge us all not to be hasty in our judgments. Christians, we should known for our thoughtfulness, our patience, our carefully considering evidence. This should all be part of loving God with all our minds.

And if you think you know all about Jesus but still don’t trust him, consider the possibility that you may very well be wrong. Consider that you may be rejecting Jesus because you want to retain authority over your life. Consider that you may reject Jesus because you don’t want to change. It’s not that there is insufficient evidence for Christianity. It’s that you don’t even want to consider that evidence in the first place. We all can be that way about various things in our lives. But that doesn’t get us to the truth, and only the truth can set us free (John 8:32). Jesus himself is that truth (John 14:6). He came to rescue us from our wrong judgments. The only way to be saved from condemnation on that day when all our sins and good deeds are finally exposed is to run to Jesus and find refuge in him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017).
  3. T. S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), quoted in Jacobs, How to Think, 22.

 

On Music

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on October 23, 2016.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at some important things that we do in the church. And today, I want to talk about something we do every single week. I want to talk about music.

I don’t think I need to tell you that music is an important part of life. We hear it everywhere: On the radio, on soundtracks to movies and television shows, on commercials, and, yes, in the church. Yet we don’t often spend time talking about music, what it means, and why it’s important.

So, today I want to do that. I want to help us think Christianly about music. More specifically, I want us to think about the role of singing in the life of the church. To do that, I’m going to ask and answer a series of questions.

Here’s the first question: Why do we sing? Maybe that sounds like a funny question to ask. Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Why shouldn’t we sing?” But it’s an important question to ask. I think that public singing is a lot less common than it used to be. There’s only one place outside the church and outside choirs where people tend to sing in public, and that’s at rock concerts. We don’t sing in the mall, at the movie theater, or at sporting events. (Unless you sing the national anthem, or belt out “Sweet Caroline” at Red Sox games, or if you’re that guy who’s had a little too much beer.)

Singing used to be much more common, particularly before radio, television, and the Internet. In the nineteenth century, if you wanted home entertainment, you played and sang music. In an opinion piece written for the New York Times twenty-five years ago, Russell Baker noted that even through World War II, Americans sang more. That was true during the war, when people would even sing in movie theaters to “follow the bouncing ball” tunes. He writes, “The songs may have been silly, melancholy, propagandistic and sentimental, but singing them helped Americans define a communal identity for themselves. Nowadays the absence of singing defines our lack of communal identity, our national apartness, our aloneness.”[1]

But singing together is making a bit of a comeback. Several years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about group-singing, which is when people come together just to sing. They’re not performing or worshiping; they’re not even professionals; they just want to sing with other people. Pete Seeger, the folk singer, was a champion of group-singing. He said, “I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whoever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’”[2] Notice that he is essentially saying that singing together creates community.

Also, research has shown that singing in groups can reduce levels of cortisol, associated with stress and weight gain, and singing can also lower blood pressure. Singing in groups helps produce endorphins and oxytocin, which create feelings of pleasure and fight against feelings of stress and anxiety.[3] So, singing seems to be good for our health.

Here’s another reason to sing: Music is quite simply a good gift. I don’t think that any of us would deny that music is a good thing. Just think of what life would be like if music didn’t exist. We could still function, yet life would be duller. Music is something that we don’t absolutely need, but something that makes life better. From a biblical perspective, we can say that music is grace: An undeserved, good gift from God. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

So, music is a good gift, singing together is good for us, and it creates a sense of community. Those are some good reasons to sing. But there are more.

Within the story of the Bible, God’s people have always sung, particularly in response to God’s great acts of salvation. When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by bringing them through the Red Sea, they sang on the other side (Exod. 15). Moses and the Israelites sang,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exod. 15:1b–2).[4]

Over four hundred years later, when David was king, the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, and David commanded the Levites to identify singers and instrumentalists to “play loudly” and “raise sounds of joy” (1 Chron. 15:16). And then David sang,

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works! (1 Chron. 16:8-9)

23  Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
24  Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples! (1 Chron. 16:23-24)

When David’s son, Solomon, built the temple in Jerusalem, singers helped the people celebrate (2 Chron. 5:12-13). Clearly, God’s people celebrated important events in their history with singing. They sang of God’s salvation of them and God’s provision for them. And it seems that they didn’t even have to be commanded by God to sing. They sang because they wanted to. They sang because they were thankful for what God had done for them.

And that leads me to another point: We often sing about what we love the most. We praise what we love. That’s why love songs exist. People sing about the one they love. Singing helps us express our greatest desires and our greatest emotions.[5]

I would say that one of the main reasons why we sing is so that we can get theological truths from our heads into our hearts. When we sing, we’re not just rehearsing true statements about God and what he has done. When we sing, we feel what God is like and what he has done for us. God has made us not just to be thinking creatures, but also feeling creatures. And he has given us bodies, so we are supposed to be creatures that not only feel things emotionally, but feel things physically. Singing is a physical act that helps us feel emotionally. When we sing true words about God, we are thinking, feeling, and doing all at the same time.

Sometimes, we sing in response to something we already feel. Sometimes, we sing in order to feel something that we know to be true but don’t yet feel. I don’t know if any of you have sung a hymn to remind yourself of a truth you already know. I know I have. (“It Is Well with My Soul” is particularly good for Christians when they don’t feel that things are well.) I imagine that’s what Paul and Silas did in Acts 16:25 when they were in jail in Philippi. I doubt they sang because they were feeling good. They probably sang to remind themselves of who God is and what he had already done for them and what he promised he would do for them in the future. I think that singing is one of the few things that helps when we’re not feeling thankful to God, when we’re depressed, or when we seem to lost our love for God.

Here’s another reason why singing is good: It helps us memorize truths. How many of us can remember lyrics to the silliest, most worthless songs we heard when we were young? Sometimes, even when we don’t try to memorize words to songs, we do anyway. When we sing hymns and songs that have words directly from the Bible or words based on the Bible, we start to memorize theological truths that stick with us.

Singing is also something that we can do as a congregation. It’s an activity we can all be engaged in at the same time. That’s another reason to sing.

Of course, we also sing because we’re commanded to. In the Old Testament, we find commands to sing, particularly in the Psalms. We read things like:

  Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name (Ps. 30:4).

And:

Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm! (Ps. 47:6–7)[6]

We also find commands to sing in the New Testament, which we’ll look at in a moment.

All of this leads me to a second question: What are we supposed to sing? We have several good reasons to sing, but what does the Bible say about what types of songs we are supposed to sing?

I ask this question because there tends to be tension in churches about whether old hymns or new songs should be sung. What does the Bible actually say about this issue?

There are two passages in the New Testament that tell us what kind of things we should sing. The two passages are parallel; in other words, they basically say the same thing, and they are both written by Paul.

The first one is Ephesians 5:19. To get a sense of the context, I’ll read verses 15–21:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

In this passage, Paul is in the middle of telling the Ephesians how to live in light of the gospel. Paul has spent the first three chapters telling the Ephesians about how God has predestined them for salvation, and how God has redeemed them with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He has told them that God the Father has adopted them now that they are united to the Son of God. He has told them that they have the Holy Spirit living inside of them. He has told them that Jesus is above all power and authority on earth. He has told them that they have been reconciled to God and saved from sin and condemnation, all through God’s free gift of grace. They have been made spiritually alive, and this is God’s work. Paul has told them that God has brought them into the one people of God, where the Holy Spirit dwells and where God’s wisdom and glory are displayed.

I take time to describe this because this is the good news of Christianity. We all have turned away from God. We have ignored our purpose for living, which is to have a right relationship with God. Yet God saves his people by sending his Son to live the perfect life that none of us live. He is the perfect representative of God. He is the one who truly worships God always. And yet though he is perfect and never did anything wrong, he was treated as a criminal and he was sentenced to death. He agreed to this plan, dying on the cross in our place, so that everyone who turns to him, trusts him, and follows him has the penalty for their sin paid for. If turning away from God is a crime, we are all guilty. But those who turn to Jesus are declared innocent because Jesus paid did the time for them. He paid their sentence. They are now free to live as children of God.

This is a great reason why we should sing. Christians have been forgiven and have been reconciled to God, not because we are good, but because Jesus is good. And we can look forward to living with God in a perfect world on that day when Jesus returns and makes all things right, when the dead are raised and Christians receive new bodies that cannot die again.

As Paul is telling the Ephesians how to make the best use of their time, he tells them that they shouldn’t get drunk. They shouldn’t be controlled by alcohol. By extension, they shouldn’t be controlled by drugs, either. But they should be controlled by the Holy Spirit. And they should address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Don’t miss that: Part of the way that we make good use of our time is by singing to each other.

The parallel passage is in the book of Colossians, which is another one of Paul’s letters. Specifically, the verse is Colossians 3:16, but to get some context, I’ll read verses 12–17:

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Here, you can see that Paul wants us to be more like Jesus. And he wants us to be thankful. But look at verse 16: Paul tells us to “[l]et the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In Ephesians, Paul says to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Here, he says to have Christ’s word dwell in us. If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you need to be filled with Jesus’ words. And, really, the whole Bible is Jesus’ words because Jesus is God. So, if you want to experience more of God, you need his words dwelling in you.

But, as far as music goes, the point in these two passages is that we should sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Somehow, this is part of how the Spirit fills us, how the word of Christ dwells in us, and how we teach and admonish each other. What do these three categories of song mean? It seems that “Psalms” are the Psalms of the Old Testament.[7] They are songs of praise. That’s why many Psalms have some musical direction underneath their titles. The words are poetry, and they are like prayers, but they are intended also to be sung. That’s why many churches sing settings of Psalms regularly. The best hymns pull phrases from different parts of the Bible, including the Psalms. And even new songs incorporate ideas and phrases from the Psalms. For example, the refrain “Bless the Lord, O my soul” that we sing in the song “10,000 Reasons” comes from Psalm 103.

A “hymn” here doesn’t refer to a style of music. It refers to a “song of praise.” The word itself is hardly used in the New Testament, but in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used to refer to “songs of praise” or “praise” (Pss. 39:4; 64:2; 99:4; 118:171; Isa. 42:10). This word may refer to the texts we have in the New Testament that appear to be songs, like Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55, or the “song of Simeon” (the “Nunc Dimittas”) in Luke 2:29-32. Other possible hymns are John 1:1–18; Philippians 2:6–11; Colossians 1:15–20; and 1 Timothy 3:16.

A “spiritual songs” doesn’t mean spirituals, or songs that are “spiritual,” which is pretty vague. It refers to songs prompted by the Holy Spirit. These could be spontaneous songs composed on the spot.

At any rate, these three words refer to types of texts. They do not refer to musical genres. And here’s an important point: We have no idea what the music sung in biblical times sounded like. Modern musical notation started around the year 900, over 800 years after the Bible was completed, and it would take a few hundred years for that notation to resemble what we have today. So we don’t have the sheet music of that time. Obviously, we don’t have any audio recordings of early Christian music. But what Jesus and Paul sang was very different from “Amazing Grace,” and I’m sure even our older hymns might have sounded very foreign to their ears.

The point is that the Bible doesn’t tell us a certain musical style to sing. Musical styles are constantly changing. What’s most important are the words we sing. We need to sing words that reflect and communicate biblical truth. They need to be centered on God. They need to exalt Jesus. And they should be ones that can be understood by people today.

As for music, we should try to sing music that is beautiful, music that reminds us that God is transcendent and glorious. That means we should try to identify some hymns and songs that will stand the test of time. We should also try to sing music that stirs our souls, songs that speak to our hearts. We should sing music that is intelligible to contemporary generations. After all, music is a language unto itself, and we want our language to be understood. That means that some of our songs will be newer, able to speak more directly to the hearts of younger people.

When we sing as a congregation, we want to sing music that can be sung together. That means we can’t sing music that is too difficult to sing. The music we sing shouldn’t have too wide of a range. It shouldn’t be too high or too low. The rhythm can’t be too complex. Handel’s Messiah is a great piece of music, but a church full of average singers won’t be able to sing it well. Our goal is to sing together.

It should go without saying that this emphasis on congregational singing means that our music isn’t meant to be entertainment. We’re not here to put on a show. In fact, the kind of music sung should be one of the least important factors in picking a church. What’s more important is whether the church is preaching the Bible accurately and whether the church is following the Bible’s teachings faithfully.

You may have favorite hymns and songs that we haven’t been singing. And the reason we haven’t been signing them is that they may not be good pieces of music, songs that have a beautiful melody or harmonic progression. They may be pieces that sound like they belong to one particular musical era that has come and gone. Their words may not be theologically sound. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy these hymns and songs at home. But for our corporate worship, I try to pick music that is of good theology, good quality, is singable, stirs the soul, and is intelligible to younger generations. That’s a hard balance to achieve.

One last word on the type of music we should sing. The music has to match the text. You can sing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” In some of the songs we have in our current hymnal, the music doesn’t really fit the text, or even the words don’t fit the theological theme. The greatest example I can think of is “Jesus Is Coming Again” (#567).

Now, very briefly, I want to ask my third question: How do we play music? How do we sing?

We should play musical instruments with excellence. Psalm 33:2–3 says,

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

I think we should all agree that God deserves to be praised with good music that is performed well. Instrumentalists need to play well. Those who lead singing should be able to sing well.

But, at the same time, when we sing together, it’s not a concert. What matters most is our hearts. We need to sing with hearts tuned to praise God. As Jesus said, God is looking for those who will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). If singing is a part of worship (please don’t confuse singing with worship!), then singing, too, should be done in spirit and in truth.

I also think we should consider singing in parts, in harmony, because when we sing the same song in parts, we are reflecting the body of Christ. But before I get too far with that idea, I want to move to the piano so I can talk a bit more about music. After all, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. (That’s a saying I didn’t make up, though I don’t know where it originated. Also, the original saying, I believe, is “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”) Architecture must be seen and experienced, just as music must be heard and experienced. So, let me move to the piano to demonstrate some points.

As I do that, I want to ask a fourth question: What does music say about God?

Let me continue with the idea of parts. In music, we have the melody, the tune. But we also have harmony, the combination of notes that come together to produce a chord. In music, we can have one chord that consists of many different notes. So, there is unity and plurality in a chord, and there is unity and plurality to a four-part hymn. In the same way, there is unity and plurality to the body of Christ, the church. We are one because we are united to Jesus. But we all play different roles. In that way, the church is like a choir. Not all of us will be soloists. Not all of us will sing the melody, the soprano line. Some will, and they are the more visible members of the church. But some of us will perform supporting roles. We’ll sing the inner voices of the chords, the alto and tenor parts. Some members of the church will play foundational roles. They’ll be our basses. Though we all sing different parts, we’re all singing the same piece of music.

You might even say that the unity and plurality of music echoes the unity and plurality of God. We proclaim that there is one God in three Persons. Now, we can’t say that is exactly like one chord consisting of three notes. Because with God, the fullness of God is found in each Person of God; Jesus isn’t one-third of God. So, the analogy breaks down quickly. But there is perfect harmony in a triad just as there is perfect harmony in the Trinity.

Here’s something else, which may be harder to discuss. I think that music is evidence for the existence of God. If you’re not a musician, this next bit may make your eyes glaze over. In fact, it may make your doughnuts glaze over. It’s that technical.

To illustrate, I want to play a short piece of music on the piano. This is a short piano piece written by the German composer, Robert Schumann (1801–1856). It’s called “Träumerei,” which means “dreaming” or “reverie.” It’s part of a larger collection of piano pieces called Kinderszenen, written in 1838.

Here are the two things I want to point out. In a piece of music like this, the musical language or structure is fairly simple. There are a few main chords that are played, with some secondary chords that provide some color. The music sounds good. It’s harmonious. Mostly, this piece of music contains major triads. It’s written in the key of F major. That’s a diatonic key, consisting of seven notes that alternate between whole steps and half steps. (If you don’t know music, think “Doe, a deer, a female deer; ray, a drop of golden sun . . .”). In that key, there are some very prominent chords, such as F major (F-A-C) and C major (C-E-G) or C7, the dominant seventh (C-E-G-Bb). These chords are very consonant. They sound good together. Even when there are brief bits of dissonance, they resolve. We have a strong sense of where “home” is. It’s F, the tonic. We know that the penultimate chord, C7, must resolve to F and not some other chord, like E major or A-flat major.

Here’s what’s interesting: The fact that all of this sounds so normal and good to us is not because it’s simply the music we’re used to. Some people will say that. We can call them musical relativists. They are the kind of people who refuse to say that any one type of music is better than any other. But I think that’s wrong.

The reason why this music sounds so good, and why other, more experimental music of, say, the twentieth century, sounds bad is because this music is based on mathematical relationships. The relationships between notes in a major or minor key, or between chords in those keys, are based on simple mathematical proportions or ratios.

Many of us have heard of “A 440.” That means that the frequency of the A above middle C (A4) is 440 Hz. That means that when I play this key, if it’s tuned to 440hz, the frequency of the strings vibrating will be 440 times per second. The strings will vibrate 440 times per second, which produces sound waves that will oscillate that many times per second. (There will be other vibrations present, which produce harmonics.) Now, if you go to the A above this A (which will be A5), the frequency will be 880. That’s double 440. Every time you go up an octave, the frequency doubles. Of course, every time you go down an octave, the frequency will be divided in two.[8] So, that is a nice mathematical relationship. But you don’t need to know that to know hear the octave.

Now, let’s think about the notes within a key. If we’re in A major, the most prominent chord will be an A major triad: A-C#-E (or do-mi-so in solfege). If the A is 440 Hz, the C-sharp should be 550 Hz, and E 660 Hz. That’s a 4:5:6 ratio. The next most prominent chord is the E major chord, the dominant. And that’s based on E, which is 1.5 times the frequency of A. In fact, all of the common intervals are based on simple ratios. The perfect fourth is a 3:4 ratio. The minor third is a 5:6 ratio. The second is an 8:9 ratio. The major sixth is a 3:5 ratio. The minor seventh is a 4:7 ratio. There is obviously a great deal of order to this music. These aren’t complex, seemingly random ratios (like 1:1.719358).

This illustration is found in Vern Poythress’s Redeeming Science.[9]

This table is found on a Wikipedia page concerning music and mathematics.[10]

Here’s the point of all of this: I believe that God created music for our good. I believe he created the language and structure of music based on mathematical proportions. The reason why this music sounds good to our ears is because it lines up with God’s design for music. The combination of frequencies that harmonize mathematically sound good to our ears because God created our ears, our minds, and the building blocks of music. This is not something we created or invented. It’s something that already exists, something that we discovered. And I think that’s true of so much in this world. It’s true of science. It’s true of God’s design for us as human beings. It’s true of God’s design for marriage and the family. When we discover how God has arranged these things in nature, we find harmony. When we go against God’s design, we get dissonance and cacophony. That’s why music that tries to abandon major and minor scales and these basic intervals doesn’t sound right. It’s going against fabric of God’s creation.

Here’s another reason why music is evidence for God. I think this point is easier to understand. Part of what makes music beautiful is that it is bound by the limitations of time. In short, music runs in real time. We can’t stop it. Yes, you can pause on a chord and just hold it. But it has to move onward until the end of the piece. Yes, you can play it again, but the more and more you play one piece of music, the less beautiful it seems to us. There is something elusive about the beauty of music. It’s like the beauty of fall in New England. It’s wonderful to see the leaves turn color. But there’s a short window of time when we can see these beautiful leaves on trees. Before long, the trees are bare and it’s winter. That makes the beauty of this season more precious. Yet here’s also something kind of heartbreaking about it. In this world, we want to hang on to beauty, but we can’t. We want the world to be beautiful always because we have a sense that that is the way the world ought to be. Yet we find that we can’t hang on to beauty because we live in a now-fallen world. So we want beauty, but beauty never lasts, and that fact makes the experience of beauty a bittersweet one. David Skeel calls this the “paradox of beauty.” He writes, “This perception that beauty is real and that it reflects the universe as it is meant to be, but that it is impermament and somehow corrupted, is the paradox of beauty.”[11] The story of Christianity accounts for this paradox. God made a beautiful world that was marred by sin. We now live in a fallen world. We can experience beauty, but it never lasts. We long for a perfect world where beauty remains, where it stays and we don’t get bored of it. And Christianity tells us that Jesus will make this perfect world—and perfectly beautiful—when he comes to restore all things. So even the elusive beauty of music is evidence for the Christian worldview.

One last thing: Music and singing tell us something about God. In one passage in the Old Testament, in the prophet Zephaniah, we’re told that God himself sings over his people. This is Zephaniah 3:14–20:

14  Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
15  The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
16  On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
17  The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
18  I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
19  Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20  At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the Lord.

The prophet Zephaniah spoke of the day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:7), a day of judgment and a day of salvation. After judgment, God would restore his people, and defeat their enemies. Jesus has taken away the judgment of all who turn to him, trust him, and follow him. Yet we look forward to the day when all of this is completed, when Jesus defeats the last enemy, which is death (1 Cor. 15:26). As we wait for that day, we can know this: God exults over us with loud singing. Earlier, I said that we sing about the things we love. We praise what we love. God sings over his people because he loves them. Let us sing about God, because we love him in return.

Notes

  1. Russell Baker, “Observer; Hear America Listening,” New York Times, November 2, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/02/opinion/observer-hear-america-listening.html, accessed October 22, 1991.
  2. Ben Ratliff, “Shared Song, Communal Memory,” New York Times, February 10, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/arts/music/10ratli.html, accessed October 22, 2016.
  3. Stacy Horn, “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Time, August 16, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain, accessed October 22, 2016.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. See James 5:13b: “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”
  6. See also Pss. 81:1; 95:1; 96:1–2; 98:1, 4–6; 105:2; 135:3; 147:7; 149:1.
  7. The Greek word, ψαλμος, is used also in 1 Corinthians 14:26, where it may not refer to a Psalm of the Old Testament but to a song of praise or “hymn” (as in the ESV).
  8. On pianos, the actually frequencies may vary due to something called equal temperament, which makes it possible to play any key and have it sound good. The frequencies I mention here would be found in just temperament, or just intonation, which is a more pure tuning.
  9. Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 288.
  10. “Music and Mathematics,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_and_mathematics, accessed October 22, 2016.
  11. David Skeel, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 65.

 

Members of the Body (1 Corinthians 12)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 8, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I don’t know about you, but I love superhero movies. Perhaps that’s because superhero movies have clear villains who need to be defeated, and the heroes, however flawed they might be, prevail in the end. It’s nice to see good defeat evil.

It used to be that superheroes worked alone. Think of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, or the first Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. More recently, however, superheroes work together in teams. We’ve seen this in the X-Men movies and the Avengers movies and in Justice League, which features Batman and Wonder Woman, among others. These superhero movies have many different heroes coming together, each one using his or her superpowers to fight against a supervillain. The drama in these movies is not necessarily whether they will win; after all, the good guys always win in these movies. The drama comes from how the superheroes will work together. We, the members of the audience, wonder whether the superheroes will set aside their pride and coordinate their efforts, each using his or her strengths, in order to work together.

In one of the most recent of these movies, Avengers: Infinity War, one of the heroes acts selfishly. I don’t want to spoil the plot of the movie, so I’ll simply say that at one point some of the heroes are in a position to thwart the otherworldly villain named Thanos. The heroes are coordinating their efforts, working together to beat the bad guy, when one of the heroes lets his emotions get the better of him. And then Thanos gets away from their grasp.

These movies teach the importance of teamwork. Now, I realize not everyone may like superhero movies. But the same principles apply in other areas of life. Sports teams can have great athletes, but if they don’t work together, those teams won’t win. Coordinated teamwork is required in music, in the workplace, in politics, and even in the home. If we don’t work together, using our strengths and covering up each other’s weaknesses, we won’t succeed.

The same is true of the church. All Christians should work together for the glory of God. We are not all the same. We don’t all have the same talents, the same skills, and the same spiritual gifts. But we should all work together. When we don’t, the church doesn’t work well, and Jesus’ reputation suffers.

If you’re a Christian, my message to you today is to use the abilities that God has given you to help this church. If you’re visiting, if you’re not yet a Christian, you’re going to see a picture of how Christians should work together. We often fail to work together this way. We’re not Christians because we’re perfect, because we’re so good or because we’ve done a certain amount of good works. No, we’re not perfect; we’re perfect messes, saved only because God is merciful and gracious. But we should strive to be better.

To see how we should work together, we are going to look at 1 Corinthians 12. This is part of a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church that had a lot of problems, including problems getting along. We’ll begin by reading the first three verses of the chapter.

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.[1]

From what we can gather, the Corinthians had written a letter to Paul asking him some questions. One of those questions was about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are abilities that the Holy Spirit has given Christians so that they can serve the church. I think the language of “spiritual gifts” may sound a bit odd to non-Christians or anyone not familiar with our lingo. They’re called gifts because, really, according to the Christian worldview, everything we have is a gift from God. Even our natural abilities, whether that is strength or intelligence or a good personality, are gifts from God. They’re not things we’re entitled to or things that we have created. Sure, we can develop those traits through hard work. But even the ability to work hard is a gift from God. Spiritual gifts are abilities or inclinations that are given to us through the Holy Spirit when or after we come to faith in Jesus.

Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians understand spiritual gifts the right way. But he does this in an unexpected way. He first reminds them of their spiritual pasts. They used to be “pagans,” or, more literally, “Gentiles.” They once were not God’s people, but now they are God’s people.[2] They used to worship false gods, idols, which can’t speak. Idols can’t speak the truth, and those who worship them become like them. But now they worship the true God, and the Holy Spirit is the one who causes them to say, “Jesus is Lord.” You can’t first make a true confession of faith without the Holy Spirit first causing you to become a new type of person. And Paul’s subtle point is this: All Christians are spiritual, because they all have the Holy Spirit.

Paul makes that more explicit in the next couple of paragraphs. Let’s read verses 4–13:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Let’s break that down a bit. Paul says that in some ways believers are the same. They have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Or, as Paul puts it here, Christians are baptized in one Spirit into the same body, and each one was made to drink of one Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one, true, triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Christians serve the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Christians are empowered by the same God. Christians belong to the same body, the body of Christ.

So, in Christianity there is unity. They belong to the same God who has saved them from condemnation, empowered them, and adopted them into the one family of God. They are brought into the one body of Christ, and they all belong to each other. They are to serve the common good by serving each other in the church.

But Paul also emphasizes diversity. There are various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians. There are different forms of service. There are varieties of activities. What Paul means is that though Christians belong together and worship the same God, God has not made us all the same. We all have different strengths. We will serve the church in different ways, according to the way that God has made us and the way that God has gifted us once we have become Christians.

What are the various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians? Well, some of them are rather ordinary, and some are more miraculous. Some seem to enhance natural abilities, like teaching, whereas others are more supernatural. The gifts that Paul mentions in this chapter are: utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Later in the chapter, Paul will mention various people: apostles, prophets, and teachers. We might say that being qualified to serve in those offices is a gift from God, too.

Outside of 1 Corinthians, there are three other mentions of spiritual gifts. One is Romans 12:3–8, which is very similar to what we read here. This is what Paul writes in that letter:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Again, Paul stresses that there is one body and many members who have different functions and gifts. Again, we see unity and diversity. In Romans, Paul mentions prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, contributing, leading, and being merciful.

In another of Paul’s letter, Ephesians, Paul says that Jesus gave certain people to the church to build it up and to equip the saints for ministry. That list includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, or pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). The ability to serve in those functions is a gift from God, too.

Finally, we read this in 1 Peter 4:10–11:

10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

There, we see two gifts that Paul has already mentioned: speaking and serving.

We can group all of these gifts into different categories. First, we have what are called offices. That is, titles given to various people who have served in the church in different ways. Apostles were with Jesus personally and were sent by him to tell others about him. Since apostles had to see the risen Lord Jesus personally, and since Jesus hasn’t been on the earth for almost two thousand years, there are no more apostles. Prophets are those that spoke a message from God. It’s debated whether prophecy ended early in the history of the church or if it’s alive and well today. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But it’s worth considering what Paul says in Ephesians 2:20. There, he says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” You only lay a foundation once. Prophets might have served a temporary role, revealing God’s will while the various books of the New Testament were still being written. Once the Bible was complete, there is no need to have a once-and-for-all, authoritative word from God for all of his people. Whether there is a lesser role for personal revelation is where the debate is.

We certainly still have evangelists. They are people who tell others the evangel, which means “gospel” or “good news.” The gospel is the message concerning Jesus. It says that though all human beings (other than Jesus) have rebelled against God, have ignored him and dismissed him and failed to love, honor, and obey him, God made a way for his enemies to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who became a man over two thousand years ago (while still being God). Jesus is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always honored God by loving him and obeying him and representing him perfectly. Yet though Jesus never sinned, he was treated like a sinner. In fact, he was treated like an enemy of the state, as though he were a threat to both the Jewish leaders of his day and the Roman Empire. He was tortured and killed on a terrible instrument of death, the cross. Though people killed Jesus because they didn’t believe him and they hated him, ultimately Jesus’ death was God’s plan. Jesus bore the punishment that sinners deserve, so that everyone who trusts him will be forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God, adopted in to his family, and have eternal life. Trusting Jesus means believing his claims, that he is the Son of God, the God-man, the only one who can make us right with God. Trusting Jesus means knowing that he is Lord, King, Master, our ultimate authority.

This message needs to be shared, so we need evangelists. We also have pastors, or shepherds, sometimes also called overseers. They lead, guide, and protect the church. They also teach and preach. The gospel needs to be taught. So does the fullness of the Bible. Some parts are easier to understand, some parts are harder to understand. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to our lives. Pastors, who have the gift and ability to teach, help the church make sense of God’s word.

But there are many other ways to serve in a church. If we take all the spiritual gifts, we can group them into different categories. There are two types of gifts that deal with speaking. One category is related to teaching. This includes the utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge. We don’t know exactly what Paul means by utterances of wisdom and knowledge, since this is the only time in the Bible that these phrases occur. But the book of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). So, these utterances probably have to do with teaching people about God and how to respect him and live for him. That’s a lot of what pastors do. “The one who exhorts,” which is found in Romans 12:8, can also be translated as “the one who encourages” (the New International Version has something similar). You don’t have to be a pastor to encourage other Christians. There are some people in this church who clearly have the spiritual gift of encouragement.

Another category involves revelatory speech, or even supernatural speech. That includes prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Prophecy generally is considered “a word from the Lord.” It can be a message about the future, or a message of guidance or direction. As I said earlier, it’s debated whether this continues or not now that the whole of the Bible is complete. In fact, that happened by the end of the first century. The last book of the Bible to be written was probably the book of Revelation, most likely written in the mid-90s. In the early days of Christianity, people couldn’t simply turn to the New Testament to read God’s word, because it wasn’t complete yet, and even the books that were completed existed only in handwritten copies. (This was centuries before the advent of the printing press, which made mass production of books possible.) I think the best argument against modern-day prophecy is that since the Bible is complete, no more needs to be added to it, and the foundation of God’s word, revealed through apostles and prophets, has been laid once and for all. If there’s any kind of “prophecy” that exists today, it might be of a very limited nature, directing someone or perhaps a church to make a certain decision. But if someone comes to me and says, “I’m a prophet,” I’m very wary of that person. Ultimately, beliefs about prophecy rest on theological assumptions that I don’t have time to unpack right now.

Much of what can be said about prophecy could be said about tongues, which could be foreign languages that the speaker doesn’t know but is able to speak miraculously (as in the case of Pentecost in Acts 2), or some ecstatic language that no human knows, but is later interpreted by another. Some people believe this was only something that happened in the first century, and all other talking in tongues is either something faked or something that could even be prompted by evil spirits. I don’t see a biblical reason why speaking in tongues can’t happen today. But I also don’t think it needs to happen. However, I have heard stories about people speaking in tongues in places where there is a great amount of spiritual warfare, or where the gospel is being preached for the first time. So, I can’t immediately write off the idea that people can’t speak in tongues.

If these revelatory and miraculous gifts exist today—and I’m not sure that they do—they are probably quite rare. Therefore, I won’t spend any more time talking about them today.

Other gifts deal with leading. We have already considered the gift of being a pastor or teacher, which is related to the gift of teaching or speaking. In verse 28, Paul mentions “administrating.” The Greek word that is translated that way refers to piloting or steering a ship. This is the job of the pastor or pastors. It’s possible that pastors also discern between good and evil spirits, though this kind of spiritual discernment can be exercised by other people in the church.

Many of the gifts relate to physical service of some kind. Some of those might be miraculous in nature, like healing and working miracles. But most often, the spiritual gift of service will be a desire to serve in practical and mundane ways. In verse 28, Paul refers to it as “helping.” “Acts of mercy,” also found in Romans (12:8), may consist of physical acts of service to those in need. Or it may be an attitude of compassion toward the down and out. “Contributing” (Rom. 12:8) refers to those who are particularly generous.

One spiritual gift is simply “faith.” This doesn’t mean the kind of faith that every believer has, which is also a gift. It refers to a special ability to trust in God and his provision, particularly when things don’t look hopeful. We might call it “hope against hope.”

I could go into more detail with each of these. But hopefully you can see that there are a variety of spiritual gifts. They aren’t the same. Not everyone receives these gifts. But remember this, they are all given “for the common good (verse 7). “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (verse 11). We don’t decide which spiritual gifts we’ll have, and they are not for building ourselves up. They are for the benefit of the church.

And, as Paul will say next, each member of the church is needed. Let’s read verses 14–20:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

Paul’s point here is simple and it’s funny. The members of the church are like different parts of the body. We all need each other, just like the foot needs the whole body, and so does the hand, and the ear. Eyes are great, but if the whole body was an eye, we would be pretty useless. If we were all the same, the church wouldn’t function well. If we were all leaders and teachers, there would be no one to lead and teach. There would be no followers and students. If everyone served in physical ways, but no one was equipped to lead, the church would be chaotic. Every member of the church is needed, and every member of the church should use his or her spiritual gifts to add to the church, just as every part of the body has its purpose.

Paul continues this theme in the next several verses. Let’s read verses 21–26:

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

When I described the various spiritual gifts, you probably noticed that some of them are more flashy or prominent. Some are related to things that are easily seen, like teaching or leading. Some are clearly miraculous. But some seem rather mundane. After all, service and helping could be a person’s desire to do dirty work to help the church or the people of the church. It might be cleaning a floor, or mowing an older person’s lawn, or something along those lines. But all the spiritual gifts are vital to the health of a church.

One person here once said that he was a foot, because he knew he wasn’t a leader. I’m not the head of the church, because the head of the church is Jesus. But in a way, I’m a head of this church. And I cannot say to that man, so the so-called foot, “I don’t need you.” No, I need you. The parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. We honor the parts of the body that the world might not honor, because each part is needed.

Each person must play his or her own role, according to the way God has made that person and according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given that person. Often, the gifts are just enhancements of natural abilities. People with the ability to teach probably already had some decent amount of intelligence, but the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to have special insight regarding God’s word. People with the gift of service already have bodies that work, but the Holy Spirit gave them a desire to use their bodies to serve God. We don’t need the foot to try to be the head, or the eye to try to be the ear. That often happens in small churches, and that isn’t right. We often thrust people into some kind of leadership role when they aren’t leaders. For some reason, this church has thought of service almost entirely in terms of committees, which is very strange, because committees are often tasked with making decisions, which is what leaders do. Pushing people into roles they’re not gifted to do is like exposing an “unpresentable part.” It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t work, and it often leaves people feeling frustrated. Each person should find a role in the body that suits them.

The truth is that if you’re a Christian, you belong to the body of Christ. Jesus himself isn’t divided; therefore, there shouldn’t be division in the body of Christ. Everyone should work harmoniously together. That’s why people who are divisive can be removed from a church, because divisiveness hurts the church. You should care about the rest of the body. If one member of the church is suffering, we should all suffer together. If one is honored, or has something to celebrate, we should all rejoice together. We’re in this together.

Let’s read the last portion of this chapter, verses 27–31:

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Paul once again says that we are all members of the body of Christ, and that God has appointed people to serve in different ways. He then asks some rhetorical questions. Are all apostles? No. Are all prophets? No. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. And so on. We’re not all called to do the same kind of service, and if you are a foot, you’re not less valuable than a head. Paul does say to seek the so-called “higher gifts,” like prophesying (1 Cor. 14:1), but he points them to “a still more excellent way” in the following chapter, when he talks about love. If we have spiritual gifts but don’t use them to build each other up in love, we are nothing.

Now that we’ve gone through this chapter and talked about spiritual gifts, I want us to think about how this teaching relates to this church. As I said last week, the New Testament presupposes that Christians will belong to a local church in some recognizable way. And one of those ways is in service, in using one’s talents and spiritual gifts. I would urge us all to serve this church by using whatever God has given you. You may not know exactly what your spiritual gifts are, but I can tell you that a lack of commitment is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church as a consumer, merely taking when it’s convenient to you, is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church on your own terms and not on God’s doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.

Now, if you’re feeling God nudge you in the direction of service, you may wonder about your spiritual gift. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about this. This week, a timely article was written by a New Testament scholar and a pastor named Tom Schreiner. He says this: “if you get involved in the lives of others in your church and love as Jesus commanded, then you will discover your gift.” He then elaborates:

Some might say they still don’t know their gift. But knowing your spiritual gift isn’t as important as exercising your spiritual gift. Surely many believers in history didn’t know their spiritual gifts or think much about them, and yet they exercised those gifts in powerful ways. If you aren’t sure what your spiritual gifts are, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you give yourself to other believers in the church, you will inevitably be using your gifts.[3]

I think that’s great advice. Just get involved and the spiritual gifts will become clear. If you see a need, try to meet it. Perhaps you’ll try something that doesn’t fit. That’s okay. In time, you’ll know what your gifts are. Usually, other people will recognize them in you. I can tell you that there people here who obviously have the gift of encouragement. Others are servants, ready to do physical tasks. I’m sure there are some who contribute generously. Some are particularly merciful.

My sense is that most of us will hear this message and walk away without thinking about how they can serve this church. I would urge you not to do that. This church needs your help. How can you serve? Let me list some possible ways very quickly. We need people to serve in ways that help our meetings every week. We need people to help take care of children. Someone offered to help a few weeks ago in that area, and I appreciate that. We need people to help count the money offered. We need people to maintain the building and grounds. We could use a lot more help with yard work and painting and cleaning and fixing things. We could use help from people who have skills with technology. We could use help from people who are evangelists, or people who have connections in our community that might help us do outreach. In a couple of months, we’ll participate in West Bridgewater’s Park Day again, and we need help with that. We need people to contribute generously to this church; at this point in time, we really need more help with that, just in order to maintain and improve this building, but also to do more ministry.

And that doesn’t include the ways that the members of the church might need help. I’m sure there are people here who need help in their homes, in their lives, with their families, with situations that are overwhelming them.

The point is that we should all be involved in the life of the church. God expects this. If you’re not doing this now, please come and talk to me. Talk to me about joining the church and seeing how you can get involved. Talk to the deacons. Talk to people around you. Don’t leave here today, shrug your shoulders, and forget about what you’ve heard. If you’re a Christian, remember that you were bought with a price, which is Jesus’ death on the cross. You were saved from condemnation, from eternal death, not so you can live a comfortable life, but so that you can serve God.

And if you’re not yet a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. You have heard the gospel message. Trust Jesus—trust that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. No one else can make you right with God. Jesus laid down his life for his people. You, too, can become part of the body of Christ today.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The Corinthians would have been predominantly Gentile, not Jewish, Christians. Paul uses the Greek word for Gentiles (ethne) to describe what they were. They have now joined the true Israel by becoming Christians.
  3. Thomas Schreiner, “How (Not) to Discover Your Spiritual Gifts,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-not-discover-spiritual-gifts/

 

 

The Mystery of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 15, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.

How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?

Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.

Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.

Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 1 Timothy 3:14–16:

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.[1]

Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).

But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.

This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?

The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.

This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.

The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).

In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).

Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.

The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.

That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.

When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.

What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity.[2] If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.

The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”

The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.

The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).

The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.

The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.

The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.

Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?

Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.

Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.

This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.

Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.

As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.

In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.[3]

God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.

Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.

The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.

When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.

Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.

If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.

A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.

When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.

But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”

If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.

And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?

If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.

And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.”[4] Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.[5]

So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.

And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176.
  4. Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23.
  5. In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words.

 

 

Everything Created by God Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 22, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

When you have young kids in your home, you find yourself saying certain things quite frequently. One of those sayings is, “Knock it off!” That’s a favorite saying of my wife. My most often frequent saying is probably quite simply, “Stop it!” There’s another saying I have: “That’s not a toy!” I might say that whenever my sons start to play with something that catches their eye, like a computer or a hammer or a staple gun. Okay, I’m joking with that last item. My sons are now at an age when they’re naturally curious, and there are times when playing with something that’s not a toy can be destructive and even dangerous.

My wife used to allow our kids to play with some items in a drawer in the kitchen. It’s kind of our culinary junk drawer, where we store anything from measuring cups and measuring spoons to spatulas and other assorted kitchen tools. About three and a half years ago, I found Caleb playing with a crinkle cutter. It’s a little tool that makes crinkle-cut slices of potatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables. It’s designed for a purpose: it makes these crinkle-shaped cuts. It doesn’t do anything else. Caleb was running the edge of it along my nice, black, lacquer-finished piano. Now there is a nice, thin, long scratch made by the end of the crinkle-cutter. I guess I should be thankful that his brother doesn’t have a crinkle-cut finger. But I wasn’t thankful at the time. My boy had used something in a way that didn’t line up with its purpose.

Now, that’s not very serious; there are worse things than a scratch in a piano. But there are times when a tool, when used as a toy, could become quite dangerous. And there are times when things that are not used according to their purposes become very dangerous, even deadly. Think about the drugs we call opioids. Many of us have heard that we’re living in the midst of an opioid crisis or epidemic. Opioids are the kind of drugs that trace their origins back to opium, which is made from the opium poppy, a flowering plant. Opium is what makes morphine, a powerful painkiller. It’s also what can be processed into synthetic opioids, prescription painkillers that help people with acute and/or chronic pain. It’s a good thing to have painkillers. Seven years ago, I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The L5/S1 disc impinged on the sciatic nerve on my right side, which created a great amount of pain in my butt, hip, and leg. I spent the better part of three months lying down on the floor. I also took painkillers for three months. They didn’t eliminate the pain, but they reduced it greatly. When I had surgery, I was given some morphine afterwards. I have seen people dying on morphine, which eased the pain of their last days, hours, and minutes. Anything that is safe and can reduce this kind of pain is a good thing.

But some people get addicted to prescription painkillers. Millions of people misuse prescription painkillers. Millions in the world are using them illegally. And thousands die from overdoses every year. In 2016, there were 42,249 people who died of opioid overdoses.[1] Of those, 20,145 died from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) and 14,427 died of natural or semi-synthetic opioids. Opium can also be processed into heroine, an illegal drug, which killed 15,446 people in 2016.[2]

So, something that occurs in nature, the opium poppy, can be produced into chemicals that relieve pain and suffering. Those chemicals, when taken in excess, can also kill. And the same natural thing can be processed into a chemical that is illegal, highly addictive, destructive, and deadly.

This reveals an important biblical truth. Everything that exists in nature can be used for good or for bad purposes. God made these things good. But when they are misused, the result is very bad. We can misuse things by using them in a way contrary to God’s design for them. We can misuse things my making an idol of them. And we can also misuse good things by avoiding them and telling others not to use them.

We see all of this in the passage that we’ll look at today, 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Three months ago, we started to look at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the New Testament. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. Paul left Timothy in the city of Ephesus while he was gone. He wanted Timothy to make sure that the church in Ephesus was healthy. In particular, he wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teaching. In today’s passage, we see some of the content of their wrong teaching. So, with that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do today. I’m going to first read the passage, explain what it means, and then think a bit more deeply about how we can rightly appreciate and use the things that God has created.

Here is 1 Timothy 4:1–5:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.[3]

Paul says that the Holy Spirit has indicated that in “later times” people will depart from the truth faith and teach false things. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God; he is the one who empowers some people to speak the word of God. He is the one who led Paul to write this letter. And he spoke through apostles and prophets to indicate that in “later times,” there would be false teachers.

What does Paul mean by “later times”? Well, he means now. And I don’t mean the twenty-first century. I mean the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. If you look carefully at the New Testament, you’ll see this. For example, Paul writes something a bit similar in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, he writes,

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

I think that people have always been lovers of self and money, they’ve always been proud, and so forth. But if Paul meant that people would only be this way in the period right before Jesus returned to earth, he wouldn’t say, “Avoid such people.” Timothy wouldn’t have to worry about those people, because they would come much later in time. So, the “last days” and the “later times” are the long period between Jesus’ first and last coming.

Now, what prophecy is Paul referring to? Peter and Jude make a reference to prophecies about false teachers (2 Pet. 3:1–3; Jude 17–18). Jesus said that in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, “many will fall away” and “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt. 24:10–11). Paul may also be referring to something he said earlier in time, recorded in the book of Acts. While speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus (the same city where Timothy was located), he said,

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30).

Paul knew that false teachers would come, now they are in this church, and now they are leading people to depart from the faith. Literally, these people have apostatized.[4] These false teachers are insincere liars, which means that they know they are teaching false things. They’re not just making honest mistakes. They have consciences that are seared, which likely means that they are branded. It’s possible that their branding means they are marked as belonging to Satan, the devil. That would make sense of the why they are associated with “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” That may sound extreme, but it reminds us that all lies ultimately come from Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Bible teaches us that there is more to reality than what we can see. There are spirits, both angels and demons, who are at work to either support or fight against God’s plans.

False teachers are influenced by Satan, and they can appear to look godly, though their message is wrong. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote of other false teachers. About them, he wrote,

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).

So, what was this “teaching of demons” that these false teachers taught? Was it some secret occult practice? Was it teaching people to bow down before some shrine or statue of a god? Was it the first-century equivalent of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”? No, not at all. These teachers “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” That’s surprising. They were telling people not to get married—and probably to be celibate. They were also telling people not to eat certain foods. They were probably trying to tell people to maintain the dietary laws found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11). I say that because these same false teachers had an incorrect understanding of the Old Testament law, something Paul mentioned in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:3–11).

In short, it seems like they taught that certain practices could lead people astray, that marriage, perhaps because of the issue of sex, might somehow be inherently bad, that eating certain foods might corrupt people. We would think that false teachers would teach people to go have all the sex they want and eat all the foods they want. But this is quite the opposite.

Yet these false teachers were wrong. “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The problem isn’t marriage or certain foods. The problem, really, is inside of us, not the created things that we find in the world.

To understand this, we need to have a grasp of the story of the Bible, or what we might call a basic biblical worldview. To get a quick handle on that story, we need to remember four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

First, there is creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). When God made things, he saw that they were good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). There is no hint of created things, or physical things, being bad. God ordered and designed the material world to function in a good way. Other philosophies or religions teach that material things are somehow worse than so-called “spiritual” or immaterial things. But this isn’t what we see in the Bible. The goal of the biblical story is not to escape from the material world.

Second, there is the fall. Something bad happened, something that distorts us and our experience of this world. The first human beings turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and his word. They didn’t listen to his commandments. They believed the lie that God was keeping good things from them. They didn’t accept God’s design for them and his world. As a result, the power of rebellion that we call sin invaded the world. This created a separation between God and human beings, but it also creates a separation between human beings, and within human beings. There is something broken in us. There is something broken in the material world, too. But that doesn’t mean that the stuff that God created is inherently bad.

Jesus taught us what is wrong with us. He said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Then he said,

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18b–23).

What is wrong with us is our hearts, our disordered desires. Those disordered desires lead us to commit sins, wrong actions. The things that God made have right uses, but we end up using things the wrong way. And because we have fouled up God’s good creation, and because God wants to restore his good creation, God has every right to evict us from his good creation forever. In other words, he has every right to condemn us. That’s bad news.

But there’s good news. And that is redemption. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent his unique Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is therefore truly God and truly man. Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity. He is the perfect image bearer of God, the perfect representative, the perfect human ruler, the perfect worshiper, the perfect lover of God and lover of other people, the perfect Son of God. The fact that Jesus became a real man shows that the material world is not inherently bad. It shows that created things can be perfect. Though Jesus was and is perfect, he was rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He never did anything wrong to deserve such treatment. But people hated him and didn’t believe him. And yet this was all God’s plan to put the sins of his people on his Son’s shoulders, and it was the Son’s plan to bear the righteous judgment of sin on behalf of those who trust him. All who believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did are forgiven of their sins, adopted as God’s children, and granted eternal life. People who trust Jesus receive the Bible as the word of God and try to live their lives according to what the Bible says we should do in these “last days.”

The end of the is the restoration of the universe. In the end, God’s people won’t live in “heaven.” They will live in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), a new creation. It will be a physical world, a place where there is real food and there will be a real marriage, though not between mere human beings. The real marriage is between God and his people, Jesus and his church. This is a metaphor, of course; not all that occurs within a human marriage occurs with the divine marriage. But it captures something of the beauty, exclusivity, faithfulness, and love of the relationship that God has with his people.

So, the story of the Bible teaches us that created things aren’t inherently bad. Instead, it teaches that sinful people have a way of failing to use the things of God’s creation rightly. We fail when we distort God’s good gifts, using them for wrong purposes. When God says, “That’s not a toy!” we should listen. He knows better than we do. We fail when we make those gifts into an idol, something that is ultimate in our lives, an object of worship. Today, when people take one aspect of creation and build their lives around it, instead of building their lives around God, they don’t think they’re worshiping. They don’t think that thing, whatever it is, is an idol. But that’s really what it is. It is the functional object of their worship. Yet we were made to worship God alone. We also fail when we act as though God’s good gifts are inherently bad.

We can misuse anything. We can turn anything into an idol. And we can overcorrect by avoiding good things.

It’s not likely that we’ll do this with food, but it’s still possible to make that mistake today. People misuse food by eating too much of it, or by eating too much of things that should be eaten in moderation, like desserts. People can turn food into an idol when their lives revolve around gourmet food, or turn to food for comfort and security and happiness, or when they become obsessed about what they eat (probably for health reasons). I’m not sure that people forbid eating certain foods for religious reasons, though there are orthodox Jews and Muslims who abide by certain dietary codes.

We can do this with alcohol. This is what Psalm 104 says about wine:

14  You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15  and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Ps. 104:14–15).

Israelites were allowed to have “strong drink” when they celebrated feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:26). And the new creation is described as being a “feast of well-aged wine” (Isa. 25:6). Jesus ever turned water into wine (John 2), so it can’t be inherently bad.

But what do we do with alcohol? Many people drink too much, and this causes great destruction and death. Some people can’t live without it. Others then turn around and overreact, saying that all drinking is inherently sinful. Now, it’s true that the Bible says that drunkenness is wrong (Eph. 5:18 is but one example). But Scripture doesn’t forbid all drinking.

We can do this with marriage. Marriage is a good gift created by God. But we misuse it in many ways. God designed marriage to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet we redefine marriage; many ancient societies had polygamy: one man had many wives. Marriage is meant to be exclusive, so that the husband and wife do not have sex with anyone else; many people have committed adultery. Of course, there is the problem of divorce. And now there is the problem of redefining marriage, so that it’s not necessarily a union of one man and one woman.

Some people create an idol of marriage. They believe that their spouse will complete them. They believe their spouse will fulfill all their desires and dreams. Spoiler alert: the best spouse will never, ever do that.

Very few people forbid marriage for religious reasons. One group, the Shakers, did. But it’s hard to keep a religious movement growing when you don’t have marriages that produce babies. The last remaining Shaker community in America is located in New Gloucester, Maine, and it has only two members.

We certainly do misuse sex. It is a good gift, meant to be experienced only within marriage. Yet we have it outside of marriage. We reduce other human beings to “sex objects,” as things to be consumed. We turn sex into an idol, the ultimate pleasure or experience. And some people can give the impression that sex is somehow inherently bad, though it’s not.

We can do the same thing with work. We misuse work when we don’t work, or when we mistreat people who work for us. Work is distorted wherever slavery exists. Work becomes an idol for some people; they find their identity and satisfaction in life through work. Some people act as if work is a necessary evil, something that only exists because sin exists. But work existed before sin entered into the world. God gave Adam a job to do (Gen. 2:15). So, work is not inherently bad.

The same could be said of money or possessions. We misuse money by spending it on the wrong things, or by stealing. We’re supposed to use things and love people, but we turn this around and use people and love things. Wealth is a great idol. It makes the false promise to us that if only we were rich, we would be happy and secure. Some people then act as if having money, or owning anything, is evil. But possessions are gifts from God. They can be appreciated. They can be used for God’s glory. We use money to fund ministry. Any church, any missionary endeavor needs some level of funding. We can use our possessions to bless others. For example, we can use our homes to house guests, to have people over to get to know them, to provide a safe place for our family. A home can become an idol when we put too much money into it, when all our thoughts and energies and desires are wrapped up in having the perfect house. But a house is a good thing if used rightly.

As you can see, we can misuse anything. We take the good things that God has made and use them wrongly, or turn them into ultimate things, which then become the center of our lives. That place should be reserved for God alone. If we overreact and then refuse to use the gifts that God has given to us, or if we refuse to enjoy good things, we’re committing another error. We are denying the good things that God has given to us. When we reject the gift, we’re rejecting the Giver.

Our only hope is redemption. Our only hope is turning to Jesus for our salvation. Only Jesus can reconcile us to God. Only Jesus provides forgiveness of sins. And only Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, who starts to change our distorted desires. The Spirit can rearrange our loves so that we enjoy God’s gifts and use them rightly, the way that God designed them to be used. Without God’s help, we turn tools into toys, and toys into tools. Without the Spirit, we turn people into things, and things into idols. But when we come to Jesus, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit and seek to obey God’s instructions for life, we can begin to use the things that God has made in a right way. We can then enjoy a meal and not only think, “This steak is great!” Instead, we’ll also think, “How great is the God who made cows that we can turn into steak!” That may seem silly, but it’s not. The difference is big. If we see all of reality as designed by God, we can thank God for his good gifts and use them rightly.

If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you turn to him. Only he makes us right with God. And when we have a relationship with him, our vision of life starts to change. We start to see things rightly. We start to see everything with reference to God. He alone gives us eyes to see the truth and the power to live according to the truth.

Christians, remember that Paul says that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Let’s thank God for those good things. They were made good, so let’s not call God a liar by believing they’re not. And they’re made holy through God’s word and prayer. That is, the gospel message—this message of Jesus that we talk about—shows us how all things can be holy, consecrated to God. And when we pray to God, thanking him, asking him to help us to use his gifts wisely, all things can be enjoyed in the right way. Everything, even enjoying a meal, can be an act of worship. Elsewhere, Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Our final hope is the restoration of the world, the transformation of the creation. It will be a feast, a world of good gifts, the greatest of which is God—his presence and his blessing. The prophet Isaiah said,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).

Notes

  1. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-opioid-overdose-deaths-20180329-htmlstory.html
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. The phrase “will depart from” is a translation of ἀποστήσονταί (apostēsontai).

 

The Majority

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 1, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Every week, people seem to be freaking out over something political, or some event that has political ramifications. This week, people were freaking out over the news that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court. That means that our president, Donald Trump, will be able to nominate a new judge to fill Kennedy’s open slot, which means that Trump will be able to place two judges on the Supreme Court in two years. Anthony Kennedy was known as the swing vote on the Court. Though he was nominated by a Republican president, Ronald Regan, he often voted in favor of so-called liberal decisions. If he’s replaced by a conservative judge, that means there will be five conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 85, retires or dies in the next two years, Trump could place three judges on the Supreme Court.

Now, all of this means that some people are happy, and other people are upset, depending on their politics. Isn’t it strange how so much can hinge on one person? Really, it’s a sign that our government isn’t working the way it ought to be. In fact, that so much can hinge on the presidency shows that our government isn’t working well. Congress should make the laws, the president and his administration should make sure the laws are carried out, and the Supreme Court should determine if laws (and their execution) are constitutional. But the reality is things aren’t work well, and big decisionx are often made by one individual. And that’s strange in a country of over 300 million people.

What about the church? Are all decisions made by one person, or a small group of people? What role does the congregation play in making decisions? I have spent considerable time in this series talking about the role of pastors, or elders, or overseers. (Again, these three terms are used of the same people.) I stressed that they are the shepherds of the church, the leaders. But does this mean that all decisions are made by them? Can the congregation make decisions?

Today, I’m going to talk about the role the congregation plays in making decisions. And since it’s hot and we’re also going to take the Lord’s Supper, I’ll try to make this sermon as short as possible. So, I’ll tell you up front what the Bible seems to say about the congregation’s role in making decisions. In short, the congregation helps decide who is in, and who is out. The congregation has some role to play in determining who can join a church or who must leave a church. The congregation may also play a role in affirming who can serve as ministers.

To see this, we’re going to look at some passages in the Bible. The two most important ones we’ll look at are 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. We’ll also take a peak at some other passages along the way.

So, let’s first read 1 Corinthians 5. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth, part of what we now call Greece.

1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”[1]

Let’s quickly review what we see in this passage. Paul calls out some sinful behavior in the Corinthian church. He says that “a man has his father’s wife.” He means that a man is having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. This is probably his stepmother, because Paul doesn’t say “his mother,” which would be even more shocking. Still, this is very bad, the kind of behavior that not even the pagans tolerated. And that’s saying something, because sexual practices in the Roman Empire would make us blush.

What I want us to pay attention to today is the fact that Paul addresses the whole church. He’s not just writing to the pastors, the elders, or overseers. He’s not saying, “Hey, pastors, why have you allowed this? Kick this man out of the church!” No, he says the whole church is failing. Instead of mourning, the people are boasting and are arrogant. Maybe they’re boasting about how tolerant they are, or how diverse they are. But Paul knows that what this man is doing is evil, and even a little evil has a way of producing a big effect, just as a little yeast can leaven a large amount of dough.

So, Paul tells the church, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”[2] That sounds intense, doesn’t it? What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? Well, at the least it means removing that person from the protection of the church. Paul wanted this man to be excommunicated, at least for a time. Whenever the man would be removed from the church, he would no longer experience the blessings of the church. His sin would be exposed. He was to be treated like a nonbeliever. Perhaps Paul thought that God would punish this man in some physical way, by using Satan to afflict the man with an illness. But Paul is clear that he wants the man to be saved from condemnation.

This episode shows what is at stake in the church. The great problem of humanity is our separation from God. Our problem is that we start out life with a broken relationship. Something is wrong with us, a power that corrupts us and keeps us from God. That something is sin, the power of evil and rebellion that leads us to reject the one true God and replace him with something else as our ultimate authority. Sin leads to condemnation. Why? Because God doesn’t want evil spreading throughout the world. He is patient. He is merciful. He puts up with our sin. But he won’t put up with it forever. There will be a time when he calls us all to account, when all our sins are judged. And we will pay for them.

We will pay—or someone else will. But the only person who can pay for our sins, besides us, is Jesus. He is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe, and who also became a human being over two thousand years ago. He is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always obeyed God perfectly because he has always loved God perfectly. Yet he was treated like a criminal, like an enemy of the state and of the Jewish religion. And he was killed, put to death on a cross. This was because people hated him and didn’t believe him. But it was also God’s plan, to have his Son bear the punishment of sinners. All who turn to Jesus in faith, who trust that he is who he claimed to be and that he has accomplished what the Bible says he has, have their sins paid for. They are reunited to God. They are forgiven of all wrongdoings. And though they die, they will rise from the grave when Jesus returns, just as Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.

But since Christians are united to Jesus, and since the church is where Jesus dwells on earth, by means of the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t keep sinning. Of course, we will sin. We still wrestle with our old nature. But we shouldn’t want to sin and as a church we cannot allow flagrant, egregious sins to occur. Sin has a way of corrupting the whole church. And more than that, it makes Jesus look bad. So, the church should monitor such behavior. Paul says, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” He doesn’t mean judge in an ultimate way. Neither you nor I can determine if someone truly knows Jesus. God knows the heart; we don’t. But Paul means judge in the sense of evaluate. We certainly can look at someone’s behavior and say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t what Christians should do.” Notice that Paul says we should make a distinction between what happens in the church and the world. Christians in America have this a bit backward. We spend all our time judging those outside the church and very little time judging those inside the church. Paul says we can’t separate ourselves from non-Christians, or else we would have to leave the whole world. But we can separate unrepentant sinners from the church, and that’s what we should do. “Purge the evil from your midst”—that’s a command that is repeated throughout the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24).

What Paul is commanding here is no different than what Jesus taught his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples how the church should deal with sin. This is what he says in Matthew 18:15–20:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus says that if a person has sinned against you, it is your responsibility to approach that person directly. Don’t gossip. Go to that person and point out his or her wrong. If they see the error of their ways, “you have gained your brother”—or your sister. But if that person will not listen, then things escalate. The next step is to take another person or two. These people will bear witness to whether the sinning brother or sister is repentant or not. But if that person still won’t listen, then he or she should be brought before the church. And if they refuse to listen to the judgment of the whole church, then they should be removed and treated like a non-Christian.

In both cases, the goal is to bring the sinning person to repentance. But there is another goal, which is to purify the church. And when the whole church says to a sinning person, “This kind of behavior won’t be allowed here,” it sends a strong message.

It’s not just flagrantly immoral behavior that deserves excommunication. That is, it’s not just things like sexual immorality, or violence or stealing or things we think are “really bad.” Paul also says that people who are divisive should be avoided. In Romans 16:17–19, part of another letter that Paul wrote to a different church, Paul writes,

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Divisive people can be obviously divisive, the kind of people who complain and argue and fight. But they can also be quietly divisive. Either way, divisions in the church threaten the health of the church, and divisive people must be avoided and, if necessary, removed from the church. The same is true of people who teach false doctrine. Paul tells the church in Galatia that anyone who comes teaching a different message is accursed (Gal. 1:8–9). And in 1 Timothy, Paul said that he removed a couple of men who were blaspheming (1 Tim. 1:18–20).

In each case, Paul says that the church should be involved. In another passage, 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul says that a majority of the church had brought a punishment upon a person. This may or may not be the same person that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5. In this case, the person has attacked Paul personally, but he has also caused pain to the whole church. If that were the man of 1 Corinthians 5, it’s likely that the man resisted any correction, attacked Paul’s authority, and then later the church excommunicated him. But it could be someone else. But, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the punishment was voted on. Let’s read what Paul writes:

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

Here, it seems as though the rebuke of the whole church has brought this person to a godly sorrow. Paul worries that if the punishment continues, it might produce “excessive sorrow.” So, he asks the church to forgive and comfort him. If not, they are playing into Satan’s schemes. Satan wants a divided church; he also wants an unforgiving church.

Now, I have to make this point: the fact that Paul says a majority of the church brought the punishment upon the sinner means that there is a definite number of people who voted. And, I would argue, it means that there should be definite church membership, or a roll of members.

Some people don’t like the idea of church membership. They think it is unbiblical because there is no one verse in the Bible that says, “You must officially join a local church.” It’s true that there is no one verse that says so much. But the concept of an official membership of a local church is presupposed in several passages. This is one of them. Who could vote against the unrepentant sinner? Did they take a vote on a Sunday, and everyone who showed up, including people who came for the first time, vote? That doesn’t make sense. But what about someone who had come for a month? Or someone who came to the church for a few years but refused to join and officially submit to the authority of the church?

Joining a local church is important because it’s a sign of commitment. Joining a church says, “This is my church. I belong here. I submit to the leaders of the church. I commit to these people. I will serve and love them. I am also committed to the spiritual health and purity of the church. And if someone starts messing with the church, I am prepared to take action.” That’s a big deal. I think churches suffer greatly because people don’t make that kind of commitment. And I think a lack of commitment to a local church speaks volumes about the level of commitment people have to Jesus.

What we have seen so far is that the congregation has a role to play in bringing discipline to unrepentant members. And what Paul writes suggests that there was an official vote. I think, by implication, that the reverse is true: when people officially join a church, the church should vote on that. The reason is that members of a church may know more than the pastors know about a person, their reputation, and their behaviors. When a potential member is brought before a church, it is like when a pastor asks at a wedding if there is any reason why the couple shouldn’t be married. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.” In the case of church membership, perhaps someone in the congregation knows why a person shouldn’t join the church.

There are also other things that churches may vote on, at least according to Scripture. In the book of Acts, we see the church active in determining who served the church and who were sent as missionaries. Now, we have to be careful, because what is descriptive in the Bible isn’t always prescriptive. To put it another way, what is narrated isn’t always normative. There were some unique things that happened in the early church. But in Acts, we see that the apostles asked the church to find seven men who could serve widows in the church (Acts 6:1–7). We looked at this passage two weeks ago when talking about deacons. So, it might be that the congregation has a role to play in deciding who serves in the church. Elders in churches were appointed, but perhaps that was something that apostles had authority to do. Now that we don’t have apostles, perhaps the church should determine who leads. Or, perhaps at the least, the church should affirm the decisions of those who are serving as elders. If a team of elders, or pastors, or overseers, recommend that another person join their ranks, they should ask the church to affirm their decision. That way, the church is making a statement: “We will submit to this man’s leadership.”

In the book of Acts, the church in Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off as missionaries (Acts 13:1–3; 15:3). The whole church in Jerusalem, with the apostles and the elders of the church, chose a couple of men (Judas and Silas) to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to deliver a letter (Acts 15:22). So, it would seem that the church has the authority to send people for certain purposes, and the church should vote on that, too.

The Bible does not speak of the congregation voting on all manner of other things, like a church budget or special purchases. But there is wisdom in having a church vote on such things. God uses the congregation to affirm the decisions of leaders. And the congregation, by voting, says, “We will financially support the church’s budget.”

The Bible does not teach anything about committees that consist of lay people. I suppose the leaders of the church can delegate authority and ask committees to serve for certain purposes. But it’s worth considering what Mark Dever, a pastor and author, says: “The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel. The congregation more normally recognizes than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.”[3] The elders of the church should be the ones that have their hands on the steering wheel, directing the church as God has directed in the Bible and as the Holy Spirit leads. The congregation can act as an emergency brake if they see that something wrong is clearly happening. The congregation can also recognize what God is doing through its leaders and the congregation can affirm what the leaders have decided.

So, what does this mean for us? I think the main thing we should consider today is that all Christians should care about the health of a local church. And that requires commitment. It requires knowing the people of the church, knowing them well enough to know if there is some egregious sin in their lives. Also, when we read the pages of the New Testament, we get the sense that all Christians should take ownership of the local church. They should care about the welfare of the church. They should serve in the church, which is something I’ll talk about next week.

If you’re here today and have not yet officially committed to this church, I would urge you to make that commitment. We will be inviting some of you personally to do that, and we will announce when a membership class is meeting. If you aren’t a member of this church, I invite you to be more than a consumer. A consumer comes and takes. And, yes, a consumer gives money. But a member of a church is more than that. A member cares about the whole body. A member cares about the health of the whole body. Do you care about this church enough to want to make it better?

If everyone who comes to this church joined the church and was truly committed to the church, we would be much better off. More people serving would mean we could accomplish more things. When few people serve, a great burden is put on a relatively small number of people. The 80/20 rule says that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. That’s probably true of this church. That means those 20 percent are taxed and burdened. It also means that we struggle to keep up with the basics. Instead of working on new things, like doing more outreach, we struggle to keep up with the basics of meeting together in worship and taking care of the building. We need more help. We need commitment. And beyond serving, the health of the church requires commitment. We should be committed not only to our own spiritual health, but the spiritual health of other people in the church.

I also need to say this: If you’re here today and you’re not yet a Christian, I would urge you to make a commitment to Christ now. There is no other Savior, no other one who can make you right with God and grant you eternal life. To reject Jesus is to reject God. And to reject God is to reject your Maker and the very purpose of your life.

Right now, I’m asking that all of us—even myself!—become more committed. Let us love one another. Let us care about each other’s souls. Let us care about the purity of the church, the reputation of the church, and the direction of the church. The church is where Jesus dwells on earth. Let us make sure his house is in good order.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. It’s interesting that Paul’s life sometimes echoes the life of Jesus. In verses 3 and 4, when Paul says that he is absent in the flesh but present in the spirit (because he had spent time in Corinth and was now writing from elsewhere), he is likening himself to Jesus, who is in heaven but is present with his people through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit of God is greater than the spirit of Paul, and perhaps this was Paul’s way of making the church realize that. In other words, if Paul is absent and his spirit compels the church to act in a certain way, how much more should they act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, who is with them though Jesus is in heaven.
  3. Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 143.

 

Those Who Serve Well as Deacons

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 17, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

When you watch something, whether it’s a movie, a game of football, or an orchestra play, do you ever think about how many people it takes to put on a large production? When we’re watching a movie, we tend to focus on the actors. We may think about the director, particularly if it’s a famous director. But we probably don’t think about those who are operating the cameras, those who design the lighting, those who are in charge of costumes, the makeup artists, or the editors. We probably don’t think about the key grip, because we’re not quite sure what that person does. We might not even think about the screenwriter. But it takes all those people and many more to make a movie. Each role is important, even if all the roles aren’t visible to the audience.

The same is true of a football game. We tend to focus on the star players, like the quarterback, the running back, and the wide receivers. But a football team needs all kinds of players, like offensive lineman, and the guy who holds the ball for the kicker. And beyond the players, you need coaches and trainers. And you need groundskeepers, ticket sellers, and people who maintain stadiums. Tom Brady may be the star of the Patriots, but he wouldn’t do well without offensive linemen blocking for him, and he couldn’t play if nobody built stadiums, or scheduled games.

The same thing is true of a symphony orchestra. If you go to Symphony Hall to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform, you may focus on the conductor or the soloists. But all the players are important. They all play different parts, different roles. And then there is the stage manager and the stage hands, who arrange the chairs on the stage. There are people who sell tickets and take tickets and clean up the building. All are important.

That’s the way it is in the church. For a church to be a healthy, faithful church, there need to be many people involved, all of whom are important. And these people will play different roles. Some will lead and teach. But most will serve in different ways. These roles aren’t less important, they’re just different.

Today, we’re going to talk about the role of the deacon in the church. We’ll do this by looking at 1 Timothy 3:8–13. But before we do that, I want to say this: We are looking at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the Bible written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. We’ve been looking at some other passages in the Bible that deal with how the church should run. We’re doing this because we want to make sure that we are a healthy, faithful church.

There are many churches that are more or less faithful in their message. Thye teach people about Jesus. They tell people who God is, how to have a relationship with God, and how to live a life that is pleasing to God. But many churches ignore what the Bible says about how a church should be organized or how a church should do things. But we can’t do this. We can’t just take the message of Jesus and separate it from Jesus’ commands regarding his church. He has designed his church to function in a certain way, the best way. And we would be wise to pay attention to what Jesus has revealed to us through his prophets and apostles. That’s why we’re spending so much time on this issue.

So, with that being said, we’re going to look at what Paul says about deacons. Let’s read 1 Timothy 3:8–13:

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.[1]

Today, I want to ask and answer three questions about deacons. The first question is: What are deacons? Before I even begin to answer that question, I want to make a quick statement. I want you to forget everything you think you may know about deacons. This morning, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches about deacons. Ideally, what the Bible says about deacons would match up with our understanding of what a deacon is. But that’s not the case. So, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches. My hope is that this church can line up more fully with what the Bible says.

This passage really doesn’t tell us much about what deacons are. Here, Paul lists the qualities of the deacons. He doesn’t define “deacon” for us. But if we pay close attention, there are some clues as to what a deacon is. In the previous passage in 1 Timothy, Paul talks about overseers, or pastors. He says that they must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul doesn’t say that about deacons, so deacons don’t need to be teachers. But a lot of the other things that Paul says here apply to pastors as well, so that doesn’t tell us a lot.

But one of the main things that tells us about what a deacon is, is the very word for this office. The New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the time translations into English are very accurate and easy enough to understand. But there are times when some Greek words are transliterated, probably because of traditions. The word “deacon” in Greek is διάκονος. You can hear how that sounds a lot like our English word. The word actually means “servant.” It can be used to refer to people who wait on tables. So, deacons are servants. It would probably be better for this word to be translated that way in our Bibles. But I suppose it’s not because the translators want us to know that these aren’t just any servants, but the church’s officially recognized servants.

Just as the words “overseer” and “shepherd” tell us a lot about that office, the word “servant” tells us a lot about what a deacon is. But if we’re going to understand more about what kind of a servant a deacon is, we have to look at other passages in the New Testament.

The problem is that the word “deacon,” when used of an official office, doesn’t appear much at all in the New Testament. At the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Notice how he addresses the whole congregation and then specifies the two offices of the church: overseers and deacons. But that doesn’t tell us a lot. And, really, that’s the only other time that the word “deacon” appears in our Bibles. The Greek word διάκονος does appear some other times, but it often refers to a servant of some kind or other, not an official servant of the church.

To understand what a deacon is, we have to look at another passage, Acts 6. This passage discusses what is probably the origin of the diaconate. If you’re not familiar with the book of Acts, it tells the story of the early church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension to heaven after he died and rose from the grave. The early chapters tell about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of God, being poured out on the church and the disciples preaching a message about Jesus in Jerusalem. But Christianity is more than just preaching. Let’s read Acts 6:1–7:

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

We’re told that the disciples—another name for Christians, which means “students” or “followers”—were growing in number. But there was a problem. The church was taking care of widows, but only some widows, the ones who were regarded as Hebrews, who spoke Aramaic. The Hellenists were the Jews who spoke Greek, who grew up in places outside of Palestine, and who had moved to Jerusalem later in life. Their widows weren’t being taken care of. They weren’t receiving food. So, “the twelve,” the apostles, the leaders of the church, come up with a solution. First, they say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The verb that is translated “to serve” is διακονεῖν, which is related to the Greek word for “deacon.” The job of the apostles was to preach the word of God, not to take care of these physical problems. They needed someone else to take care of the widows. So, they told the people to pick seven men who had a good reputation, who were full of the Holy Spirit, and who were wise. The people picked seven men, and the apostles approved of their choices and laid hands on them, which means they set them apart for this service.

This division of labor allowed the apostles to focus on “prayer and . . . the ministry of the word.” Since these seven men made sure the Greek widows were fed, the apostles didn’t have to worry about that, and they could focus on the task that Jesus gave them, which was to tell people about Jesus. And this division of labor is very similar to what we find with overseers/pastors and deacons. Pastors preach and teach the Bible, they help people grow in faith, and the lead. But overseeing and leading doesn’t mean they can and should do all the work. Deacons are servants who take care of physical needs.

I don’t think it’s an accident that when men are chosen to take care of the widows, freeing the apostles up to do the work of praying and preaching, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” A healthy church that follows God’s design will see to the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation. Deacons are not pastors/shepherds/elders/overseers. They aren’t board members who make decisions. They’re not leaders. They are servants.

That is what the Bible teaches. And it’s a practical teaching. But right now, we don’t have this teaching reflected in our church. We do have two deacons, two godly men who have been a great help to me. But they’re really functioning more like elders. They both do some “deacon-type things.” Jim spends hours mowing the lawn. Dean serves as an usher and opens and later locks the doors. But I suspect that if we reform the church according to the Bible, they will serve as elders, not deacons. Yet we do need deacons to do physical things. That would free me up to do what I need to do as a pastor. If there are physical things that need taking care of in the building or on the grounds, I should be able to contact a deacon to do those things. If we have people who need rides to church, who need help paying bills, or who need physical tasks done because they can’t do them, there should be deacons to meet those needs.

So, deacons are servants, not assistant pastors or even assistants to the pastor. They are not junior overseers or shepherds. But that doesn’t make them less valuable. The church needs servants. And I hope that our by-laws will change to reflect what the Bible teaches. Right now, our by-laws say that deacons should “watch over and pray for the spiritual life of the church.” Anyone can pray for the spiritual life of the church, but the language of “watch over” should be reserved only for pastors. The by-laws also state that deacons should serve as “overseeing . . . members of all committees and boards.” The language of “overseeing” should be reserved for overseers. This needs to be changed. We need a plurality of overseers/elders/pastors and a plurality of deacons. Having a deacon serve as a pastor or a pastor serve as a deacon is like having Tom Brady serve as a receiver. And if you watched the last Super Bowl, you know that didn’t work out so well.

The second question I want to ask and answer is: Who can be deacons? That’s what Paul addresses in 1 Timothy. Let’s look again at today’s passage. He says that deacons should be “dignified,” or honorable. They shouldn’t be “double-tongued.” In other words, they shouldn’t say one thing to one group of people, and another thing to another group of people. They shouldn’t say one thing when they really mean another. They should be consistent in their speech. They shouldn’t be greedy, using their position “for dishonest gain.”

Deacons should also hold fast to the faith. Paul calls it “the mystery of the faith.” When Paul uses “mystery,” he means something specific. He means something that we couldn’t discover by ourselves, but something that God has now revealed. We couldn’t discover on our own what God is like, or how we can have a right relationship with him. God needed to reveal that to us. I’ll come back to that idea in a little while.

Paul also says that deacons should be tested. We shouldn’t throw something into the role of deacon if we don’t know them. Really, we shouldn’t throw someone into the role of deacon if they haven’t already demonstrated that they are truly Christians, that they are trustworthy, and that they have a heart to serve other people.

Then, in verse 11, Paul writes, “Their wives.” Literally, he writes “women.” Here, there is some debate. Is Paul saying that women can be deacons, or is he saying that deacons are men, and that their wives must be a certain way? Or, is Paul saying that deacons are normally men, but their wives can serve alongside them in their service?

Now, before I go any further, I want to say that there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have only male deacons, and there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have male and female deacons. But, again, I have to say this: deacons are not pastors. Deacons aren’t leaders. They are servants who take care of physical needs of the church.

Now, there are some strong arguments for having female deacons, and there are some strong arguments for understanding that Paul is referring to wives who have some role to play in service in the church. In favor of female deacons, Paul does not write “their wives.” It just says “women” in the original Greek language. He could have added “their,” but he didn’t. Also, when Paul writes about overseers, he doesn’t refer to their wives. Why do deacons need to have anything written about their wives? Third, in the book of Romans, Paul writes about a woman who is a servant of a church. Literally, she is a διάκονος. This is what Romans 16:1 says: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). The footnote in the English Standard Version says that “servant” could be translated as “deaconess.” But it’s not the female form of the word that is used here. It’s the male form, deacon. Does Paul mean that Phoebe is an official deacon or is she just “a servant”? It’s not clear. But it seems that she could very well be a deacon.

That being said, there are some good arguments for Paul referring to deacons’ wives. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul has already used the word “woman” to refer to a wife. We see that in verse 2. If in verse 11 he’s referring to women in general, it’s a bit odd, because in verse 12, he goes back to referring to deacons who are male. If he’s referring to female deacons in verse 11, why doesn’t he talk about their marital status? These are some of the arguments against having female deacons.[2]

So, what are we to make of this? Well, if we understand that deacons are not leaders and teachers, then there is no violation of what Paul writes about women in the church (1 Tim. 2:11–15). What is said about deacons could apply to men and women—except for verse 12, where Paul says that deacons should literally be “one-women men.” Perhaps the best way to understand Paul is to see that men should be deacons and should serve along with their wives.

There are situations where a female servant would be helpful. For example, imagine there is a woman in the church who needs help with something in her house. Maybe she’s a widow who can’t do all the housework. Maybe she’s a single mom who doesn’t have the time and energy to do everything in the house, like cleaning or fixing something. It would be unwise for a man to go into that situation, at least alone. It would be better for a woman to serve in that situation, or perhaps a husband-wife team.

This is something that we will have to decide on as a church. But I will say that my last church had some female deacons, almost always serving along with their husbands. One of the most biblical churches I know, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has deacons and deaconesses. Again, these people are not board members, decision-makers, leaders, or shepherds. They are servants. It’s something to consider.

The third question I want to ask and answer is: Why do we need deacons? Hopefully this should be clear by now. A pastor, or even a group of pastors, can’t do all the ministry of the church. We’re not called to do all the ministry of the church. We need members of the church who take care of physical things, whether it’s the building and grounds or going to people’s homes to serve them in different ways, or being in charge of a deacon’s fund, which is used to help people in times of need. At this point, some may wonder why we need people who are called deacons. After all, shouldn’t all Christians be serving in the local church?

Yes, all Christians should serve. But the church needs some officially recognized servants, people who are trustworthy, who have demonstrated that they aren’t greedy, but who can manage their own lives well. That’s because deacons have some important responsibilities. One is that they have access to money and other resources. Even the seven men of Acts 6 were in charge of distributing food. Deacons today often have access to money to use to help the needy. They may also have to serve in sensitive situations, like going into people’s homes. You need someone who is trustworthy in that case. And deacons end up representing the church. If the church is known for having servants that don’t hold to the faith, who are greedy, who misuse their positions, then the church looks bad. Even more important, Jesus looks bad.

So, it makes sense to have officially recognized servants, people who can respond to needs in the church. And it’s practical to have people who fit this role. The church should know who to call upon when there are needs. I should know whom I can call when I discover there’s a need.

The fact that the church needs official officers dedicated to service shows how important physical service is. Christianity is more than just caring about where someone’s spirit goes when he or she dies. It’s about more than just “going to heaven.” Christianity cares about the whole person. Christianity recognizes that God didn’t just create spirits; God created a person who is both body and soul. Christians should care about where someone stands with God, what kind of relationship to Jesus a person has. But they should also care about the physical wellbeing of a person.

Taking care of physical needs is not an unworthy task. That’s something that Christianity demonstrated to a world that thought less of servants. In the ancient world, in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, physical service was regarded as less important, far below that of rulers. But Jesus shows that serving is something great. We might say that Jesus is the ultimate deacon.

History is full of examples of people who try to make themselves look great. We want power and a high status. We want people to look at us and think we’re great. This is fallen human nature. But Jesus taught something different. He said, the last would be first, and the first would be last (Matt. 19:30; 20:16). Two of Jesus’ followers, James and John, seemed to want positions of power and status. They had their mother ask Jesus to put them at prominent positions in the kingdom of God. Jesus said that those who follow him will suffer. And then Jesus said,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25–28).

Jesus said that Gentiles—Romans in his day—lord their power and status over others. They were domineering. They wouldn’t dare stoop down to the level of people below them. But those who follow Jesus should be different. If you want to be great, be a servant. If you want to be first in the kingdom of God, you must first be a slave.

That is completely contrary to the way of the world. Earlier, I talked about “mystery,” that it’s something God must reveal. This is something that God must tell us, because it’s not natural for us. And Jesus reveals to us that it is the right way. Why can Jesus say that the servant and the slave are great in the kingdom of God? Because Jesus himself came to serve. He said, “the Son of Man”—that’s a reference to himself—“came not to be served but to serve.” How did Jesus serve? He gave “his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He has always been God. God the Father created the universe through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. He existed eternally in glory with the Father. But Jesus also became a human being over two thousand years ago. When he did that, he set aside his divine prerogatives. He left the realm of glory, heaven, to come to earth, where he would experience life as we do. He would experience hunger and thirst and fatigue and pain. He would be laughed at, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He did all this so that he could save his people from judgment, from condemnation. His death on the cross was the redemption price, the only thing that could free us from sin, from eternal death, from hell.

Why do we face condemnation? Because we have rejected God. God made us to reflect his glory, to represent him on earth, to love and obey him, to worship him, and, yes, to serve him. But we don’t want to live under God’s authority. We want to live life on our terms. We turn our backs on God, ignoring him, disobeying his commands. And this is a great evil. In fact, all the evil in the world can be traced back to rebellion against God. Since God wants a good creation, one that isn’t tainted with evil, he has plans to judge the world, to punish sinners and remove sin from his creation. God is a righteous judge who will make sure that all rebellion is punished, because that rebellion ruins his good creation. If you had someone come into your house and destroy everything and harm your family, you would make sure that person was driven out of your house and punished, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what God will do on judgment day.

But if God did that, every human being would be driven out of his house and punished. Yet God is merciful and gracious. He provided a way for our sins to be punished but for us not to be driven out. Jesus is that way. He was punished for our sins. He was driven out, cut off from the land of the living, so that we could live eternally.

In another letter, Paul writes about this. In Philippians 2, Paul writes,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8).

Jesus, though he was and is divine, didn’t try to cling to his status in heaven. I like what a recent translation, the Christian Standard Bible says. It says Jesus, “existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God, as something to be exploited.” Instead, he made himself a servant by becoming a human being. And he humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross, which was an instrument of torture. Only Jesus lived the perfect life. He never sinned. He didn’t deserve to die, particularly in that manner. And when he died on the cross, he endured more than a physical death. He endured hell on earth, a spiritual pain that goes beyond what we could imagine.

Yet Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Paul continues:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9–11).

Jesus rose from the grave. He ascended to heaven. He has been exalted by God the Father to glory. And when he comes again to earth, every knee will bow. Some will bow in terror. Others will bow in worship. But every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, that he is the King, that he is God. And those who serve will be exalted, too. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus shows that service, even the most menial service, isn’t something “below us.” It is something that is great. Jesus even washed his disciples’ feet, which would have been covered in dirt, since they wore sandals and walked on dirty, dusty roads. (You can read about this in John 13.) He did this to foreshadow his cleansing them from their sin. But he also did this as an example. He said,

13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Jesus is far more than just an example. He did what we cannot do. He has the power to make us right with God, to take care of our sin problem, which is what separates us from God. We can’t do that. And we can’t die for another person’s sin. So, we need to be served by Jesus. But we also need to serve like Jesus, stooping down to meet the needs of others. And this is something that is great.

If you do not know Jesus, if you don’t know much about him or how to live for him, I would love to talk to you more. He is the only one who can give us eternal life.

If you do know Jesus, I hope that you are serving him by serving others. If you’re not a member of this church, I would like to talk to you about joining the church. We may not all be deacons, but we should all serve in the local church.

If you’re a member of the church, if you have a heart for service, and if you meet the qualifications for a deacon, perhaps consider serving in that role. If you do, keep in mind that “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Arguments for and against female deacons are found in Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 249–258.

 

What Is the Gospel?

The following outline of the gospel, the Christian message of “good news,” will be presented in four parts: God, man (or human beings, if you want to be politically correct), Jesus, and response. I didn’t invent this basic outline; it’s been used by many, including Greg Gilbert in his recent What Is the Gospel? (I highly recommend that book, particularly because it is short and easy to read, and it also tells us what the gospel is not.) If you remember God, man, Jesus, and response, you’ll be able to share the gospel. (I’ll put a lot of Scripture references in the notes; I encourage you to look them up.)

1. God

Christianity is the story of God, who is eternal,[1] all-powerful,[2] all-knowing,[3] omnipresent,[4] good,[5] perfect,[6] and loving.[7] He is also the creator.[8] He created everything for his purposes, so that he would be glorified.[9] When he created the universe, including our planet and everything on it, he made it good.[10]

Christianity tells us that we have a purpose in life: to love God and to worship him. We are not cosmic accidents or animals. The universe didn’t create itself. The story of God explains why we exist and how the universe came to be.

2. Man

Christianity is also the story of human beings, who were made to know God and to reflect his greatness. (Part of being made in God’s image[11] means we are somewhat like him, but it also means we were made to reflect God’s glory, to represent him in his world.) We were made to be like God, and in some ways we are, but we have all rejected him and rebelled against him.[12] Even though we see the evidence of God in all of nature, and even though we have a conscience that gives us a sense of right and wrong, we do not seek him or listen to what he says.[13] Because the first human beings disobeyed God, nothing is the way God originally intended it. Because we disobey God, our lives are hard, we fight with each other, we get sick, and we die.[14] Sin separates us from God, and it also separates us from each other and from the way we were originally made to me.[15] Our problem is not so much individuals sins, but the power of sin, which is like a disease that corrupts us.

Because we disobey God, he has the right to punish us.[16] He is a perfect judge,[17] and the evidence shows that all of us deserve punishment, which means eternal separation from God and anything good.[18]

Christianity tells us what is wrong with us and the world (sin). It tells us why things don’t seem right or feel right. It tells why we are capable of doing great and noble things and committing horrible acts of selfishness and destruction. This problem is one that we can’t fix. Our good deeds cannot compensate for our sin problem.[19] No amount education, medicine, or technology can fix us and this world.

3. Jesus

Christianity is, finally, the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the really good news, because only Jesus can fix our problem of rebellion against God. He is the only one who can put us back together with God, and one day he will make all things new.[20]

In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son. [21] Because he is God, he is also eternal,[22] but he became man when he was born of the virgin, Mary.[23] Unlike us, he lived a perfect life, obeying God the Father, and loving others.[24] Though we deserve punishment, Jesus took our punishment for us when he died on the cross.[25] Crucifixion was a horrible, painful death that the Roman Empire used for criminals. Jesus, our substitute, died such a horrible death because our disobedience to God had to be punished. Only Jesus’ death can justify us (make us innocent in God’s eyes).[26]

When Jesus rose from the grave on the third day after his death, he showed that his sacrifice on the cross paid the penalty for sin.[27] Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope and shows us that one day all of his followers will have their own future resurrection.[28]

Christianity tells us how the world and everything in it can be fixed. It gives us a purpose for living, it tells us the problem, and it gives us the solution.

4. Response

The good news of Christianity is that everyone who turns from their rebellion against God and loves, trusts, and obeys Jesus is forgiven of all wrongdoing. Everyone who believes this message is declared innocent by God. Everyone who believes this message will one day live forever in a perfect world, which Jesus will one day create when he returns.[29]

In order to be part of this good news, you must stop living for yourself and start living for God. This starts with believing that God is who he says he is in the Bible. It starts by trusting that Jesus’ death pays the price for everything wrong you have ever done. And it starts when you follow him. This means learning about him by reading your Bible. It means praying to God and having a personal relationship with him. And it means becoming part of a community of other believers, a community we call church.

Being a Christian is not always easy. It means our lives will be permanently changed.[30] God changes us by giving us the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one true God.[31] The Spirit changes us from the inside out, by giving us new hearts, by guiding us, and by helping us follow Jesus.

Conclusion

Those who do not know Christ are lost. They are without hope in this world, and they are desperately trying to find something that will satisfy their souls. They search for meaning in consumerism, relationships, and achievements, but none of these things will satisfy. They keep drinking water that won’t satisfy their spiritual thirst. Christians are not better than non-Christians. They are simply beggars who know where to get bread. Or, to put it a different way, they know where to get the living water that will cause them to thirst no more (John 4:10–14). The gospel is good news and it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Notes

  1. Ps. 90:2; Isa. 41:4; Rev. 1:8
  2. Gen. 18:14; Ps. 115:3; Matt. 19:26; Rev. 4:8.
  3. Pss. 139:1–6; 147:4–5; Jer. 20:12; 1 John 3:20; Rev. 2:23.
  4. 1 Kgs. 8:27–29. Ps. 139:7–12; Jer. 23:23–24.
  5. 1 Chron. 16:34; 2 Chron. 5:13; Pss. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; 136:1; Jer. 33:11; Mark 10:18.
  6. Matt. 5:48.
  7. Exod. 34:6–7; 1 John 4:8.
  8. Gen. 1–2; Ps. 33:6,9; John 1:3; Acts 17:24–27; Col. 1:15–16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11.
  9. Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16.
  10. Gen. 1:31.
  11. Gen. 1:26–27; see also Ps. 8:3–8.
  12. Gen. 3; 1 Kgs. 8:46; Rom. 1:18–32; 3:23; 1 John 1:8. Consider also Eccl. 7:20, 29; Eph. 2:3.
  13. Ps. 19:1–6; Rom. 1:18–32; 2:14–16.
  14. Gen. 3:16–19; Rom. 6:23.
  15. Isa. 59:1–2; James 4:1–4.
  16. Consider Exod. 34:6–7; Hab. 1:13.
  17. Gen. 18:25; Ps. 7:11; Isa. 33:22; Rev. 16:4–5.
  18. Matt. 25:31–46; 2 Thess. 1:5–12; Rev. 20:14; 21:8.
  19. Isa. 64:6.
  20. Rev. 21:5.
  21. John 3:16–17; Rom. 5:6–11; Gal. 4:3–7.
  22. John 1:1–2; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1.
  23. John 1:14; Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–45.
  24. The four Gospels bear witness to this; see also Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5.
  25. John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Deut. 21:22–23/Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13–14; Isa. 53:4–17/1 Pet. 2:22–25.
  26. Rom. 3:20–16; Gal. 2:16–17.
  27. See Rom. 4:24–25.
  28. 1 Cor. 15.
  29. There are many verses that indicate a proper response to Christ, including Acts 2:28; 3:19–21; 16:30–31; 17:30–31; 26:19–20. See also the entire book of 1 John. For verses on true faith, see Rom. 4:13–25; James 2:14–26; Heb. 11.
  30. John 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:17.
  31. Rom. 5:5; Eph. 1:13–14. The Trinity is one God in three Persons.

 

 

Obey Your Leaders

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 10, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Recently, I watched a movie called Darkest Hour, which is about Winston Churchill, England, and the events of 1940. Churchill has just become prime minister of England at a time when Germany has already invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway; they would soon invade Belgium and France. A number of people around him were urging Churchill to negotiate peace with Germany. Of course, from our perspective, that would be suicide, because we know that Hitler would not allow Europe to rest in any kind of undisturbed peace. But at that time, it seemed like there was no way England could win. America wouldn’t enter into the war until about a year-and-a-half later. There were 300,000 soldiers trapped in Dunkirk, France, between the German forces and the sea. Not surrendering—or, as it was put, “negotiating terms”—seemed foolish. But Churchill held his ground and he inspired the United Kingdom to fight. History has, of course, proved him right.

I’m sure history is full of similar stories of leaders who have chosen to do what is right instead of what is easy, who have chosen to do what is needed as opposed to what those around them want. While many choose the easiest path, the path of least resistance, leaders know that the they must choose the right path. That’s what makes them leaders. And it is in the best interest of those who are under their leadership to support them, trust them, and follow them.

Today, we’re going to continue to think about leadership within the church. Next week, I’ll go back to 1 Timothy to consider the role of deacons in the church. But today I want to focus on the responsibility that a church has in following its leader. The flock must follow its shepherd.

The theme of leadership—and rejected leaders—runs throughout the Bible. As long as more than one person exists, there will be leaders and followers.

In the beginning, God created human beings. He gave them a great role—to rule over his creation while reflecting his glory. But he also made them to come under his leadership. And the first human beings rejected his leadership. Instead of following God, they wanted to be like him, and they believed the lie that they could be like him by disobeying him.

In the book of Genesis, God starts to work with one man, Abraham, and his family becomes Israel. In time, Israel grows into a nation, a nation enslaved to the world’s superpower, Egypt. God heard the cries of his people and he sent them a leader, Moses, who brought them out of Egypt. He brought them out, of course through God’s power and through mighty acts—signs and wonders—that God performed. Even before that happened, there was a question of whether the Israelites would follow Moses. That’s because when Moses first told Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Pharaoh made life harder for the Israelite slaves. Some of the leaders of the Israelites told Moses, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exod. 5:21).[1] Soon after, the whole people of Israel “did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exod. 6:9).

Yet God continued to use Moses, and he delivered the Israelites out of slavery and out of Egypt through a series of ten plagues. Yet even after that great deliverance, the people still complained. When they were trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other, the people said to Moses, “Is it because there are not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exod. 14:11–12). But the people did not die. Instead, God rescued them once again by a miracle, parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass on dry ground, and then closing the Red Sea on their Egyptian oppressors.

Yet even after that, the people complained! They “grumbled” about a lack of water and food. They complained against Moses’ leadership and said they would have been better off dying in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). Moses understood that their complaints ultimately weren’t against him; they were against God: “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). Yet God graciously met their needs. But because of the people’s disobedience and grumbling, God let a whole generation die in the wilderness instead of entering immediately into the Promised Land of Canaan (Num. 14:26–33).

The people wanted good things that a leader could provide—freedom, food, a new place where they could inherit land and live. But when a leader made decisions that they didn’t understand, they grumbled. Yet Moses had been commissioned by God to lead the people. Moses followed God, not the whims of the people.

One of our presidents, Harry Truman, once said, “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt.”[2] If Moses catered to the people and their desires, perhaps they never would have left Egypt. They surely never would have arrived in the Promised Land, because their rebellion against God would have gone unchecked. Leaders need to make necessary decisions, not according to what the people want, but according to what they need.

Winston Churchill, once said, “I hear it said that leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.”[3] His humorous point is that a leader who is afraid to make decisions that need to be made, but who instead worries about what the people are saying, is unworthy of respect. Great leaders must make the right decisions, not the popular ones.

I read both of those quotes, by Truman and Churchill, in a great book by a Christian man named Os Guinness. That book is called A Free People’s Suicide, which is about how American, the Free People of the title, are committing suicide by misusing their freedom. Guinness says that “America . . . is suffering from an overdose of . . . too much peer influence, too many polls and too much pandering.”[4]

We need to be led, and there are times when we even want a leader, but we don’t want a leader who will challenge us or do things we don’t like or understand. The book of Judges is a great example of this. The judges are not people who hear court trials. No, they are leaders, basically military saviors. There’s a pattern in the book of Judges: The people disobey God and start worshiping idols. God gives the people over to their enemies. The people cry out to God for help and he gives them a judge. The judge defeats the enemies. But in time, the people forget, they disobey God, and start worshiping idols again. The people wanted safety, but they didn’t want God.

One of the judges was Gideon. After God used Gideon to save the Israelites, some of the men of Israel say to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Again, the people wanted a leader who could protect them from their enemies. Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judg. 8:22–23). That was a wise thing to say. God is supposed to be the true King. However, God leads his people through human leaders. Yet it was good that Gideon didn’t become king, because he soon asked the people for gold and then he made for himself an ephod, which was a garment that only the high priest was supposed to wear. This is what the Bible says: “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judg. 8:27). What that means is that Gideon led the people to worship idols. Idolatry is likened to being unfaithful, to “whoring.” The leader that the people wanted was a bad one. They didn’t want God or a godly man to be king.

Toward the end of the book of Judges, things go from bad to worse. And there’s a line that is repeated, like a refrain of a tragic song: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

After the time of the judges, Israel had kings. That’s a long story that we don’t have time for. Suffice it to say, many of them were bad. They often followed their own sinful desires instead of obeying God. Even the best king, David, had some significant sins in his life. So, God promised to send a better king, a perfect king who would rule with justice and righteousness. That king, of course, is Jesus.

Jesus is the perfect leader. Of course, he’s the God-man, truly God and truly man, so he can be both a divine leader and a human leader through whom God leads. While on the earth, Jesus was strong and courageous, but also compassionate. According to Matthew’s Gospel, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Jesus healed the sick, he welcomed outsiders, people who were considered egregious sinners, and he taught about forgiveness, grace, ad love. Jesus not only came to save us by dying for our sins on the cross, but he also came to correct and lead us. Jesus always said and did what was right and what was needed, not what people wanted and certainly not what was popular. He is the King we need.

As a leader, Jesus also demanded that people follow and obey him. One of the things he says often in the Gospels is “follow me” (Matt. 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 19:21). Jesus demands allegiance. At one point, in Matthew 10, he taught this:

37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:37–39).

And Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; cf. verses 21, 23).

Many people like some of what Jesus says, or they even like the idea of a savior who will get them out of hell and into heaven. But many people don’t like the idea of obedience. For some people, “obey” is a four-letter word. And those who don’t think “obey” is a four-letter word are bad at spelling, which means they didn’t obey their teachers. The point is that we don’t like the idea of obedience, particularly in our day and age.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that an atheistic philosopher named Thomas Nagel admitted that much. He said, “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[5] He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”[6] He admits that the reason he didn’t want there to be a God is because he doesn’t want a “cosmic authority” over him, telling him how to live.

Another author, a Christian named Timothy Witmer, says, “The deterioration of respect for authority in culture has its root in a failure to respect the sovereign lordship of the ultimate authority, the living God who is the Shepherd and authority of all of life.”[7] In other words, the reason we don’t like human authority is because we first don’t like God’s authority.

We find the same thing in the church, unfortunately. We want to have a relationship with Jesus, but we want it on our terms. We want to have all the blessings that Jesus offers, particularly forgiveness of sins and eternal life, without committing to Jesus and his church. Or, we want to commit to Jesus without committing to a local church and submitting to the leaders of a local church.

The problem is that such attitudes aren’t biblical. If we love Jesus, we’ll love his church. If we love Jesus and his church, we’ll obey his commands and we’ll obey the leaders of his church. We see this in at least two passages in the New Testament. One is 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

That passage is quite easy to understand. The ones whom Paul is referring to are the leaders of the church. They are the pastors/elders/overseers. They labor among the people, doing the work that God has called them to. Paul tells the Thessalonians to respect them and to esteem in love, because of their work. And I think the idea is that if they do that, there will be “peace among yourselves.”

The other passage that talks about following church leaders goes beyond the words “respect” and “esteem” and uses that ugly four-letter word, “obey.” In Hebrews 13, the author first says, in verse 7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The leaders here are people who “spoke . . . the word of God” to them. He tells his readers to imitate these leaders. Then, in verse 17, we read this:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Not only do we get that four-letter word, “obey,” but we get a dreaded six-letter word, “submit.” In other words, “come under their leadership.” Why? Because “they are keeping watch over your souls.” These are pastors, who are caring for the souls of their people. It’s in the best interest of a Christian to obey and submit to a pastor, because that person is looking out for that person’s soul. Not only that, but this pastor “will have to give an account” to God. A good pastor faithfully follows God’s word. And he will have to give an account to God for what he has done (cf. James 3:1). Another reason why people should obey church leaders is that this makes their work “joy” instead of “groaning.” And having a pastor whose job has become “groaning” would be of no advantage to anyone.

It’s hard to overstress the importance of this. The church shouldn’t be like Israel in the book of Judges, where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. God created the church, and he gave the church leaders. Not just preachers or chaplains, but leaders. Yet people often don’t treat pastors as real authorities.

I think we in America at this time are rather allergic to authorities. But pastors have long complained about people not listening to them. This is what Origen (185–253), a third-century pastor and theologian, said to his congregation almost 1,800 years ago:

The Lord has entrusted me with the task of giving his household their allowance of food [Bible teaching] at the appointed time [Lk 12:42]. . . . But how can I? Where and when can I find a time when you will listen to me? The greater part of your time, nearly all of it in fact, you spend on mundane things, in the market-place or the shops; some of you are busy in the country, others wrapped up in litigation. Nobody, or hardly anybody, bothers about God’s Word. . . . But why complain about those who are not here? Even those who are, those of you who have come to church, are paying no attention. You can take an interest in tales that have become worn out through repetition, but you turn your backs on God’s Word and the reading of Holy Scripture.”[8]

I find that quote surprisingly relevant. At first, Origen is preaching to those who aren’t even there, who would rather do anything than come to church. But then he starts preaching to the choir, as it were. And the choir is bored with the things of God, though they take great interest in tales. You can hear Origen’s frustration, his “groaning.”

I suppose some people will come up with excuses for not following their church leaders. They may say things that suggest they should only follow Jesus, as if following Jesus and following their pastor are mutually exclusive things. They’ll talk about how much they love Jesus and have precious quiet times with him, while they don’t listen to their pastors. If you love Jesus, you will obey him. And Jesus has told us, through apostles and prophets, to obey the pastors of the church. How you treat Jesus’ church is a reflection of how you treat Jesus. When Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul, better known as Paul, was arresting Christians, who would probably then die for their faith. Jesus told him that to persecute the church is to persecute him. Similarly, not following pastors means not following Jesus.

There are times when a pastor is younger than many of the people in his congregation. Older people might take a verse out of context to suggest that the younger pastor must actually follow the older congregation. First Peter 5:5 says, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.” And, after all, they’re paying his salary.

But that passage, 1 Peter 5, is talking about pastors. Pastors are called elders because “elder” was a term used in Judaism to describe a leader of a family or a synagogue. Quite naturally, this person was usually an older man. But in the church, an elder is not always older. In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes writes, “The contrast is not between the older men and the younger men of the church.” If that were so, a different Greek word for “younger” would be used. “Rather it is between those who have the seniority and the commensurate standing that qualifies them to be [elders] in contrast to those who, for whatever reason, do not. Official elders of the church were naturally chosen from those who held seniority in the faith, which most often also corresponded to physical age. Those not (yet) qualified to be elders were ‘younger’ in standing in the church.”[9] And as we’ll see later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells his younger associate, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).

Another excuse not to follow a pastor might be, “I’m not officially a member of this church.” Many people no longer commit to a local church. According to Timothy Witmer, “People are showing increasing reluctance to identify themselves with a particular flock, to make the commitment of church membership vows, and to submit to the authority of shepherd-elders inherent in those commitments.”[10] I think officially being part of a local church and submitting to the leadership of that church is presupposed in many passages in the New Testament, including the passages that we’ve read. And I think you can make a great argument for saying that a failure to commit to a local church is a failure to commit truly to Jesus.

Though we don’t like words such as “obey” and “submit,” there are many good reasons for obeying pastors.

The first main reason is that it is for your good. Pastors have been spiritually gifted to teach God’s word. Last week we saw that Jesus gave the church pastor-teachers in order to shepherd the flock and to equip the saints for ministry. A faithful pastor feeds his flock the word of God, protects them from false doctrine and sinful behaviors, and helps them serve God. This benefits those who follow their shepherds.

Pastor also have spiritual discernment. When it comes to making decisions, or seeing where the church should go, pastors have special insight. Pastors think often about ministry and the direction of the church. They consult other pastors. They study. Often, non-pastors just react from their gut. They say, “I like this,” or, “I don’t like that,” without really thinking about what the church should do.

Put another way, sheep don’t know where they’re supposed to go. That’s why they need a shepherd. The shepherd doesn’t survey the sheep and ask them all where they would like to go. No, the shepherd knows what is best for the sheep and he leads them to green pastures.

Another reason to follow pastors is that it’s not good to discourage pastors. There’s probably nothing more discouraging than having a congregation that doesn’t listen, that doesn’t follow. And this isn’t good for a congregation. I can tell you that most pastors are discouraged. Over time, a number of pastors leave ministry because of that discouragement. Many feel lonely and isolated.

When you follow pastors, you make their job a joy. When you don’t, you make their job a groaning. And it’s not beneficial to anyone if a pastor’s job has become groaning.

Now, does that mean you must always follow a pastor? No. You are free not to follow a pastor when he does something contrary to God’s word. If he teaches false doctrine, don’t follow. I don’t mean if he interprets a passage in a slightly different way. In fact, I think it’s often going to be the case that good pastors will correct a congregation’s understanding of the Bible. But if a pastor starts saying that you don’t need to believe in Jesus to be reconciled to God, or that there isn’t such a thing as hell, or that Jesus isn’t God, well, it’s time to get a new pastor or a new church.

If a pastor isn’t acting in accordance with the Bible, in his personal life or in the way he leads the church, then there are ways to address this. We’ll see this several weeks from now when we get to 1 Timothy 5. There is a time and place for criticizing a pastor, but this shouldn’t be done quickly or lightly. We all should be slow to speak and quick to listen. And I think we should approach pastors with that same attitude: quick to listen, quick to obey, quick to submit, quick to respect, slow to criticize and slow to accuse. And if any kind of accusation must be made, it has to be done on real, specific evidence that has been witnessed by at least two people (1 Tim. 5:19).

Unfortunately, there have been pastors who have misused their authority, and I suspect that’s why some people are very reluctant to obey pastors and submit to them. In a fallen world, such things will happen. Just because a shepherd has failed does not mean that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, has failed. When a pastor fails, he can be corrected and restored, if he repents. If he refuses to repent, he can be removed, or people in a church may choose to leave the church and join another one. But Jesus is the perfect leader who never fails. He knows what he needs. That’s why he came to earth. He came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He fulfilled God’s purposes for humanity. He never failed to love, worship, and obey his Father in heaven. And yet he died on the cross, suffering the wrath of God against sin, because that was the only way for God to be a righteous judge and a merciful Father. Jesus wasn’t afraid to teach hard truths or make hard decisions, even the decision to let himself be killed, to lay down his life so his people could go free. He is the leader of us all, and we must submit to him.

Let us follow Jesus by obeying the word of God, the Bible. That means following leaders of a church. And I ask you to follow me as I follow Jesus.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Robert Ferrell, ed. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 310, quoted in Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012), 183.
  3. Churchill made this statement in a speech in the House of Commons on September 30, 1941, quoted in Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide, 183.
  4. Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide, 183.
  5. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130.
  6. Ibid., 131.
  7. Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 77.
  8. Origen, Homilies on Genesis 10.1, quoted in Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 20.
  9. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 307.
  10. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, 87.

 

Equipping the Saints for Ministry

This sermon was preached on June 3, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Last week, toward the end of my sermon, I made a comment that I hadn’t written down. It was something that occurred to me in the moment. I said that for some people, hearing a sermon on church government might seem like watching a cooking show. It might seem interesting (or not), but it was like getting some information you would never put to use.

I don’t know how many of you have ever watched cooking shows. They used to have real cooking shows on the Food Network, but now it seems they’re more likely to have strange cooking competitions, where the contests are given odd ingredients and have to make something edible out of them. “Here’s a package of gummi bears, some truffle oil, a head of lettuce, and a can of Spam. Now, do your best to give us a three-course meal.” But before those strange competitions, they used to feature chefs making various dishes that you could recreate if you so desired. I’m sure some people watched those shows to learn new techniques or to see if they could learn a new recipe that they would actually put into practice. But some us would watch those shows simply to be entertained.

I generally don’t cook. Sure, I could cook if I needed to. But I don’t, because I married a woman who likes to cook and does it well. And before we got married I survived on breakfast cereal, fruit, and protein bars and shakes. But even I could be entertained by those cooking shows. I appreciate seeing people who are skilled working on their craft.

Now, here’s my point: There’s a big difference between watching something in order to learn techniques that you will put into practice and watching something to be entertained. If you’re watching something to learn a new skill, you’re trying to get better equipped. Chefs might watch cooking shows. Athletes study video. Musicians listen to recordings. But many of us are accustomed to being entertained. We watch and listen not to learn new skills, but to pass the time, or to be amused or moved or to have a bit of curiosity satisfied.

So, here’s a question for all of us here today: Are we here to learn something that we will put into practice, or are we here to get some kind of spiritual entertainment? Are we here to be equipped, or to feel good about having a spiritual experience, or to do our religious duty? “I’m a righteous person because I went to church today.” If you’re here to become equipped, and even to be led, there’s good news: Jesus has given his church people who lead his flock and equip his saints. But if you’re here out of a sense of duty or to be entertained, I’m not sure I can help you.

Today is a continuation of what I talked about last week. It’s really part two of a longer message on what the Bible says about the leaders of a church. Because of that, I’ll recap last week’s sermon briefly.

Last week, we learned that leaders of a church are called by three terms: overseer, elder, and shepherd. We usually call these people “pastors.” “Pastor” simply comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.” We learned the qualifications for this office: men who are pastors have to have many positive moral characteristics, they must be able to teach, and they must be able to manage their own homes because they are managers over God’s household, the church. We also got a glimpse of what a pastor does: he overseers and leads the church, he teaches “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and he protects the church from false teaching and other things that might he harmful to God’s people.

If you wonder why I keep saying “he,” it’s because two weeks ago we learned that God designed the office of pastors to be filled by men. This doesn’t mean that men are somehow better than women. It just means that God designed men and women differently, and he has chosen to use some men to be pastors. Pastors are no better than other Christians; God has simply given them different spiritual gifts and different roles to play in the church.

Today, I want to continue to think about what a pastor does. A pastor shepherds the congregation, and a pastor helps equip God’s people for ministry.

Let’s first think about what a shepherd does. The theme of shepherding is one that runs through the whole of the Bible. Several important figures in the Bible were shepherds. Abraham, the father of Israel, had sheep (Gen. 12:16; 13:2) and herdsmen who worked for him (Gen. 13:8). His offspring would become the people of Israel. Moses grew up in Egypt, but he fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian; while away, he was a shepherd (Exod. 3:1). Later, Moses would shepherd the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. David was a shepherd, too (1 Sam. 16:11). As the great King of Israel, he would shepherd the nation (2 Sam. 5:2). Most importantly, God is called a shepherd.

Why is this important? Because it says something important about what God’s people need. Think about one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Psalm 23, a Psalm of David:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.[1]

Think about all the things that David says the Lord provides for him. He leads him to pastures and waters. In other words, the shepherd provides him with food, with sustenance. He leads him in paths of righteousness. The shepherd leads David through the valley of the shadow of death. He uses two implements, a rod and staff. The rod was used to fend off wild animals. In other words, it would protect the sheep. But the staff was used to discipline and control the sheep, to keep them on the right path. So, shepherds defend and discipline.

This gives us some idea of what pastors do for their “sheep,” their “flock,” the people of their congregation. They provide spiritual food, they lead, they protect, they nudge the sheep in the right direction and provide correction when necessary.

Last week, I read a passage written by the apostle Peter. In his first letter, he writes something to his fellow shepherds, or elders. This is what he writes in 1 Peter 5:1–4:

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Last week, I said that the words overseer, elder, and shepherd all refer to the same office, the same position in the church. This passage shows that. Peter addresses the elders, he tells them to shepherd the flock, and he tells them to exercise oversight. Pastors shouldn’t feel compelled to do this, but they should do their jobs willingly. They shouldn’t do it to get rich, but they should be eager to do the work. They shouldn’t be domineering, commanding people to do what they themselves are unwilling to do. Instead, they should serve as examples to the congregation.

They should do this so that when the chief Shepherd, Jesus, comes, they will be rewarded. This shows that pastors aren’t just shepherds; they’re also sheep who must follow the leadership of the Great Shepherd, Jesus.

We should notice that Peter calls himself a fellow elder. Though he was an apostle, one of Jesus’ first followers and a man who was authorized to lead the early church, he considered himself a pastor. And he learned a great lesson about pastoring from Jesus himself.

Many of us know Peter’s story rather well. On the night when Jesus was arrested, the night before he died, he denied knowing Jesus three times. He did this to save his own life. If people knew he was with Jesus, who was arrested and was on trial, Peter might very well die, too. So, he lied about his relationship to Jesus out of fear.

Yet after Jesus died on the cross, he rose from the grave. And he later appeared to his disciples. In John’s Gospel, we’re told about a special encounter that Peter had with Jesus. This is John 21:15–17:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

This is an interesting passage for a lot of reasons. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Three times, Peter said, “you know that I love you.” These three questions and answers parallel Peter’s three denials, showing that Jesus is fully forgiving Peter.

But what’s interesting is that each time Peter answers, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” or, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus could simply mean, “Take care of my people.” But he says “feed” each time. What is Peter supposed to feed the flock? What are all pastors supposed to feed their flock?

It seems the general answer is spiritual nourishment. But that’s kind of vague. More specifically, Christians are to “feed” on Jesus (John 6:51, 53, 55, 58). That’s metaphorical, of course, but the point is that Jesus gives us life. He is the food that strengthens our souls. But how do we know Jesus? Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). And what is Jesus’ voice? How do we hear it? We hear Jesus’ voice in the pages of the Bible. The whole Bible is, one way or another, about him. The whole Bible is God’s written word, and Jesus is the Word of God, truly God himself. So, we can say that the whole Bible is Jesus’ word to us. And Jesus himself said,

“Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4 [Deut. 8:3]).

So, if God’s written word is food that gives us access to God’s incarnate Word, Jesus, and if pastors are supposed to feed the flock that food, then the main way that pastors provide for their congregation is to feed them Scripture. The best way I can help you know God, keep you on the path of righteousness, protect you from false teaching, drive away fears that may surround you as you pass through your personal valleys of the shadow of death, and correct you is to teach you the Bible. That’s why I serve up heaping portions of Scriptural meals each Sunday. A pastor teaches with the Bible, leads with the Bible, protects against false doctrine with the Bible, and corrects with the Bible. The pastor heals the wounded and comforts the hurting with the Bible. You might say that both a pastor’s rod and staff are the Bible. That is why one of the qualifications of a pastor is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9).

Feeding a congregation the spiritual food of the Bible doesn’t mean that unless you hear Scripture read in a church service, you won’t understand it, or that you can’t grow by reading the Bible on your own. But what I’ve found is that many people have a hard time understanding how to read the Bible, how to understand what a passage means in its context. Most people don’t have the ability to teach Scripture. A pastor has been spiritually gifted to have certain insights into spiritual matters. And that gifting should be developed through experience, training, and education. The pastor then preaches and teaches the Word to the congregation, helping them to understand how they can read the Bible and interpret it and apply it to their own lives.

So, a pastor is a shepherd who leads, provides the spiritual food of the Bible, protects the congregation from false teachings, and corrects the congregation when false teaching or sinful practices enter into a church.

The pastor also equips Christians to do ministry. I want to look at another passage, this one from the apostle Paul. It’s found in his letter to church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about the unity of the church. To have true unity, the church must grow up, and one of the main ways that the church grows is to become equipped to do ministry. We’re going to zero in on a few verses, but to understand the context, I want us to read verses 1–16 of Ephesians 4:

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

That’s a long passage, but hopefully you understood the main points. Paul begins by saying he wants the church to walk in a manner worthy of the calling they have received. In other words, they’ve been adopted in God’s family through the death of Jesus, which pays the penalty for our rebellion against God. If we trust in Jesus, if we’ve been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we’re forgiven of our sins, we’re reconciled to God, and we’re his children. So, Paul says, “Act like you’re God’s children. Be humble and gentle and patient. Bear with one another. Have peace with one another. Just as there is only one true Lord and God, one true faith, one true baptism, there should be one true church, perfectly united.”

Then Paul says in verse 7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The body of Christ, the church, us unified, but within that unity there is diversity. Though every person is made in the image of God, made to reflect God’s glory, made to worship and serve God, made to love and obey God, not all of us have the same abilities and talents. Not all of us have the same spiritual gifts. We call these “spiritual gifts,” because they are gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God, through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These gifts are abilities that should be used to serve the church.

What Paul says here is that Jesus, after ascending to heaven, gave the church certain people to build the church up. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who descended to earth to become a human being in order to fulfill God’s designs for humanity. Unlike us, he lived the perfect human life, always reflecting the glory of God, always obeying and worshiping God, perfectly loving other people. In short, he never sinned. Yet ye died on the cross, not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people. Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus, who trusts that he alone makes us right with God, is forgiven of their sins because Jesus’ death already payed for them on the cross.

But not only did Jesus give his life. After dying, on the third day he rose from the grave. He rose in a body that is indestructible and immortal. His resurrection proved that his death paid for sins in full, that he has power over sin and death. His resurrection is also the first installment of a new creation that God will bring about whenever Jesus returns to earth. After rising from the grave, Jesus ascended to heaven, and he poured out the Holy Spirit on the church. It is the Spirit that enables certain Christians to perform certain roles in the church.

Here, Paul says that Jesus gave the church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” The apostles were people like Paul and Peter, people whom Jesus called to himself and authorized to represent him on earth. These were people who saw Jesus on earth after he rose from the grave. Paul was unique in that he saw visions of Jesus after Jesus ascended to heaven. Prophets were those who revealed truth from God in the first generation or two after Jesus ascended into heaven. I don’t think that we have apostles and prophets today, though there are some Christians who think we do. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The foundation of the church is biblical truth, revealed by the apostles and prophets. A foundation is only laid once, and there is no new, authoritative “word” from God that equals Scripture. But, certainly, the word of God equips the saints for ministry.

Evangelists are people who are especially gifted to share the message of Jesus. All Christians should be witnesses in one way or the other. But not everyone is going to be particularly good at this. Some people are more outgoing, better able to engage others in spiritual conversations. And these people can help the church do the ministry of evangelism. They can teach us how we all can tell people about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus. But there’s no indication in the rest of Scripture that there is a special office of evangelist in the church. This doesn’t seem to be an official position. But we might think of missionaries as evangelists, people whom the church should support.

That brings us to “the pastors and teachers.” This may refer to one office. In other words, Paul might very well mean “pastors who teach.” The grammar of the Greek is debatable. Perhaps Paul means that pastors equip the church for ministry, and in particular it is those pastors who teach that equip the saints for ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).

But the important thing we should see is that pastors are given to the church not do all the ministry of the church. No, pastors are given to the church to equip the saints—a word that means someone made holy by Jesus’ sacrifice and by the Holy Spirit—to do the ministry of the church. In other words, all Christians should be engaged in ministry. It’s the pastor’s job to equip Christians to minister.

As you might guess, pastors equip the saints for ministry through teaching the Bible. A pastor should teach about various roles that people play in a church. He should teach about spiritual gifts and help people to understand what their gifts are and how they can be used in the church.

This model of a pastor as equipper is different from the model that most churches have today. Some churches view pastors as the religious services provider. He’s the preacher, the one who does baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the one who visits the sick and offers counseling when people request it. More recently, churches view pastors as CEOs, as managers of a church. He is the leader, the one who manages resources, including people. Now, there are truths to both of these models. Pastors should preach and perform ceremonies and offer counseling. Pastors should lead churches; they are overseers, managers of God’s household. But both of those models suggest that the people in the pews are consumers.

A different model is that the pastor is a trainer, or a coach. We might say he’s a player-coach, the way that Bill Russell was at the end of his career with the Celtics, or that Pete Rose was at the end of his career with the Reds (though without the gambling). These different models were identified by two writers, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, who wrote a book on ministry called The Trellis and the Vine. They suggest the last model, that of trainer, is the most biblical one.[2] According to them, when this model is used, “Our congregations become centres of training where people are trained and taught to be disciples of Christ who, in turn, seek to make other disciples.”[3] The pastor doesn’t only exist to give people spiritual consumers a product. “His task is to teach and train his congregation, by his word and his life, to become disciple-making disciples of Jesus.”[4]

If we all came to church with the desire to be trained for ministry, the church would become more mature, more united. It would better reflect who Jesus is. The pastor is not the one who does all the ministry. One man, or even a few men, can’t do all the ministry of the church. And that’s not God’s design for the church. All Christians should be engaged in the ministry of a local church. I’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we talk about the role of the congregation in the church and about spiritual gifts.

So, what do we do with this information? Hopefully, we all have a clearer understanding of what a pastor’s role is. I’m sure I could do a much better job of shepherding and equipping you. In particular, I should make sure that I do a better job of training people for ministry.

But I do want to say this to you all: you will get out of church what you put into it. If you are coming on a Sunday morning thinking that church is some kind of product to be consumed, you will be missing out. Church isn’t a product to be consumed. It certainly isn’t entertainment. It shouldn’t be like watching a cooking show and saying, “Oh, so that’s how you make a soufflé!” Are you going to make a soufflé? “No, but I think it’s really interesting to watch other people cook one, and I would like to eat one when they’re done.” That’s not how church should work.

We should approach church as though we’re all players on a team. We all have different roles to play. Not everyone on a baseball team is a pitcher or a catcher. Not everyone will bat leadoff or in the cleanup spot. A football team can only have one starting quarterback, but it has many linemen. You get the idea. But every player is ready to use his or her abilities. And every player should come under the leadership of the coach.

A pastor doesn’t exist to please you. The Bible doesn’t say that pastors are your buddies, people that you like. I don’t know how much sheep like their shepherds or even agree with their shepherds. A pastor isn’t the church’s employee, a guy who exists to do the will of the congregation because, after all, they’re paying his salary. A pastor exists to do God’s will, and he does this by leading the church according to God’s word.

The best way that you can benefit from Jesus’ gift of pastors is to be willing to be led, to be willing to be taught, to be willing to be equipped. If you are not willing, you won’t get much out of church. If you’re not willing to do those things, it may be that you don’t truly know Jesus. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Part of following the Great Shepherd is following the shepherds of his church. He gave them to the church for a reason. Jesus laid down his life for the flock, to purchase them for himself. Regardless of our position in the church, all Christians should pour out their lives for Jesus. This, too, is a gift.

Let us ask God to give us the grace and the strength to do what he has called us to do in the church. Pray that I would be a better shepherd and equipper. And ask God to show you how you can be a better sheep and player on the church team. Let us be willing to listen to Jesus and act on what he has revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (Kingsford, NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009), 94ff.
  3. Ibid., 99.
  4. Ibid.

 

The Office of Overseer

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 27, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

As a leader goes, so goes a country, a company, a sports team, or any institution or organization. We realize that with our country, which is why we put so much emphasis on who is the president. The last election was only a year and a half ago, and people are still talking about it, but in a year or less, people will start campaigning for the next election in an effort to be the next president. We probably give too much weight to the presidency, blaming or praising him for almost everything that happens in this country. But we realize that if the president is a bad one, the country is in trouble.

The same is true of corporations. A company needs to have a good CEO to thrive. We don’t own a house right now, so we have some money invested in stocks. I’ve used one stock recommendation service to get some tips on how to invest, and one of the ways they evaluate companies is by evaluating their CEOs. A company with a wise and innovative CEO is more promising than one that has an incompetent leader.

The same is true in sports. Today, the Celtics play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. Despite whatever happens today, the Celtics have done better than most people would have imagined, since their star player, Kyrie Irving, has been injured for the last two months and won’t play again until next season. The Celtics also acquired another star, Gordon Hayward, last year, but he only played five minutes and scored two points before breaking his ankle. Since he’s getting about $30 million this year, that’s a bad investment. Most people credit the Celtics’ success to their coach, Brad Stevens. The Patriots have had some great players over the last seventeen years, but if you took away Bill Belichick, I don’t how many Super Bowls they would have won.

Leaders are important. And they’re important in churches, too. And that’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the leaders of churches.

Today, we’re continuing our study of 1 Timothy, a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. This book of the Bible teaches us “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15).[1] Paul had left Timothy in the city of Ephesus, an important city within the Roman Empire. The church there was threatened by the presence of false teachers. So, Paul wrote to Timothy to make sure that Timothy did his best to protect the health of the church. One way to protect the health of the church is to make sure its leaders are healthy.

And that brings us to today’s passage, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, which discusses the “office of the overseer.” First, we’ll read the passage, and then we’ll explore what it and another passage in the Bible say about leaders of the church.

But before we read this, I want to say to those who are visiting, or perhaps those who are not yet Christians: This text of the Bible may not seem like it pertains to your life at all. It is about the nuts and bolts of church life, after all. But what I’ll talk about today will give you a sense of what Christianity is all about, why the church is important, and why leaders of a church are important. And perhaps all of that will teach you more about the values of Christianity, the failings of Christians, and why those failings don’t mean that Christianity itself has failed.

Without further ado, let’s read today’s text. Here is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:

1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I want to ask a few basic questions of this passage. The first one is, what is an overseer? That’s not a term used in churches, though it does appear a few times in the Bible. The King James Version translates the Greek word as “bishop.” But when we Protestants think of “bishop,” we think of the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps the Anglican or Episcopal Church. (The Episcopal Church is named after this Greek word, episkopos.) In those churches, a bishop is an authority over several churches in an area. Is that what Paul is talking about?

No. We can see that by comparing a few different passages. Let’s look at a very similar passage in another one of Paul’s letters, his letter to Titus. In Titus 1:5–9, Paul writes,

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Here Paul tells Titus that he had left him on the island of Crete so that he could appoint elders in every town. Then, after giving a few qualifications of an elder, Paul write, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” That’s what Paul writes in 1 Timothy, too. But Paul had first started by talking of elders, so it seems that overseers are elders. The two words refer to the same office.

Some churches use the word “elder,” but some do not. So, we might not be very familiar with this term. It calls to mind older people, though in the Bible an elder was generally the head of a family, not someone who is a senior citizen. And the leaders of churches are not necessarily very old. But the point is that elders are overseers, and overseers are elders. And, before we look at other passages, it’s important to see this: Paul told Titus to appoint elders—note, this is plural—in every town—this is singular. That suggests that in every place, perhaps every individual church, there should be multiple elders, or overseers.

Let’s continue to look at other passages to figure out what “elder” and “overseer” mean. We’ll look more at this passage next week, but in 1 Peter 5, another apostle, Peter, writes,

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1–4).

Peter begins with that same term, “elders.” He calls himself “a fellow elder.” And then he says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” “Oversight” reminds us of the term “overseer.” It’s the verb form of the Greek word translated as “overseer.” But notice that other verb: shepherd. Now we’re getting on familiar ground. The verb could be translated “pastor the flock of God.” The word “pastor” comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.”

So, now we’re getting somewhere. An overseer is an elder is a pastor. These three terms refer to the same office. That might be confusing, but it’s not different than referring to the President as Commander in Chief. Those two terms can be used of the same office. The President is not someone different than the Commander in Chief. Those titles refer to the same person, or the same office. In a similar way, overseer, elder, and shepherd (or pastor) refer to the same office.

We’ll also see this in a moment when we look at some of Acts 20. When Paul was traveling back toward Jerusalem, he made a stop in Miletus, on the western coast of the province of Asia Minor, and he called the “elders of the church” of Ephesus to come to him. In part of his speech, Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Again, Paul is addressing the elders, and now he says that they are to care, “or shepherd,” the flock, because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The ESV says “to care for the church,” but it really should be “to shepherd the church” (as in the CSB and the NASB; the NIV has something similar). So, the elders are overseers, and they are to shepherd the church.

So, that answers our question. Overseers are elders or, more familiarly, pastors. That is one of two ongoing offices in the church. The other is deacon. That’s why Paul mentions both the “overseers” and the “deacons” at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). It doesn’t appear that there are any other ongoing offices in the church. There is no indication that there should be a pope, a head over the whole universal church. There is no mention of ongoing “bishops,” who govern all the churches in one city or province. The only priests in the new covenant, the church, are all Christians (1 Pet. 2:9, for example). The multiple levels of hierarchy that one sees in the Catholic Church developed in the centuries after the Bible was written, but they are not themselves part of God’s Word to his church.

Now, let’s answer a second question: what are the qualifications for an overseer, an elder, or a pastor? Let’s go back to 1 Timothy 3. Paul says that “an overseer must be above reproach” (v. 2). This does not mean that a pastor must be sinless or perfect. If that were the case, there would be no pastors! But it means there must be no major moral defects in a pastor. Many commentators believe that what follows in Paul’s list provides the definition of what it means to be “above reproach.”

Paul says he must be “the husband of one wife,” or, more literally, a “one-woman man.” Some people think this means a pastor must never have been divorced, or that pastor couldn’t remarry if his first wife died. Paul could have used words like “divorce” to describe a pastor’s qualities. But he didn’t. It’s more likely that Paul means a pastor should be faithful to his wife. Divorce in many cases is a sin, but it’s not an unforgivable sin. Yet the pastor must have a track record of being faithful to his wife.

He should also be “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” That seems self-explanatory. A pastor should be level-headed, with the ability to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

He must be “respectable,” worthy of respecting, as well as “hospitable.” Literally, this means a “lover of strangers.” He must be willing to open his life and his home to new people, which is true of all Christians (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).

He also must be “able to teach.” Besides the fact that Paul calls these leaders “overseers,” which suggests what the job is about, this is the qualification in the list that suggests what overseers do. They must be able to teach. Specifically, they must be able to teach God’s Word. As we study other passages related to overseers/elders/pastors, we’ll see that not every one of these is a regular teacher. But every overseer must be able to teach. Why is that necessary?

Often, we think of leaders as different from teachers. Think of the Patriots. I don’t know how much Bob Kraft knows about football. I’m sure I wouldn’t want him coaching the Patriots. But he’s the owner and if he wanted, he could fire Bill Belichick. Belichick is more of the teacher. We tend to separate these functions when we think of leadership. But the Bible doesn’t. According to the Bible, the church’s leaders are teachers, even if they aren’t always engaged in teaching. Why is that necessary? Because leaders of a church must lead biblically. They must lead according to what the Bible says. And I have seen that many people don’t know how to interpret the Bible well. That’s why God has given the church some people who can. But it’s often the case that some leaders in a church are not teachers, and that’s probably why many churches are not healthy.

In verse 3, Paul says that an overseer is “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Much of that is self-explanatory. A pastor can’t be sober-minded if he is drunk. Violence, or being a very argumentative person, is not what Christianity is about. Gentle does not mean never disagreeing, or never saying a strong word. We can say that Jesus was gentle, but he was not afraid to rebuke, to cry out in a loud voice, or to overturn some tables and crack a whip to drive sinful practices out of the temple. But being gentle must be the opposite of being violent and quarrelsome. He must be careful how he treats people. He must be patient and gracious. Again, this doesn’t mean he puts up with just anything, or puts up with problematic people forever. See all of Paul’s letters. He was not afraid to remove people from churches and speak strong words.

A pastor or overseer must not be a “lover of money.” I’ll speak a bit about this next week, too, but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit repetitive. Pastors who are “in it for the money” will be far more likely to do anything to get people into the church, so that the church can grow and more money will come in. Those pastors won’t preach unpopular passages. They may not contradict what the Bible says, but they won’t preach the fullness of what the Bible says. Though, of course, it may be the case that pastors who are in it for the money change their doctrine so that it matches with what the people want to hear. They may refuse to correct or confront people who are wealthy, because the church might lose a significant donor.

This is true of not just pastors, but all of us. Whatever we love the most will dictate the course of our lives. If we love Jesus most, we’ll love truth. We’ll obey Jesus’ commandments. We’ll love God with all our being and we’ll love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But if we love money or power more than we love God, we’ll be willing to make all kinds of compromises. The same is true if our treasure is comfort or entertainment or a relationship. What we love the most is our object of worship, our functional god. And if we worship anything other than the true God, we’ll bend moral rules to keep our god.

The world has many pastors and priests who have compromised in order to please people or to earn money. The world has many priests and pastors who have made sex their god, and have cheated on wives or who have sexually abused children. None of this means Christianity is false. It means that people are sinners, even within the church, and that at any given moment any of us can do what is wrong. That is why we must all be careful to watch what we love the most, what we believe to be true, just as much as we must watch our behaviors. Our desires will dictate our lives. Pastors must love God, and the truth of God, found in God’s Word, more than they love pleasing people, earning accolades, or making money.

There are three more things that Paul says about overseers, or elders or pastors. First, a pastor “must manage his own household well.” The reason is simple: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” This shows that an overseer is a leader, one who manages the church. If he can’t first manage his own home, including his children, why should we expect him to do better with the church? If his children are unruly, if his home is a mess, if his finances are out of order—well, who would want that for the church?

This does not mean that every pastor must have a wife and children. If that were so, Jesus couldn’t be a pastor, and neither could Paul! But it’s generally expected that pastors will be married and have children. This, too, shows that the Catholic Church is wrong to forbid its leaders to marry. Marriage is a good thing, something that teaches us many lessons about faithfulness and forgiveness and loving someone else when we don’t feel like it, or when that person doesn’t seem particularly lovable. Having children teaches many lessons, too, and both are gifts from God. A pastor must handle these gifts well if he wants to handle the gift of leading a church well.

In verse 6, Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” I suppose “recent” might be a bit relative. When the church was young, elders must have been appointed to churches not long after becoming Christians. But the point is that the new converts can be proud of their spirituality, or proud of their doctrine. Life has a way of humbling people and tempering their pride over time, and this is true of pastors, too. It’s best for them to have time being led after becoming a Christian instead of jumping into a position of leadership. If not, pastors may become like Satan, whose pride led him to rebel against God and therefore fall into condemnation.

Finally, Paul says that an overseer “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Paul is concerned about the reputation of the church. An overseer who has a bad reputation outside of the church makes the church, and therefore Jesus, look bad. Satan would love nothing more than to destroy the church, to ruin its reputation. So, he has laid many snares, many traps for pastors. Some involve money, some involve marriage and sex, some involve compromising their theology. All lead to a bad reputation for Jesus and his church.

So, those are the basic qualifications for pastors. But, if you think about it, most of these qualities should apply to all Christians. The only one that doesn’t is the ability to teach and, if people are single, the descriptions of marriage and a home life. In other words, pastors should be ideal Christians—not perfect Christians, because there’s no such thing. But they should be model Christians.

These qualities are probably the very opposite of the qualities that the false teachers have. If you read this letter carefully, it’s not hard to see that they were lovers of money (1 Tim. 6:3–10). It’s possible they were sexually promiscuous (2 Tim. 3:6). They were certainly not able to teach, and it seems they were quarreling over foolish things, like myths and genealogies (Tit. 3:9). In order to protect the health of the church, churches first need to have healthy leaders.

Paul knew this well, that’s why he had warned the elders in Ephesus about this several years earlier. We have already asked, “what is an overseer?” and “what are the qualifications of an overseer?” Now we should ask, “what does an overseer do?”

I’ll answer this in more detail next week. But for now, I want us to look at that passage in Acts 20, when Paul addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus. I preached on this a couple of years ago, and you can find the whole series of sermons on Acts online.[2] Therefore, I won’t dig into the details. But I want us to see a few important things in this passage. So, I’ll read Acts 20:17–31:

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”

I could go on, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop there.

I want to point out four things. First, Paul emphasizes his teaching. He says declared “what was profitable . . . the whole counsel of God.” He probably doesn’t mean he literally preached the whole Bible. After all, the entire Bible hadn’t been written yet. But he taught the fullness of God’s plan for his creation. He taught about who God is, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the perfect, eternal, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, gracious, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity. He taught that God made the universe for his glory and that he made human beings in his image, to reflect his glory, to represent who he is, to worship him, to rule over the world, and to love and obey him. He also taught that from the beginning human beings have rebelled against God. They have failed to love and trust him. They have rejected his word. In short, they have sinned. But he taught that at the right time, God sent his unique Son, Jesus, who lived a perfect human life and died in place of sinful human beings. Anyone who turns from sin to Jesus can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

That brings us to the second thing Paul mentions: his message. He taught “the gospel of the grace of God.” He taught “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He taught that “the church of God” was “obtained with his own blood.” That verse, verse 28, shows that Jesus is God. And it shows that he redeemed a people through his sacrifice on the cross. He made them his own. Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sin. As a righteous judge, God cannot let the guilty go free without someone paying the penalty for their crimes. Jesus paid that penalty in full on the cross for anyone who would turn to him in faith, trusting that his life, death, and resurrection is what reconciles us to God.

The third thing that Paul says is also found in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” He tells the elders to pay attention to themselves. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). He tells them to shepherd the flock, to care for them. He also says that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.

The fourth thing Paul says is “be alert.” He says that “fierce wolves” will attack the flock. These “wolves” will include people within the church, even some elders: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” False teachers, people who “speak twisted things,” can destroy the church. These people may not look fierce at all. They may be the nicest people you know. But anyone who rejects God’s Word, or leads people away from following it, is a “wolf.” People who attack the sheep or who attack a faithful shepherd are wolves.

From this passage in Acts, we get a good sense of what overseers do. They teach God’s Word—the fullness of it, not just popular passages. They care and protect the flock. And they watch out for false teachers or other enemies. Of course, they exercise oversight, too. They lead, teach, and protect.

The reason I spend so much time reading Scripture in my sermons and showing where I get my ideas from is because I want to teach “the whole counsel of God.” Some churches don’t spend a lot of time with Scripture. Some churches focus only on the more “practical” passages, the ones that seem to apply to everyone, not just pastors or people concerned about church leadership. But I think it’s important to teach all of God’s Word to all of God’s people. I think we should view all of God’s world through the lens of all of God’s Word. And that means focusing on the Bible, not spending a lot of time on my opinions or on cute stories.

So, we’ve looked at a lot of Scripture and thought a bit about overseers/elders/pastors. What should we do with this information?

First, I want to speak to anyone who might not be a Christian. Thanks for being here. Today’s passage may not seem to apply at all to you. But I hope it’s given you some insight into what’s important about Christianity. You’ve heard the central message of Christianity: Jesus came to save sinners, people who have been enemies of God. You may not see yourself as an enemy of God, but if you don’t love God more than anything else, and if that isn’t truly apparent in your life, you’re at odds with God. The fact is that all of us start out as rebels. We don’t love, trust, and obey God the way that we should. We have all sinned. And therefore, we deserve condemnation. But God sent his Son, who came willingly, to die on our place, if we would only trust him. I would love to talk to you more about what it means to follow Jesus. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you first have to be perfect. But when we come to Jesus, we must do life God’s way, and that means living the way a model Christian should live. We will not all be pastors, but many of the qualities of a pastor should be apparent in a Christian’s life.

Second, I want us a church to think about what all these passages say. There are two offices of the church: overseer/elder/shepherd and deacon. The two are not the same. They don’t perform the same roles. Deacons aren’t junior pastors or assistant pastors. Deacons are not shepherds or overseers. We need to have a correct understanding of both offices, and this should be reflected in our by-laws. Right now, they are not. If you look at our by-laws, nowhere in the description of the pastor’s role does it include the language of leading, overseeing, shepherding, or watching over. Yet in the description of the deacons, we’re told they should “watch over” the congregation and serve as “overseeing” members of committees. I’ll have more to say about all of this, but the by-laws of this church are not fully biblical, and therefore, they need to change.

Three, I would like to see this church have multiple overseers/elders/pastors. This does not mean the church has to hire more staff. Many healthy churches that are similar in doctrine have multiple elders, some of whom are paid staff, and others who are lay leaders. They all have the same office, though perhaps they don’t all devote as much time to the job. The paid staff do more of the teaching and do more administrative oversight. But all the elders are responsible for shepherding the flock. The role of the deacons is to serve in practical manners, often through physical acts of service, but also through distributing financial aid to those in need. I’ll say much more about these roles over the coming weeks. For now, I just want to have us think about that model, because it’s biblical.

We should all care about the leadership of the church because the church is “the household of God . . . a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Being part of God’s family means being part of a church. And a healthy church needs faithful leaders. Please pray that I would be a faithful shepherd and that we would all follow the chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://wbcommunity.org/acts.

 

What Is Proper for Women (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 20, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I think most people would agree that there is problem with men and women in our culture. That is particularly true in light of the many different accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that have come to light within recent months and years. How men and women relate to each other in this country is problematic, to say the least.

Though most people would agree with that, we don’t seem to agree on the solution to this problem. Some people think the way forward is to have more female leaders. Many people think every other president should be a woman, that half of Congress should be female, and that there should be more female governors, mayors, and judges. The same people think that there should be far more female CEOs, board members, principals, professors, military officers, and so on. They might think that for every male role in a movie or television show, there should be a female role. I suspect that if the people who hold these opinions thought about religion, they would think there should be a female Pope and priests, too.

In other words, some people think that the way forward is to have equal roles for men and women. Not only are they equal in value, worth, respect, and dignity, but they also should be able to perform all the same jobs. The only difference is biological. And those biological differences are generally only concerned with reproductive organs and size and strength.

But what if this isn’t the way forward? What if the way forward is to go backward? And I don’t mean that we should go back to the nineteenth century, when women couldn’t vote. I don’t mean we should go back to, say, a thousand or two or three thousand years ago, when women were often treated like property. What if the way forward is to look back to a time when the world was uncorrupted by the forces of evil? What if the way forward is to look back to the way God designed the world to function, before sin invaded the creation and distorted everything?

I realize that many people think such an idea would be foolish. Many people would believe such a move to be regress, not progress. I understand that. The reality is that Christianity has always been countercultural. Christianity is more than just a way to be forgiven by God. Christianity is a way of looking at all of reality. It’s a worldview, a story that gives shape to our lives, a map that shows us where to go, a set of lenses that helps us to see the world as it really is. And the Christian worldview will always be at odds with elements of the prevailing culture’s worldview. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of men and women.

We’ll see that today as we continue to look at a book in the Bible called 1 Timothy. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy, who was in a city in the Roman Empire called Ephesus.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Paul encouraged Timothy to stop people who taught false doctrine. Now, he tells Timothy that men and women have different roles to play in the church.

What we see in this passage will challenge some of us. At first, some of us might think this couldn’t possibly be right. That will likely be true if you’re not a Christian. But I would ask that you keep an open mind. I also ask you to think about this: There has never been a country that has had as much wealth as America has right now. There has never been a people with as many choices as Americans have now. Despite all of this, we are, on the whole, unhappy. The number of suicides, drug overdose deaths, various addictions, and drug prescriptions for depression and anxiety speak to that fact. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re doing things. That’s something to consider as we explore today’s passage.

Without further ado, let’s turn to 1 Timothy 2:8–15:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.[1]

There are four points to this passage. The first two concern appropriate behavior for men and women, respectively. The third point states what women should not do. And the fourth point provides the reason.

The first thing that Paul says is “I desire.” You might think he is simply expressing his own opinions or wishes, and that these are not necessarily commands from God. But at the very beginning of the letter, Paul describes himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). Paul was commissioned by God—commanded by God—to be the official messenger of Jesus. God appointed him to this role (1 Tim. 2:7). In 2 Timothy, Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16)—it’s ultimately written by God through human beings, which is what the apostle Peter says, too (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter also refers to Paul’s letters and then speaks of “other Scriptures,” which means that Paul’s letters are Scripture, too (2 Pet. 3:15–16). So, this isn’t just a letter from Paul. It’s also God’s word. The Holy Spirit wrote these words through Paul. The point is that these aren’t just Paul’s opinions.

Paul says that he desires “that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” It seems the men in the church in Ephesus might have had trouble getting along. Paul says that not only those men, but men in “every place” should pray. This shows that Paul’s words in this letter are not just directed to the church in Ephesus, but to all Christians. And it’s clear that Paul’s instructions here have to do with public worship meetings. Instead of lifting hands to fight among themselves, they should lift “holy hands,” hands that are pure, hands that reach out to God, as it were. Perhaps they should be praying for all people, as Paul says at the beginning of chapter 2.

Then, Paul moves on to discuss what is appropriate for women: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” It’s possible that in Ephesus, some women were showing off their wealth by wearing a lot of jewelry and “costly attire.” Paul doesn’t want anyone in the church to draw attention away from God and to themselves. When we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, it’s not a fashion show. Our attention should be directed toward God. Anything that distracts from that focus is a hindrance. This is not a time to show off expensive clothing or jewelry.

There may be another reason why Paul doesn’t women to dress in a showy way. Women might have dressed that way to get attention from men. Even if they weren’t intending to attract or seduce men, if they dressed in an immodest way, then the men of the church might have been distracted.

As a man, I can say this: I don’t know any man who doesn’t struggle with lust. Perhaps there are some men who don’t have such problems. But every man I know who was talked on the subject has some struggles in this area. If attractive women are wearing revealing clothing, that can not only be a distraction, but it doesn’t help men who struggle with that issue. Now, it’s a man’s fault if he can’t control his thoughts and desires. But a sister in Christ should want to help her brother out, and not be a stumbling block to him. And if a woman is dressing in a showy, revealing way, there has to be some question as to why she is doing that. Is she at a worship service to worship God, or to attract attention to herself?

I don’t see this being a problem at this church, so I won’t linger too long here. The point is that women shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Instead, they should focus on doing good works, the source of real beauty. That doesn’t necessarily mean women can’t wear any jewelry or makeup, or that they can’t wear something fashionable. But the point is that the focus should be on God and on living for him.

Of course, the same could be said of men. I don’t know that men tend to be so distracting in their looks. But I’m a man, not a woman, so I can’t speak for how women might react to a very attractive man wearing something that was form-fitting or revealing. But men don’t tend to do that, and that was probably true in Paul’s day, so it doesn’t seem to be much of a worry.

Let’s move on to verses 11 and 12, for this is where things get quite controversial. Paul says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is where Paul’s words grate against so many today. What does Paul mean? There seem to be two general understandings of what Paul writes here. One is to take Paul’s words at face value. Women shouldn’t teach in a church meeting or exercise authority over men in a church. Instead, they should be submissive and generally quiet. The other is to claim that Paul was addressing a particular cultural issue in his time. The claim is that in Ephesus, all women were uneducated and therefore not fit to teach. Since Paul was concerned about false teaching, and since the women there were uneducated, Paul tells them to learn and not teach or lead. But maybe if the cultural conditions were different, Paul wouldn’t place such restrictions on women.

I don’t have enough time to refute that second position thoroughly. All I can say is that Paul nowhere hints at a claim that all women in Ephesus were uneducated and that’s why they shouldn’t teach or lead men. Paul could have used words to communicate such an idea. He could have framed his argument in that way. But he doesn’t. In fact, since the false teachers were likely male, telling women not to teach wouldn’t stop the false teaching. But it probably was the case that some women decided they, too, could be teachers. Perhaps they thought that since Jesus had come, all gender distinctions were no longer valid.

I do think that Paul means that women should not lead men in a church. In other words, they shouldn’t be pastors, elders, or overseers. The Bible uses three different terms—shepherds (from which we get “pastors”), elders, and overseers—to refer to the leading and teaching office of the church. What Paul says means that women are not qualified for that office. But that doesn’t mean women can’t teach at all. In Titus, Paul says that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2:3–5). And when Paul says that women should learn quietly, he can’t mean absolute silence, for at least two reasons. First, Paul uses the same word in verse 2 to speak of all Christians leading a quiet life. He hardly means all Christians should be absolutely silent. Second, in another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women can pray and prophesy in church (11:5). But I do think Paul means women should submit to male leaders and teachers—pastors—and shouldn’t be pastors themselves.

Again, this is where people start to claim that the Bible presents a regressive, backwards “patriarchal” view of men and women. How can we respond to this type of claim?

Well, let me say two things before we continue to look at verses in the Bible. One, I find that labels are often not helpful when dealing with controversial subjects. People who tend to oppose this passage will often bring up the word “patriarchy,” as if that’s some kind of argument in and of itself. Some people now talk about “toxic masculinity,” which is kind of an unclear concept. I’m sure there are false views of masculinity that are toxic. The Bible does not teach that men should be abusive or treat women like slaves or playthings. But I think a lack of biblical manhood is also toxic. When a man refuses to accept the role that God designed for him, that could be just as toxic as the domineering, abusive man. Likewise, I don’t think it’s helpful to rail against “feminist” or “leftists.” Good arguments don’t call names, mock people, or just make quick, baseless assertions. Christians, we need to do better in all of our conversations than resorting to these cheap, easy moves. We need to be more thoughtful and careful.

So, we need to dig deeper and think. That’s one issue.

The second issue is that how we read, interpret, and react to the Bible is going to be shaped by our worldview. No one comes to the Bible objectively. We all have various beliefs, heart inclinations, philosophical commitments, and presuppositions. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of those things. We often assume that we’re in the right, and we look at the Bible to see if it matches what we already assume to be true. Before we assume our generation has things right, we should examine our own beliefs. By what standard have we judged them? Why do we assume that we’re right and others in the past have been wrong?

Some people assume that Paul was culturally conditioned. In other words, he was just a man of his times and his views reflected his own culture. All the while, these same people never assume that they are culturally conditioned, and that they are just men and women of their own times, with views that reflect nothing more than the passing fancies of their own culture.

If the basic story of the Bible is true—that a holy, perfect, good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God created us to function in a certain way, and that we have rebelled against him and his design for our lives—we should assume that there will be times when the Bible rubs us the wrong way. That’s because God will be using his written word to challenge our assumptions and correct our views. That has always happened. The Bible has always been countercultural. The exact ways it challenges various cultures will change throughout time, but there was never a time when everyone in one country said, “Yup, everything in that book is exactly what I’ve always believed.”

Now, back to this passage: to understand what Paul is saying, and why it makes sense, we have to see how he grounds his argument and how that shows us some important points regarding the Christian worldview.

This is the reason why women should not teach and exercise authority over men in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” What Paul is doing is reminding us of the beginning of the Bible.

So, let’s think about the beginning of the story of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The crown of God’s creation was humanity. In Genesis 1:26–28, we read this:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

It’s very important to see that God made both man and woman in his image. That means that both have the same value and worth. They were both tasked with representing who God is, reflecting his glory and attributes. And man and woman were made to rule over the rest of creation by coming under the authority of God and his word.

Genesis 2 gives us a different perspective of how God made human beings. It’s not a contradictory account, it’s just different. The Hebrew way of thinking often examined one truth from different angles. In Genesis 2, we see that God makes the man first. God also gives the man a task, to “work and keep” the garden of Eden, as well as a commandment not to eat one type of fruit. All of this is loaded with meaning that I don’t have time to explain this morning. Suffice it to say, the importance of all of this goes far beyond gardening and eating.

After this, God makes a woman to be with the man. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for[2] him” (Gen. 2:18). The ESV has a footnote that says, “corresponding to.” The idea is that God wouldn’t make a clone of the man, someone identical to him. No, God would make a woman who would correspond to and complement the man. She would be different in some important ways, but they would both bear God’s image.

It’s true that different faithful, Bible-believing Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis differently. There are different views about how old the universe is, or how literal and how figurative various things are in the text. But I think all faithful Christians must believe that God created two human beings, Adam and Eve, intentionally and for a particular purpose. He made them for each other, different from one another yet corresponding to one another and, obviously, both human and both in God’s image. It’s also important to see that the commands were given by God to the man, and that this happened before sin came into the world. This implies that the man was the head, or leader, of the woman even before sin entered into the world.

This picture of peace and harmony between God and humans, and between the first two human beings, is marred in Genesis 3. There, a serpent, an embodiment of Satan, tempts Eve by getting her to question God’s word and his goodness. She disobeys God’s commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit, and Adam goes along with her. As a consequence, all of creation is under a curse, a partial punishment that God imposed against his rebellious creatures.

Though Eve was the first to sin, Adam is the one who is held accountable by God. We’re told that God specifically addressed the man and questioned him about what happened. This is because Adam was the leader, the head. Theologically, we know from the whole of the Bible that Adam was the covenant head. He represented all of humanity. This is a difficult concept for people who aren’t familiar with the Bible to grasp, but the idea is that we are all represented by someone, just as we’re all represented in Congress by politicians, whether we voted for that person or not. Even before the fall, Adam is the leader.

Part of God’s curse is that men and women would struggle against each other. God told Eve,

Your desire shall be contrary to[3]your husband,
but he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16).

If we compare that language to what God says to Cain in the next chapter of Genesis (see Gen. 4:7), we see that this means that the woman would want to dominate or master her husband, and that he would respond with a harsh rule, not loving leadership. God was saying that this would happen to all women and men in the future.

Let’s now get back to Paul’s argument. He says that Adam was formed first, then Eve. I believe the implication is that God made Adam first because God intended to have man be the head of the family. This is what Paul says in a letter to Christians in this same city of Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:22–24, Paul writes,

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Paul says clearly that the husband is the head of the wife, and that the wife should submit to the husband.

But let’s not forget what Paul says next. In verse 25, he says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That’s a high calling. Men are supposed to love their wives in a leading but sacrificial way. You can see how there is no hint of abuse or domineering here.

Paul also says that Eve was deceived first and sinned. Does Paul mean that women are more easily deceived or more easily given to sinning? Does Paul mean that if the serpent talked to Adam instead of Eve, sin wouldn’t have entered into the world?

I don’t think Paul means those things. But the fact is that the serpent did talk to Eve, not Adam. Why would that happen? Why would Satan work through a serpent, anyway? There’s some mystery here, but it seems that Satan quite intentionally worked against God’s created order. Genesis 1 says that human beings were to have dominion over all animals, including things that creep on the earth. Satan spoke through a creepy-crawly animal, getting a human being to trust him instead of God. Already, he was subverting the created order. And since God made the man first and gave him the commandments and held him accountable for the rebellion, it’s clear that God made the man to be a leader over the woman. Satan must have known that, but he continued to subvert the created order by tempting the woman. And the woman then tempted the man. We should also see that in Genesis 3, Adam was “with her” (v. 6). He clearly didn’t do a good job of leading or protecting his wife, so he is just as much to blame.

Now, that all seems to be clear. But perhaps that doesn’t answer why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors. Why shouldn’t they be?

It’s hard to answer that question in a way that will satisfy critics. We must say, though, that God made men to be leaders and women to serve alongside, but not over, men. And I think we can make some generalizations about men and women. There will likely be exceptions to these generalizations, but I think they are for the most part true. Women tend to be more nurturing. It’s no surprise that most nurses, school teachers, and other children’s workers have been women. I think women tend to be more patient with children, and I think this is by design.

From what I have seen in churches, men are more interested in doctrinal formulations, in systematic theology, and are not as afraid to make tough decisions. They are less likely to be driven by emotions.

Again, I’m sure there are exceptions, but God has created men and women differently. Listen to the words of a female physician, a cardiologist named Paula Johnson: “Every cell has a sex—and what that means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular level. It means that we’re different across all of our organs, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints.”[4] Men and women are different by design, and God made men to be leaders, to be heads. This does not mean men are inherently better or more intelligent. It just means men and women are different, fitted for different roles. That’s why God did not intend women to be pastors. For example, how could a husband be the head of his wife if his wife were his pastor?

Before I make a few more general comments on this whole topic, we do have one more verse to explore, and it’s a hard one to understand. In verse 15, Paul writes, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” There are three different ways to take this. Some people think the “she” in the first part of the verse refers to Eve. Salvation came to the world through her bearing children, because the distant offspring of Eve, Jesus, is the Savior (Gen. 3:15). It’s certainly true that even though Eve sinned, she became “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20)—that’s what her name means. God used a sinful woman to bear children, who had children, who had children . . . which eventually led to the birth of Jesus. So, there is great value in bearing children, and only women can have children. Mothers should be honored greatly. Having children is no less of a task than pastoring a church. Obviously, we wouldn’t be here without mothers.

That being said, I don’t think this is what Paul means, because the second half of the verse, “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” doesn’t fit this interpretation.

Some people think that this verse doesn’t speak of spiritual salvation, but of physical deliverance through the process of having a child. In the Bible, the word “saved” sometimes refers just to a temporal, physical deliverance (as in Acts 27:20, 31). In the ancient world, mothers often died in childbirth. Some people think that if women gladly except their God-given roles and live godly, faithful lives, they wouldn’t die in the process of giving birth. That’s a possible reading, but we don’t have any evidence that faithful Christian women didn’t die giving birth, while only those unfaithful, ungodly women perished.

A third reading, and probably the right one, is that women will be saved in an ultimate, spiritual sense, if they accept their God-given role, which is represented here by motherhood, and if they continue in faith and godly living. Now, this doesn’t mean that every woman is going to give birth. Being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:7–8). But only women can get pregnant and give birth, and Paul refers to this as one unique aspect of womanhood. And this also doesn’t mean that salvation is earned. Salvation is a gift from God. But we have to think about it this way: If God has saved a person from sin and ultimate condemnation, he has also given that person the Holy Spirit to change that person, to transform that person. A changed heart responds to Jesus in faith, trusting him not only for salvation, but also trusting his words, his authority, and his design for our lives. The proof that a person has been changed is faith, godly living, and an acceptance of God’s design. This is true of both men and women.

The truth is that we all have limitations and limited roles to play. We all must submit to authorities. The word “submit” is not a four-letter word; it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in America we tend to be allergic to authorities and see submission as a curse instead of a gift. Honestly, I think this is a source of unhappiness. If we learned to embrace God’s design instead of fighting against it, we would be more content.

God has designed authority and submission on many levels. Children must submit to parents (Eph. 6:1–3). Employees must submit to employers (Eph. 6:5–8). Yes, wives are told they should submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22). In the church, people should submit to pastors (Heb. 13:17). All of us should submit to civic leaders, to governing politicians (Rom. 13:1–7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). And everyone should ultimately submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, who even submitted himself to his Father.[5] The fact that Jesus submitted to his Father doesn’t mean he is less in value. Jesus is God the Son, no less divine than God the Father. But even the God-man knows what it’s like to submit.

And Jesus shows what it’s like for a man to lead in love. He was and is authoritative. He wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths or perform hard tasks. But he laid down his life for his people, both men and women. He died for them. A real man doesn’t rule with an iron fist. A real man leads, but he also sacrifices. The fact that Jesus did both shows that we can trust his him and submit to him as our King and Savior. And if we submit to Jesus, we’ll trust what he says about submitting to merely human authorities.

This sermon has already been long enough, and though I would love to save more to defend what the Bible says, all I can say now is something that Jesus said: “wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35). If we all trusted God’s words regarding men and women, I believe we would see a more just, well-ordered world. But it will take some time to see the results of what we do, just like it takes time to see what kind of adults children will become. I firmly believe that the fruit of our culture will be rotten. Literally, the children of a culture that rebels against God will be worse off. If we trust what God has spoken and lived accordingly, things would be better.

Here’s a closing word to men and to women. Men, embrace your role as leaders, but lead lovingly. Lead in prayer. Don’t dominate women, but don’t also abdicate your role as leaders. I think the reason why women have become leaders is often because men refused to lead or were simply lousy leaders. All of us will lead somewhere in life. If you’re married, love your wives as Jesus loved the church. If you’re a leader in the church, lead according to God’s word and the example of Jesus. If you’re a leader at work, do the same.

Women, you are in no way inferior to men. You are made in God’s image. You are very valuable in God’s kingdom. Though Jesus was and is male, and though he chose male disciples, his ministry was supported by women and they witnessed his burial and his empty tomb. Women can serve in all kinds of ways in the church. They are really only barred from being pastors, or from preaching—which isn’t just imparting information, but is also an authoritative task. But women can teach women and children, women can mentor women, women can serve in a variety of ways, and women have served and can serve as missionaries. Eve was told she could eat all kinds of fruit except one. Women, you can choose to serve in a variety of ways except one. Will you embrace that limitation, and look at what you can do and not at what you can’t? Or will you not trust God and look at that forbidden fruit as something that is good and kept from you by God?

Really, that’s a choice for all of us, both men and women. Will we trust what God’s word or not? Will we accept what he has offered us, or will be bitterly want what he has forbidden? That is the great struggle for all human beings. If we trust Jesus for salvation, we will also trust God’s word and design. God gives us good gifts, including the gift of being a man or a woman. Let us accept his gifts with thankful hearts and serve him in love and humility.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Or corresponding to; also verse 20
  3. Or shall be toward (see 4:7)
  4. Paula Johnson, “His and Hers . . . Healthcare,” TED talk, December 2013, quoted in Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 196.
  5. There are too many verses that speak of Jesus’ lordship, his reign and rule over everything, to list here.

 

One Mediator between God and Men (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 13, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I’m sure we all have people in our lives whose names cause us to go “ugh.” I don’t mean that literally, of course. But when we think about certain people, whether we know them personally or only because they’re famous, we tend to have negative reactions. That seems to be the case when it comes to politicians. Donald Trump could cure cancer tomorrow and some people would still hate him. Barack Obama could have brought about world peace, and others would continue to speak poorly of him. Hilary Clinton lost an election and is no longer in any government office, yet I still see people who claim to be Christians post negative memes about her on Facebook.

If we’re honest, we all have a list of people who we don’t like, people who we think belong in a “basket of deplorables,” people we think we’re better than, people we think are beyond redemption. I don’t think we consciously think this way. But the reality is that we don’t treat people equally, we often forget that everyone is made in God’s image and that no one is beyond being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and condemnation.

Christians, how often have we prayed for politicians we dislike? How often have we prayed that they would come to a true knowledge of God? How often do we pray for our favorite athletes? We may love watching Tom Brady play, but how often do we pray that he would know Jesus? We may hope our doctor can heal us, but we often treat him or her more as an instrument, a thing that exists for us, instead of a soul in need of salvation. The same is true for that neighbor we don’t care for, or that in-law who we might be happy never to see again. Whether we realize it or not, we seem to act as if these people don’t need Jesus. Or, if we realize it, we don’t care to do anything about it.

Throughout history, there have been people who have rather consciously thought that certain types of people could never be right with God. That seems to have been the case almost two thousand years ago in the city of Ephesus, part of modern Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire. In that city, there were people teaching that only some people could be God’s people. It appears they might have thought that only law-abiding Jewish Christians could be God’s people. But since this is not the case, the apostle Paul wrote to his younger associate, Timothy, to tell them that this is not the truth.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. And in today’s passage, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, we’ll see that Paul tells Timothy a few important truths. One, Christians should pray for all people. Two, God desires all people to be saved. Three, there is only one God and one way to God, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. And, four, Paul was sent by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, which shows that not only Jews could come to know Jesus. All of these points focus on the fact that all people need salvation from the condemnation that comes along with our sin and that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Since condemnation is our biggest problem, and salvation our biggest need, and since there’s only one way to be saved, we should put great emphasis on the gospel in our prayers, our personal lives, and in the life of the church.

Let’s read 1 Timothy 2:1–7, and then I’ll explain those points in more detail.

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.[1]

At this point in the letter, Paul begins to tell Timothy how people in the church should behave. He says that they should pray. He uses various words for prayer—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—that cover the range of prayer requests. The point is that we should pray on behalf of others. We should plead with God on their behalf. If these people aren’t Christians, they probably aren’t praying for themselves to the one, true God. They certainly aren’t praying for their own salvation. We may be the only ones praying for those people, whoever they are.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this idea here, all Christians are royal priests, priests of the king. The apostle Peter tells Christians, in 1 Peter 2:9–10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Priests intercede on behalf of others to God. They mediate God’s blessings to others. That’s what Paul has in mind here.

Paul stresses that they should pray for all people: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, men and women, rich and poor. We should pray even for civic rulers, “kings and all who are in high positions.” We should pray that they would rule wisely and righteously. We should pray that they would fulfill the God-ordained purpose for government. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13–17, says,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Paul writes about the government in a similar way in Romans 13:1–7. The government has been established by God to punish evil, to provide order. We should pray they do their job.

Keep in mind that the emperor of the Roman Empire at this time was Nero (ruled 54–68). He was, to say the least, a sketchy character. His mother, Agrippina, was from the imperial family of Augustus. It’s rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Caligula, who was emperor (37–41), and whom she plotted to kill. She later married her uncle, Claudius, who was the emperor after Caligula (41–54). It seems that she poisoned Claudius so that her son, Nero, could become the next emperor. Nero had been adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. When he had been emperor for five years, he had his mother killed. He cheated on his wife with his mistress, Poppaea, and had his wife banished and then killed. It’s possible that he also killed Poppaea, his second wife, by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant, though we may never know the truth. There were many other sexual misdeeds and murderous intrigues in his life, but he might be best known for blaming a raging fire in Rome, which occurred in 64, on Christians. This is what the historian Suetonius says about Nero’s treatment of Christians:

They were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his garden for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the spectators.[2]

This was the “king” that Paul wanted Christians to pray for! Paul surely wrote this letter before the year 64, but he was aware of the emperor’s bad character. He must have known how corrupt kings could be. Yet, still, he asks that Christians pray for these people. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, not just the people we like or agree with (Matt. 5:43–48).

Praying for these people can have many positive results. Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, praying for people who, we don’t naturally like can reduce feelings of hate. Also, God hears our prayers and will act on them to help these people. That’s what John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a famous preacher around the time of Augustine, said. In one of his sermons, over sixteen hundred years ago, he said this about praying for all people, including kings:

From this, two advantages result. First, hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays: and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us. For nothing is so apt to draw men under teaching, as to love, and be loved. Think what it was for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered the Christians, to hear that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them.[3]

Imagine how different things would be if we were known more for praying for people who are opposed to us.

Paul says here that the purpose of such prayers is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I believe that Paul means that we should pray that these rulers—whether presidents, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices—would do their job so that there can be peace and order in our time. And if we have prayed for them, we can rest knowing that we have done what is godly.

We shouldn’t just pray for peace so that we can live easier lives. We should pray that there would be peace and righteousness so that the message of Jesus can be freely communicated. Evil regimes have a way of hindering the progress of the gospel. Yes, nothing can stop the word of God from being spread, but when governments make it illegal to own a Bible or to gather together in a church, it’s a lot harder to disciple new Christians or to tell others about Jesus.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see that there were times when even Paul benefitted from the protection of the Roman Empire (Acts 19:23–41; 21:27–36; 23:12–35). Of course, Paul was also imprisoned by the Romans and would eventually die at their hands. But he knew that when the government functioned according to God’s revealed will, things go well for the gospel.

I think Paul wants us to pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. That’s the second point we see in this passage. What does this mean?

Does God want each and every person to be saved? If that is the case, God certainly has the ability to save each and ever person. He can direct their hearts to believe in Jesus. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If he can direct the king’s heart where he wills, he can direct our hearts.

Well, it’s possible that Paul means God wants each and every person to be saved, and yet he can’t save each and every person for some good reason.

Some people believe that God can’t save all because he must respect each person’s free will. These people will say that real love cannot be forced, that God must allow us to make the choices. So, free will is more important than the salvation of each and every person.

The problem with this view is that it rests on things that aren’t in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible is there an extended discussion on free will. Are we truly free to make any choice? The Bible does say that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The fact is that because the power of sin has corrupted the world, our hearts are corrupted as well. If we are left to our own free choices, we would never choose God or love him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one can come to him for eternal life unless God the Father has drawn that person. And if God the Father has drawn that person to Jesus, that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day, the day of judgment (John 6:44). That means that only those who will receive eternal life are drawn by God to Jesus. Jesus also says that unless one is first born again by the Holy Spirit, that person can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it (John 3:1–8). The only way we can choose to believe in Jesus, love him, and obey him, is if God empowers us. And the one who is empowered will do that.

Others who acknowledge the language of God choosing and predestining people believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t because his plan to save only some, the ones he predestined to salvation, brings him greater glory. While this may be hard to digest, I think there is truth to this.

But this ongoing debate probably isn’t what Paul has in mind.

I think we get confused by the language of “all.” We tend to think it has to mean “absolutely all” or “each and every.” But look at the way “all” is used elsewhere.

In just a moment, in verse 6, we’ll see that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means he paid the penalty for sin, he paid the price for our redemption. Yet it can’t mean that Jesus redeemed each and every single person. If that were true, no one would be condemned. No one would go to hell. But the Bible clearly states that there will be some—many, really—who reject Jesus and stand condemned. We don’t revel in that truth. It’s something that should bother us. But it remains the truth.

In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” If God is the Savior of each and every single person, then all would be saved from condemnation. But I think Paul doesn’t mean that. Again, in Titus 2:11, Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” I don’t think Paul means “each and every person is saved.” So, what does Paul mean?

I think Paul means that Jesus is the Savior of all types of people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, people of all nations and languages. Sometimes this is expressed as “all without distinction.” Jesus is the world’s only Savior. There is no other. If Paul meant “all without exception,” then you would have to believe in universalism, the idea that every single person will be saved, that no one will remain in hell. We might wish this to be true, but it’s not.

The truth is that God will save whom he wants to save (Rom. 9:15, 18, 19–24). But we don’t know who those people are. We should strive to bring all people to the knowledge of the truth, even if we know that not all people will believe.

That brings us to third point in this passage. Look again at verses 5 and 6: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

There is only one God. Paul is probably making an allusion to the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God—not a god of the Jews and another god of the Romans and yet another god for Americans. And there is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. He is the only mediator. Here, Paul stresses that Jesus is a man. But Jesus is also God. In Titus 2:13, Paul says that “our blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus is the God-man, the only one who can stand in the gap between God and human beings. Because Jesus has two natures, a divine one and a human one, he can unite both parties.

And that indicates what our problem is. We are separated from God. The reason that is so is because the first human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t trust him. They turned away from God, and the world has been a mess ever since. We are born with hearts that don’t love God the way we should. As a result, we do ungodly things. Our hearts and our actions separate us from God. And the only way back to God is through Jesus.

Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom. The language of “ransom” refers to a price that is paid to bring us freedom. We are in bondage to our sin, enslaved by our desires, and bound in the chains of condemnation. We cannot free ourselves from this position. But Jesus offered his own life to pay the penalty for our sins. God is a righteous judge. He must punish sin and sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. So, he gave his only Son, and his only Son laid down his life for his people. That’s why Jesus says of himself, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice that he said he gave his life as a ransom for “many”—not all.

As a man, Jesus could die for other men. (To be clear, Jesus was a human being who died for other human beings, not just males.) As God, his sacrifice can pay for a vast number of sins and sinners, throughout space and time. The fact that it took the death of the Son of God to pay for our sins shows how problematic sin is, and how our salvation comes at a great cost.

And since there is only one God, there is only one way to receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes,

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom. 3:29–30).

We are not saved through our own efforts, obedience, or goodness. We can only be right in God’s eyes by trusting in his Son. The same is true for Jews and Gentiles, for Romans and Americans, for emperors and presidents and illegal aliens, for straight and gay, men and women, adults and children. The only way to be made right in God’s eyes is to receive the perfect status of the only sinless man who ever lived, and to trust that this man’s death wiped away our sins.

Since Jesus is the only way to God, we should strive to bring people to a true knowledge of Jesus. That knowledge is more than knowing facts about Jesus. That knowledge is a relationship of trust, love, and obedience. Real faith leads to knowing facts, but it also leads to trusting a person, the God-man Jesus Christ.

Paul could say all of this because God appointed him to be a preacher of the gospel. He was sent to the Gentiles to tell them about Jesus. That’s the fourth point he makes in these verses.

Paul knew he couldn’t reach everyone, but he did what he could so that many souls could be saved. In another letter, 1 Corinthians, he writes this:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

Paul didn’t sin to reach sinners, but otherwise he set aside his personal preferences in order to reach others. He didn’t let his own culture be an obstacle to reaching others. Though he was Jewish, he wasn’t afraid to break with the old traditions of Judaism in order to reach Gentiles. He didn’t break God’s moral law to do this, but he broke with the way “things were always done” in order to carry out his mission.

I want to close this message by thinking about what all of this means for us. This passage focuses on salvation, and we should, too. That is particularly true of how we think about the church.

When we don’t focus on salvation and the gospel first, we forget that our greatest problem is our sin. We forget that our real need is salvation. And we forget that this is the need of every human being. A church that isn’t focused on the gospel forgets that each and every human being is a sinner in need of a rescue. Instead, we become inward focused, dwelling only on creating a nice church environment in which everyone is “happy” and “comfortable.” We focus on our personal preferences. It’s all talk of “I like this” type of music and “I don’t like that” song or sermon or whatever.

A church that has pushed the gospel to the sidelines might seem very nice and peaceful. It may seem very loving, because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. But if the gospel isn’t front and center, that peace is superficial. That’s because the only true peace is brought about by Jesus. True peace—reconciliation between God and people, and even between one human being and another—comes only through Jesus. And if we’re not concerned about the souls of the lost, focusing our prayers and our deeds toward their salvation, we’re not loving them at all. We might even say it’s a form of hate.

Imagine this: if you had a person in your life who desperately needed a cure for a disease, and you knew where that person could get that cure and refused to tell that person where to get it, you wouldn’t call that love. You would call it hate. Christians are beggars who know where to get the bread. We should tell others where to get it. We should pray that they would take that gift.

Perhaps we need to realign the way we think of other people. Perhaps we have unconsciously thought of others as being beyond God’s reach. We may have thought, “Oh, that person will never become a Christian.” When we do that, we deny God’s power to save even the worst of sinners. When we do that, we act superior to non-Christians. We may start to think we are Christians because we are better, purer, wiser, or whatever. And when we do that, we fail to see that lost people are God’s image bearers who need a rescue just as much as we did.

If you’re not a Christian, I want to apologize if you’ve run into Christians who act as if they’re better than you. I want to apologize if you’ve never heard the message of Jesus before. And I want you to know that you have a problem. Your life isn’t centering around God. That means it’s centered around something else. Whatever that is—you, your job, your possessions, entertainment, politics, a relationship—that’s your functional god, the object of your worship. But you were made to worship the one, true God. All of us don’t worship him the way we should. We fail to love and honor our Creator, the one who upholds the universe and everything in it at every moment, the source of life and love and goodness and beauty. God is patient with you. He is putting up with your rebellion. But he won’t do that forever. God wants to restore his creation. He can only do that by removing sin from the world. And he will one day. But he will remove all sinners, too, unless their sins have been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. And the only way to have your sins paid for by Jesus is to trust him. You need to believe in Jesus, to be united to him by faith. That is the only way to have a relationship with God, to have eternal life. It’s the only way to have true peace. I urge you to follow Jesus. And I want to help you in any way that I can.

But turning back to the church, I must say this: When we as a church don’t focus on salvation, we lose our way. We get caught up in, and hung up on, our little traditions. We think church is about having our way. We fight about silly things. I think that’s why Paul says, in verse 8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The men in Ephesus were fighting because they had lost their way. Again, if we take our focus off of the gospel, we focus on ourselves, our comfort, our personal preferences.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everything in the church should be geared only towards evangelism. The church isn’t just about salvation. We need to teach new believers, equip all believers for ministry, and worship together. We need to encourage and challenge each other, and even discipline people who have gone astray. But if we don’t lead with the gospel, we will drift away from our mission.

And if we don’t focus on the gospel, our worship will suffer. When we are think often of our salvation, we should remain in a state of gratitude. We have been saved by God, through no merit or effort of our own. The fact that God would save anyone at the cost of the death of his Son should lead us to praise God all the more. God’s grace should lead to our thanksgiving.

If Jesus is the only mediator to God, and if he gave his life as a ransom for all kinds of people, and if God wants all kinds of people to be saved, shouldn’t we do what Paul did and what he asked Timothy to do? Shouldn’t we prioritize evangelism? Shouldn’t we forget our personal preferences and become all things to all people? Shouldn’t we pray for lost souls?

May the Lord help us to get back on track and stay there. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 57, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associ