The Gospel according to Isaiah(P

This sermon was preached on December 8, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

What’s wrong with the world? A lot of people have opinions about what is wrong with the world. In our highly politicized environment, the quick answer might be, “Republicans,” or “Democrats.” Or, perhaps more specifically, people might say, “Donald Trump,” or “Nancy Pelosi,” depending on their political leanings. Bernie Sanders might say “corporate greed” or refer to the “one percent.” Others might not have a specific person or people group in mind, but they may refer to general problems, perhaps environmental ones like climate change or the amount of plastic in our oceans. Six years ago, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”[1]

What do you say? Perhaps you’re not worried about the whole world. Perhaps the question you would like to answer is, “What’s wrong with my world?” Your answer might be your health, or your spouse’s health, or a problematic relationship, or your boss, or not enough money, or someone or something else.

There’s a story that in the early twentieth century, The Times of London asked some prominent authors that question, “What’s wrong with the world?” As you can imagine, they received various answers. The shortest they receive was from the witty and insightful Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton. His response was:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G. K. Chesterton[2]

Why would he write that? Just to be funny? No, Chesterton answered that way because he realized that the problem in the world wasn’t one outside of him. It wasn’t a matter of pointing the finger at someone else, or some other group of people. He realized that what was wrong with the world was something inside of him, and inside of everyone else, too.

Today, we’re going to talk about what that something is. Last week, we started a teaching series that will run this month. We’re looking at one book of the Bible, the second longest book (according to chapter numbers), a book from the Old Testament called Isaiah, named after one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Isaiah was given a job by God over twenty-seven hundred years ago: to tell the people of Israel to turn back to God, to tell them about punishment that would come upon them and the world because of sin, and to tell them a message of good news. One day, God’s people will be delivered from all that is wrong with the world. There will healing for broken people and a broken world.

We’ll look at various passages from the book of Isaiah today. We’ll begin with Isaiah 5:1–7:

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry![3]

This is the story of Israel, but it’s also the story of the world. If you want to know a tip for how to understand the Bible, it’s this: There are three big stories within the Bible. The first one is the story of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating a world out of nothing, and it ends with God restoring that world, creating a new world that is perfect. Within that big story, there’s another story, the story of Israel, which parallels that greater story. God called one old man, Abraham, and he told him that he would bless the whole world through him (Gen. 12:1–3). And that one old man and his old wife, Sarah, miraculously who had a child, who had children, who had children, who became Israel. And they ended up in Egypt, where they grew rapidly in number but became slaves. God rescued them from slavery by sending plagues upon Egypt, the greatest nation of the world at that time. And eventually he brought them into their own land.

In the passage that we just read, God poetically likens that land to a vineyard. He took a fertile ground, cleared out any stones, built a watchtower and a wine vat, and then he planted his vine in it. That’s a way of saying he planted Israel in their own land, a good land. And the language of the vineyard echoes the language of the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God planted the first human beings in a fertile ground.

And what does God expect of his people? He expects them to bear good fruit. He expects them to live in a certain way. He expected them to worship him, to recognize his greatness and reflect that greatness to the world. He expected them to love him, to be thankful to him, and to obey him. He expected them to love because he is love. He expected them to live righteously, to do justice, to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God expected that of the first human beings. He expected that of Israel. And he expects that of us.

But the passage says that God looked for good fruit, for good grapes, and he only found bad fruit, sour, wild grapes. Again, this is a metaphor. The people of Israel were not living the way they should. And just like God evicted Adam and Eve from his garden because they didn’t live according to his terms, God was warning Israel that they would be evicted from their land if they didn’t start living for God. And the reality is that Israel would be removed from their land, at least for a time. And this is our story, too. The reason that we sense problems in our world is that we have been removed from God’s garden, from the paradise that he prepared for us. Humanity has been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The world, as it is, is not our home. That’s why we don’t feel at home. Whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to be back home, to be with God in the world as he intended it to be.

You may wonder, “What kind of bad fruit did Israel produce?” What does it look like to live contrary to God’s expectations? Isaiah gives us a picture of that. Let’s go to the first chapter in the book. Here is Isaiah 1:2–4:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.

The heart of living against God’s design, the heart of what we call sin, is relational. We were made to have a relationship with God. And God says that the problem with Israel is that though they were his children and he raised them, they rebelled against them. Animals know their master, but Israel didn’t know its own maker. In fact, God says that they despised him! Their failure to love God, to acknowledge God as Creator and King, led them to “deal corruptly.”

Yet the Israelites thought that they could ignore God, fail to live for him, and then occasionally go through the religious motions, “worshiping” him. But God says that such worship is no worship at all. Look at Isaiah 1:12–17:

12  “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?|
13  Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14  Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15  When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17  learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

Israel tried to do their religious business as usual, bringing their offerings to God, observing their festivals, praying to God. But God says that he hates their festivals and though they pray to him, he will not listen. Their hands are full of blood! Why? It seems that they were doing evil instead of good. They were oppressing people who were vulnerable. Israel had laws in place to care for orphans and widows, and apparently the people were not obeying those laws. There’s a famous verse, Isaiah 29:13, where God says,

. . . this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.
God doesn’t want mere lip service. God wants our hearts. And if we love him, we will obey him.

Now look at verses 21–23:

21  How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,|
but now murderers.
22  Your silver has become dross,|
your best wine mixed with water.
23  Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

That’s some tough talk. Why is Israel called a whore? Because she hasn’t been faithful to God. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. God’s people are supposed to love God and be faithful to him. That means that they shouldn’t worship other gods. When they failed to acknowledge who God truly is, when they failed to make him the most important thing in their lives, the object of their worship, the one who determines how they live, then they were cheating on God. They did not do justice. Their leaders were corrupt, bought and sold, being bribed. Instead of observing the laws about the orphan and they widow, they oppressed those vulnerable people. Later, God, will say that the leaders “devoured the vineyard” (Isa. 3:14) and “crush[ed] my people, by grinding the face of the poor” (Isa. 3:15).

In chapter 5 of Isaiah, after that passage about the vineyard that we read earlier, we’re told that people “join[ed] house to house” and “field to field,” probably by taking properties away from the poor (Isa. 5:8). Israel had laws that required debt forgiveness at various times, and those laws were probably ignored. People rose “early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink” (Isa. 5:11). The Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol, but it does prohibit getting drunk, which causes someone to lose control. That chapter also features these words, in found in Isaiah 5:20–23:

20  Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22  Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23  who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!

What was true then is true now: we often mistake what is good for evil, and what is evil for good. Our standard of what is good and evil should be God. Our knowledge of what is good and evil is often found in our conscience, but we can’t rely on our own moral compasses, because they are often not working correctly. Our knowledge of good and evil should come from the Bible, but we often ignore it. We think we know better than God.

That kind of ignoring of God, and thinking that we know better than God, is rebellion against him. Isaiah 29:16 says,

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

God has made us. We are the clay, and he is the potter. But our tendency is to get things backwards. We make God in our image, and we reject the true God. We don’t trust that he is wiser than we are.

But God issues this warning to his “clay.” This is Isaiah 45:9–10:

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10  Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”

There’s much more that can be said about our sin again God, and our rebellion against him. But this talk of clay and the potter leads to something else that’s at the heart of sin. Earlier, I said that the heart of sin is a relational problem. We don’t love and honor God as we should. Because of that, we don’t pay attention to him and we don’t obey him—certainly not as we should. And all of that leads to something else that’s at the heart of our sin, our rebellion against God. And that is idolatry.

Idolatry is making something other than God, something that is created, not the Creator, something finite, not infinite, something that had a beginning, not something eternal, and making that thing the center of our lives. An idol is a false god. It’s whatever we love the most. It’s what we trust will make us happy, complete, whole. It’s what we think will give us comfort and security. We don’t have to think of it as an object of worship. We probably don’t think of it as a god. But whatever is at the center of our lives is our god. We were made to worship. We inherently religious. And if we fail to worship the true God, someone or something else will fill that void.

Isaiah has one of the classic passages about idolatry. Turn to Isaiah 44:9–20:

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

This passage points out the foolishness of idolatry. It imagines something fashioning a piece of wood into some kind of statue or figure of a false god. Half of the food is used for fuel, for warmth and to bake bread. And then they take the other half and make a god to worship, saying “deliver me” to it. This is what idolatry is like.

Now, many people today would conclude that people in the ancient world were just foolish. How stupid can you be to worship something like that? But we’re not really different.

Years ago, I saw a video clip of a comedian on one of the late-night talk shows, and he was saying we have the greatest technology ever, and it’s wasted on the worst generation ever. He said that we’re always complaining about our phones. If you have a smart phone, you have one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever, a little computer, camera, and phone that can do what previous generations never thought possible. And what’s it made out of? Plastic, glass, some bits of metal. When the phone works, you can be become glued to it. We put our faith in technology to make our lives better, to deliver us. But what if it stops working? Then it’s just a bit of trash. The thing we’ll pay hundreds of dollars for now will be useless later.

That’s sort of what Isaiah is getting at here. It’s foolish to make something that will later be junk the center of your life, because the reality is it’s not a smart phone. It’s dumb. It has no personality, no will. It didn’t design and make itself. It didn’t create the world and it can’t remake it. It can’t save you. It can’t deliver you from your greatest problem, which is, in the words of Isaiah, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).

We make idols because we can control them. We are their potter, and they are our clay. We don’t want to come under God’s authority. We want to be gods. Idols make demands on us, but we somehow think those demands are not as hard as God’s. Instead of realizing that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30), we think there’s an easier way, a better way. But it’s not better. God allows us to go after those idols, but they don’t lead to salvation. They lead to death.

All of that is bad news. Yes, there is a problem in the world, and that problem isn’t just outside of us, it’s in us. We’re part of the problem. So, how do we fix it?

Part of the problem is that we can’t fix the problem. Isaiah 64:5–6 says,

Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

We can’t save ourselves. We are unclean, tainted by the power of sin, by the folly of idolatry. Even our best acts, the ones we consider righteous, are polluted by sin. We do good things often for selfish reasons, not to honor God. So, if we can’t fix the problem, who can?

The good news is that God can, and, if we turn to God, he will. Earlier, we read some verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. I intentionally left out a few. Here is what Isaiah 1:18–20 says:

18  “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19  If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20  but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God promised Israel that he would make them clean. He would make them “white as snow,” “like wool.” He would remove their sins. But they had to be willing. They had to repent. This salvation is offered freely. It’s a gift that must be received in faith.

Isaiah 55:1–7 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;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah says, “Come and eat, come and drink. You don’t need money! Do this and live. Seek God while he can he found. If you do this, forsaking your wicked ways, God will have compassion on you. He will forgive your sins.”

How does God cleanse unclean people from their sin? Why does he forgive them? How is it that this offer is free, without price?

The answer is Jesus. I’ll say much more about him over the next two weeks. We’ll hear that he is the promised child who would be born, the Son who is also God (Isa. 9:6–7). As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, he became a human being. This is the miracle of Christmas: God became man (without ceasing to be God). The third story of the Bible, the one that fulfills those other stories, is about Jesus. Jesus became a man so that he could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He does what we should do but don’t. He always loved, honored, and worshiped God the Father. He had no idols. He wasn’t polluted by sin. Yet though he was perfect, he was treated like a criminal, like the worst of rebels. He died on a cross, an instrument of shame, torture, and death. This wasn’t an accident. It was God’s plan to punish sin. Jesus takes the punishment that we all deserve. He takes the death penalty for sin away from all who seek him, who turn to him in faith, who are willing to put away their idols and their wicked ways and follow him. This is all a gift. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first or earn this from God. We simply have to receive it in faith, trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything needed to put us back into a right relationship with God.

I’ll say more about him over the next two weeks. And I’ll say more about God’s plans to restore the world at the end of the month. But I do want to say now that Isaiah foresaw a day when people would cast away their idols. After Isaiah called Israel “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9), he said,

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him (Isa. 30:18).

And he says to those who come to God, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).

Isaiah also told of a day when the world would become a garden again, when the “wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15). He predicted that a new creation would come, where God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). He predicted that God’s people would go back home, to be with God in a perfect world.

The only way back to God and that world is Jesus. I urge us all to trust in him, to know more about him, to know more about the Bible, which is his word. You can do that by reading all of Isaiah for yourself. This sermon and the other sermons in this series will be on our website, at wbcommunity.org/isaiah. You can find links to some great videos about the book, made by The Bible Project. All of us can know about the one true God. The clay can truly know its potter. The question is whether or not we are willing. As far as it is within your power, seek God while he can be found.

Notes

  1. Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Repubblica, October 1, 2013, https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce.
  2. Marva J. Dawn, “Not What, but Who Is the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75.
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah, Part 2 (Sin and Idolatry)

In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

One of the marks of a Christian should be thankfulness. But we have a hard time being thankful. In fact, perhaps the greatest human problem is that we’re not thankful to God. Learn what the Bible says about the importance of giving thanks, and how we can do that. Brian Watson preached this message on November 24, 2019.

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Does anyone know what’s going to happen tomorrow? How about next year?

A lot of people make claims about the future. People make predictions about sports, about which team will win today or which team will win the championship. People make predictions about the economy, whether the market will rise or fall. People make political predictions: who will win next year’s election. Whose predictions can we trust?

Generally, we trust predictions made about the future if predictions about the past have come true. That’s how science often works. Scientists come up with hypotheses about how the natural world works, then they make predictions based on those hypotheses. If experimentation and observation prove that the predictions are true, then those hypotheses become theories. Those theories could always turn out to be false, but we trust that things in physics, chemistry, and biology will work tomorrow the way that they have worked today.

But not everything that happens tomorrow can be predicted by science. Some events are singular and can’t be predicted scientifically. Human behavior, for example, isn’t always predictable. Divine behavior—what God will do tomorrow and beyond—isn’t always predictable. Yet people make predictions about the future, so how do we know if we should trust them?

We generally can’t know ahead of time if a prediction is correct, but we tend to listen to people who make predictions if they have a history of making correct predictions. If a political commentator has correctly predicted who will win elections, you will probably listen to their predictions regarding the next election. If a sports commentator has correctly predicted who will win this week’s games or the next championship, you’ll think their predictions for this week and this year might be good guesses. But we don’t expect these people to predict the future perfectly.

But what do we do when it comes to the things of God? Science can’t address much of the issues related to God. He is spirit, an immaterial being, so we can’t detect his activity scientifically. Does that mean we can’t know the truth about God? I think we can know the truth about God, but science won’t get us there. To know God, we need to have him reveal himself to us. Of course, many different religions claim that they have received a revelation from God. They say very different things about God, the universe, human beings, and how we can have a right relationship with God. These different religions can’t all be true. Are any of them true? How can we know?

One way to test a religion is to see if its alleged revelation matches up with history. Is there any archaeological evidence that lines up with what that religion’s holy book claims? Did the predictions made by that religion’s prophets turn out to be true?

When we test Christianity, it comes out well. For example, though not all of the Bible’s historical claims are backed by archaeological evidence, I believe that none of its claims are refuted by archaeological evidence, and every time a new discovery is made, it supports what the Bible says. Also, prophecies about the future are made in the Bible, and we can see if those prophecies have come to pass. Not all religions can say as much. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that a temple would be built in Independence, Missouri within a generation. Yet that generation died before a temple was built there. His prediction was wrong.[1]

On the other hand, Jesus, who was a prophet (and King and Son of God), made predictions regarding what would happen within a generation. And his predictions came true. Specifically, he predicted that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed within a generation. He made this prediction either in the year 30 or, possibly, 33. (Many of the writings of the Bible are difficult to date with great precision because ancient writers didn’t provide specific dates for the events about which they wrote. But the details of Jesus’ life are such that the details of the week of his death can fit with either the year 30 or 33.) The three Gospels that record these predictions were most likely written sometime between the late 50s and mid-60s. Then, beginning in the year 66, Jewish people in Palestine rebelled against the Roman Empire, the world’s greatest superpower and the occupying force of Judea. Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem and its temple, slaughtering many Jews in the year 70. So, Jesus’ prediction, made forty years earlier (the length of a generation according to the Bible; Num. 32:13), was true. Since the Bible says that the test of a true prophet is that he speaks the truth (Deut. 18:22), that means that Jesus is a true prophet, and that we should take Jesus at his word. And Jesus predicted a greater future event: he said that one day he would come again to the Earth, this time to judge everyone who has ever lived and to recreate the world. The destruction of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago foreshadowed that greater day of judgment, which will come in the future. To be spared judgment, we need to respond to Jesus.

Today, we’re looking at a lengthy section of the Gospel of Luke. We’ll be reading Luke 21:5–38. Most people think this is entirely about what hasn’t come to pass yet, the “end times,” as they’re often called. I think that’s wrong, as I’ll show when I explain the text. Some people think it’s entirely about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. I think that’s very possible. But I think the best reading is that though this passage is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple, that event foreshadows the end of the world as we know it.

One more note before I start reading this passage: Today’s sermon may feel a bit like a history lecture. But I think it’s important to know history, and it’s important to know that Christianity is an historical religion. It is based on historical events, events that are recorded even outside of the Bible. This is one of the ways that we know Christianity is true.

So, without further ado, let’s begin reading. We’ll start by reading verses 5–7:

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”[2]

This is probably Thursday morning, the day before Jesus will be crucified. He and his disciples are in the temple complex in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, the holy city of the Jews, and the temple was the religious, political, and symbolic center of their world. It was the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover, when Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire would come to Jerusalem, to worship at the temple.

It’s hard to stress how important the temple was to the Jewish people. It was where God dwelled among them, where they worshiped, where sacrifices for their sins were offered. God told the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a portable temple, about fourteen hundred years earlier. During the reign of Solomon, a temple was built in Jerusalem. That temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, because the Jewish people had been unfaithful to God. They worshiped idols and refused to obey God, so God used a foreign nation to judge them.

This was the second temple, which was built in 515 BC, but was substantially renovated by Herod beginning in 20 or 19 BC Most of the work on the building was finished within a decade, but ornamental details were worked on until about AD 63 or 64. The temple was one of the most impressive buildings in the middle east. Herod increased the Temple Mount to an area the size of thirty-five football fields. The retaining walls of the temple were made of huge, heavy stones. “In the 1990s an archeological exploration of the temple foundations revealed a large stone . . . that was 42 x 14 x 11 feet in size and estimated to weigh 600 tons.” Two other stones they found were 40 and 25 feet long.[3] The temple was covered with gold plates that shone so brightly in the sun that people were nearly blinded. This would have been the most impressive site that people living in that area had ever seen.

When some of Jesus’ disciples comment on how impressive the building is, Jesus says the whole thing will be torn down. He doesn’t give the reason why this will happen here, but elsewhere he says it is a judgment by God against a largely unfaithful Jewish people. Also, the time of the temple was about to be over. Jesus, the true temple of God, was about to offer himself up as the only sacrifice needed for sin. Jesus’ words must have shocked his disciples. So, they ask him when this would happen, and what sign would occur before this would take place. This is very important, so I’ll repeat it. Jesus has said that the temple will be destroyed, and his disciples ask when that will happen. This is primarily what this passage is about.

Jesus starts to answer that question in verses 8–19:

And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 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.

First, Jesus tells his disciples that the time leading up to the temple of the destruction would be one full of people trying to deceive them, claiming that they are the Messiah. We know that there were several people in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah, so this prediction came true.[4] Second, Jesus says there would be wars and rumors of wars. These things happen all the time, so the disciples shouldn’t be worried about such things. There was a war between Rome and Parthia in 36 and a local war between Herod Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas in 36 and 37.[5] And the war between the Romans and the Jews started in 66. Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” But the “end,” the destruction of the temple, was still to come.

Third, says that there would be earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. Again, these things happen all time. There was a large famine during the reign of the emperor Claudius, between roughly 45 and 48 (predicted by the prophet Agabus in Acts 11:28).[6] There were several major earthquakes between 33 and 70, including earthquakes in Antioch (37), Phrygia (53), Asia Minor (61), and Jerusalem (67).

Fourth, Jesus says there will be signs in heaven, probably something to do with stars. Beyond what the New Testament tells us, much of what we know of first-century Palestine comes from Flavius Josephus, a Jew who was a leader of the rebellion in Galilee. He was captured by the Romans and would eventually write histories of this time. Josephus says that during the time when Judea was at war with the Roman Empire, comets were visible for a year and a star that looked like a sword appeared over Jerusalem.[7]

Fifth, Jesus tells the disciples that they would be handed over to civic and religious authorities. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem, and were flogged (Acts 5:27–42). Stephen and James were martyred (Acts 7:58; 12:2). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes getting flogged and beaten (vv. 23–25), probably by leaders of local synagogues. And Paul appeared before various governors and kings (Acts 18:12–17; 23:23–24:27; 24:27–26:32). All of this would happen before the temple was destroyed.

Normally, we would think that people being killed simply because they’re Christians is a bad thing, but Jesus says that something good will come out of this. When the disciples stand before various religious and civil leaders, they will have an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. We see that happen most clearly with the disciples in the books of Acts. The disciples were beaten in Jerusalem, but not before proclaiming Jesus (Acts 5:27–32). Stephen gave a long speech in Acts 7 before being killed. Paul used his appearances before various leaders to proclaim Jesus.

Here, Jesus tells the disciples, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Some people misuse this passage to say that we should never think about how to tell people the news of Christianity, or how to answer their questions about and objections to our faith. But think about the context: Jesus is telling his disciples what will happen to them between roughly the years 30 and 70. And, furthermore, he’s telling them not to think about how to answer during times of persecution. He promises them to give them wisdom during those times of great pressure. In those situations, it might be very difficult to say anything, and God will give his people the words to say. But we shouldn’t use this passage as an excuse not to prepare for evangelism. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Peter tells us, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). I think Christians gravitate towards this passage in Luke because they don’t read passages in the Bible in context and because we’re lazy. There’s no excuse for not knowing the Bible, not knowing what the central message of the Bible is, and not knowing how to communicate to people who don’t believe what we believe. Just as I don’t fail to prepare a sermon and say, “Well, God will give me the words to say on Sunday morning,” we shouldn’t fail to prepare to tell people the truth about God.

Jesus also says, in those verses we read earlier, that family will be divided. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to all people, but to bring division. He said that family members would be divided because some would respond to him and others would not (Luke 12:51–53). That happened then, and it happens today, especially in areas of the world where there is great persecution against Christians. In this past week’s prayer list that we publish, there was a story from the Voice of the Martyrs about an Egyptian woman who converted from Islam to Christianity. Her own father and brother beat her and tried to kill her.

Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat things here. He says that persecution will come to his followers. Some will even die. But, strangely, he says that not one of their hairs will perish. He can’t mean that literally. He must mean that even if they should die for their faith, they will not ultimately be harmed. The worst that someone can do to them is kill them. They can kill the body, but not the soul (Luke 12:4–7). Those who endure in their faith, even through persecution, will be saved. Real faith allows a person to survive even death.

Now that Jesus has told his followers what will happen before Jerusalem and its temple is destroyed, he starts to talk about what will happen when the Roman Empire surrounds the city and destroys it. Let’s read verses 20–24:

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

There had always been conflict between the Jews and the Roman Empire, who took control of Palestine in 63 BC. Eventually, the conflict would come to a head in AD 66. In 70, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. This war left untold numbers dead. Josephus tells us that over 600,000 died from starvation in the city and that some people resorted to eating the dung of cattle (Jewish Wars 5.569–571). Even more disturbing, he reports that some women ate their own children (Jewish Wars 6.201–212). This is what would happen when a foreign army came in and besieged a city. They would cut off escape from the city by building siege works. Because this type of battle took a long time, the conquered city would run out of food and people would starve. Josephus tells us that 1.1 million Jews died and 97,000 were taken captive (Jewish Wars 6.420). Some people believe Josephus exaggerated numbers, but even if he did, the destruction in this war was great. According to D. A. Carson, “There have been greater numbers of deaths—six million in the Nazi death camps, mostly Jews, and an estimated twenty million under Stalin—but never so high a percentage of a great city’s population so thoroughly and painfully exterminated and enslaved as during the Fall of Jerusalem.”[8]

When Jesus says that Jerusalem “will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” he could mean that Romans—the Gentiles—would thoroughly crush the city. I think that’s the most natural way to read this passage. Others think that Jesus is pivoting to talk about his return. In Romans, the apostle Paul says that many Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus in the future, but only after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). That’s a hard to understand passage, just as elements of this passage in Luke are hard to understand. But it seems that prior to Jesus’ return, a large number of ethnically, or biologically, Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus. Jesus could be referring to that reality here.

Most commentators believe that the next few verses are about Jesus’ return to Earth. If you don’t know the Christian story, Jesus will die the day after he says these things. He will be crucified, killed as an enemy of the Roman Empire, not because he did anything wrong, but because it was ultimately God’s plan to have the sin of his people punished. Because we have rebelled against God, in a far worse way than the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire, we deserve death. But God has graciously given us a way to escape his wrath and have our sins punished. If we put our trust in Jesus, if we believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, we are forgiven. But Jesus didn’t just die to pay the penalty for our sins. He rose from the grave on the third day in a body that can never be destroyed. And shortly thereafter, he ascended into heaven, where he is right now. But he will come someday in the future, to judge the living and the dead. And Jesus is probably talking about that in verses 25–28:

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

I think it’s possible that Jesus is actually talking about the destruction of the temple as his vindication. He says that people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” That’s a reference to something written in the Old Testament book Daniel, when the prophet Daniel sees a vision of a “Son of Man” coming to “the Ancient of Days” to receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom. We understand that this means Jesus, the Son of God, comes to God the Father to receive that kingdom, and he did this after ascending to heaven. Notice that in this passage in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say where “the Son of Man” comes. Is he coming to Earth or to the Father? It could be that Jesus means something like this, “The destruction of the temple will be to the Jewish people as if their world is destroyed. To them, it will be as if their world is shattered. But don’t be afraid. That judgment will be a vindication of me. It will prove that my words are true. When you see that happening, stand up straight, confident in the faith.” That could be true because the Bible often uses language of “signs in sun and moon and stars” hyperbolically, to talk about the destruction of an empire, the end of one age and the beginning of another.

But Jesus could very well be talking about his return to Earth. He might mean something like this: “The temple will be destroyed, just as it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. These acts of judgment are pictures of a greater, final judgment when I return. Don’t worry about signs that appear before my return, because you won’t miss that. Everyone will see me come. And many will be afraid. But when I return, you have no reason to fear—if you endure in your faith.” All of the judgments we read about in the Bible, whether it’s the flood during Noah’s day, the destruction of the city of Sodom, the judgment that came upon the Egyptians during the Passover and the Red Sea, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temples, foreshadow the great, final judgment. Those who have rejected Jesus should be afraid. They will be condemned. But those who have put their trust in Jesus have no reason to fear.

Then, Jesus returns to a discussion of what will happen before the fall of Jerusalem. Let’s read verses 29–33:

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

When the disciples see that the things Jesus says will happen before the destruction of the temple come to pass, they should know that God’s kingdom is advancing. And they are drawing one day closer to when the kingdom of God will be fully realized on Earth. Jesus says that his predictions regarding Jerusalem and the temple would happen within a generation, and they did. This is further proof that his word is true. And he boldly declares that even though this world as we know it will pass away and be replaced with a new creation, one where there is no evil, no decay, and no sin, his words won’t pass away. Jesus speaks the words of God, because he is God. So much of the words we bother with are short-lived, but Jesus’ words endure forever. Because what he says is true, we can take him at his word. His true predictions about what happen in the first century give us confidence that everything else he says is true, including his return when he comes in glory to gather his people, to condemn those who rebel against him, and to bring about the new creation.

Jesus then concludes his message with a warning for all of us. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.

Jesus tells us to be ready, not to get overpowered by distractions and drunkenness, not to fall into a spiritual stupor or be overwhelmed by “the cares of this life.” Instead, we should live life knowing that Jesus could return soon—or we could die at any time. Either way, we will have to stand before him in judgment. Therefore, we should stay awake. Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. He slept like everyone else. But he means we should be spiritually prepared. We should put our faith in him. We should realize that this life will not last forever.

The apostle Paul says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 5. He says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Most people will think they are secure, but they will be destroyed (1 Thess. 5:3). Then, Paul says to Christians,

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Here’s the main thing you should take away from today: What Jesus said would happen has happened. This isn’t just recorded in the Bible. Josephus, who was not a Christian, wrote about it. One can also look at the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built around the year 81 to celebrate Titus’s victory over the Jews and which has depictions of that victory on it. We have good reason to believe that Jesus made his predictions in the year 30 or 33, and that the Gospel of Luke was written in the early 60s. (In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Luke 10:7. Paul wrote that letter in the mid-60s, so Luke must have been written earlier. Also, there are good reasons to believe that the book of Acts was written by the mid-60s. Since Acts it the sequel to Gospel of Luke, and since Luke probably conducted research for his Gospel while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea around 57–59, there’s no reason why Luke couldn’t have written his Gospel around the year 60.) So, Jesus’ predictions came before the destruction of Jerusalem. His predictions were true. Why shouldn’t we believe everything else he says? His words are the words of God, and they will endure long after the words of today’s politicians, journalists, academics, actors, novelists, and historians will be forgotten.

Trust in Jesus. Be ready for his return. And tell other people how they can endure in the faith so that they can gain eternal life.

If you do trust in Jesus, know that he hasn’t promised us an easy life. He didn’t promise his disciples that things would be easy for them. We may or may not face great persecution, but all of will suffer. Yet Jesus promises to be with us and he promises that he will ultimately deliver us from evil.

Notes

  1. Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy,” Institute for Religious Research, August 22, 2017, http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-missouri-temple-prophecy.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Robert H. Stein, Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 55.
  4. Stein, Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man, 77, mentions several: Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271; Jewish Wars 2.56); Simon of Perea (Antiquities 17.273–77; Jewish Wars 2.57–59) and Athronges of Judea (Antiquities 17.278–84; Jewish Wars 2.60–65). Right before a.d. 70, there were Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (Jewish Wars 2.433–48), John of Gischala (Jewish Wars 2.585–89; 4.121–27), and Simon bar-Giora (Jewish Wars 4.503–44; 4.556–83).
  5. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 903.
  6. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 372-374.
  7. Josephus, Jewish War 6.274–89.
  8. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 501.

 

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away (Luke 21:5-38)

Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman Empire, an act of judgment that foreshadows that great day of judgment when Jesus comes again. Jesus predicted the future, his predictions were written down in advance of the destruction of Jerusalem, and this predictions were proven true. This gives us good reason to believe that his words are true and will never pass away. Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 17, 2019.

Beware of the Scribes

This sermon was preached on November 10, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

When I was growing up, my family would occasionally go to a restaurant in Salem called Roosevelt’s. I don’t know why, but the restaurant was named after Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), the twenty-sixth president of the United States (1901–1909). I remember two things about the restaurant’s menu. I remember that they had a list of soups. On the menu, it said “New England Clam Chowder,” with a description and a price. Then, it said, “Manhattan Clam Chowder.” There was no price, and the description was something like this: “Drive 250 miles south on I-95.” I thought that was funny.

The other thing I remember about the menu at Roosevelt’s was that there were quotes by Teddy on it. There was one long quote, taken from a speech that he gave in Paris in 1910. The whole speech was titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but the quote is better known as “The Man in the Arena.” Here it is:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.[1]

I appreciated it when I was young, and I’ve appreciated it every time I’ve seen it. I even saw it framed in Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. The idea is that the person that counts is the one who gets in the arena and tries, even if he fails; the one who gets off the sideline and into the game; the one doesn’t simply criticize, but who gets his hands dirty. There are many people who make a living from being a critic. Think of all the talking heads on sports shows. People likely won’t remember them, but they will remember the athletes they criticize, even the ones who failed. People still remember Bill Buckner, who at the end of a long and very solid baseball career, made an error that will live in infamy, helping the Boston Red Sox lose game 6 of the 1986 World Series. But who remembers the names of all the talking heads who criticized Billy Buck?

Who is the man who counts? Who is the woman who matters? Roosevelt said it was the one who tried, the one “who spends himself in a worthy cause.” Who do you think are the people that matter the most?

We know what the world would think. The other day, I saw that someone had posed a question on Facebook: If you could invite five people, dead or living, to dinner, who would you invite? She put down musicians. Who would you choose? We would all probably choose famous names. A lot of us would put Jesus. Certainly, I would. I might also invite Paul, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and perhaps a wild card, a non-Christian like Winston Churchill. Maybe an artist like Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t know. But we all tend to think of the big names, that these are the people that matter most in history.

But what if we’re wrong? What if the people that matter most are the ones who are quietly faithful to God? What if the ones who humbly give God their best portions, the ones who spend their lives for the worthiest of causes, are the people that matter most? To know whether a life has been spent for a worthy cause, we need an evaluator. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to evaluate. But I doubt Roosevelt had perfect judgment. To know what matters most and who matters most, we need to hear from the Great Evaluator, God himself. And God has spoken on the matter. More specifically, God the Son, Jesus Christ, evaluated people. And he has told us how to spend our lives for that worthiest of causes.

This morning, we’re going to look at two short passages that are right next to each other in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus, focusing mostly on the last years of his life—or, to be more specific, his pre-resurrection life, because Jesus still lives. In the passage that we’re going to read, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s three days before he will be executed. Over the last few weeks, we have seen that his opponents, mostly the religious leaders of his day, have questioned him, trying to get him to say the wrong thing so that they could have him killed. But Jesus didn’t fall into their traps. Now, as the day of his death approaches, he criticizes the Jewish leaders. But he praises one unlikely person. And I think Luke wants us to see that though the religious leaders of his day were hypocrites, not everyone in Jerusalem was.

So, let’s now turn to Luke 20:45–47:

45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[2]

Jesus is in the temple complex in Jerusalem with his disciples. He’s in the religious center of Judaism, and he publicly calls out some of the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. Specifically, he mentions the scribes, which in other translations are sometimes called “teachers of the law” (NIV). They were experts of the law that God gave to Israel, generally what we call the Old Testament. They’re often associated with the chief priests and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day. When Jesus first predicted his death, he said, “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” (Luke 9:22). They were among the people who wanted to “destroy” Jesus (Luke 19:47).

Here, Jesus says that the scribes are the kind of people who like to be seen as being very religious and very honorable. They like to walk around in their robes, which would signal to everyone that that they were “men of the cloth.” They loved to be greeted in marketplaces. I assume Jesus doesn’t just mean they like hearing “hello.” He means that they liked being referred to as an expert in Scripture, the way that some religious leaders insist on being called Pastor So-and-So, or Father Such-and-Such. When they attend feasts, they want the best seats, next to the host. If they attended a wedding, they want to be seated near the bridal party, not by the bathrooms. They also like to make long, showy prayers. In Matthew 6:5, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

In other words, what the scribes like to do is make a public impression. They want to be viewed as “holier than thou.” In our society, religious leaders aren’t very well respected by the general public. But that wasn’t the case in Judaism in first-century Palestine. The Jewish people were inherently religious. Outside of political leaders, the religious leaders were probably the closest thing to a celebrity that this society knew. They held the most favorable positions in this culture. And these scribes, like the Pharisees, loved getting the attention that came along with that.

All of the charges that I’ve singled out so far could simply be called pride. Pride is one of the roots of many sins. It’s an overinflated view of the self. Instead of humbly recognizing one’s true position in the world, before God and among one’s fellow men, it leads people to think they are great, more important than others, worthy of being exalted. It’s singled out in the book of Proverbs as a particularly bad sin. Proverbs 8:13 says,

The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.

And Proverbs 16:18 says,

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Pride is bad. But notice that Jesus includes another very serious charge in his condemnation of the scribes. He says that they “devour widows’ houses.” What does this mean? Somehow, the scribes are making widows poor, taking away their livelihood. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “They take from the group most in need and leave them devastated.”[3] Then he lists four possibilities of how the scribes did this, which are mentioned in non-biblical Jewish texts. There were widows dedicated to the temple, and the temple authorities managed their property, taking advantage of the widows. The scribes took advantage of the widows’ hospitality. They “took homes as pledges of debts they knew could not be repaid.”[4] Or they took fees for legal advice.

While we don’t know exactly how the scribes were taking advantage of widows, we know that they did, and we know that this is wrong. Throughout the Bible, God says that his people should take care of widows (and orphans) because they were particularly vulnerable. There wasn’t anything like social security or insurance policies to help them. Women worked, but often didn’t make enough money to support themselves. They relied upon men for provision. A younger widow would need to remarry. An older widow would have to rely upon a son or other family members. The community was supposed to help widows, and God clearly denounces those who would take advantage of them. When they failed to do this, and did the very opposite, taking advantage of widows, God threatened judgment.

Listen to one passage from the Old Testament. This is Zechariah 7:8–14:

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” 11 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. 12 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. 13 “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, 14 “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”

God takes sin very seriously. Oppressing other people, who are also made in the image of God, is a serious crime against not only other people, but against their Creator. Notice that God also takes it very seriously when people “devise evil against another in [their] heart.” We may not all actively take advantage of the widow and the orphan, but we have all had evil thoughts against other people. We may not have the same pride of the scribes and the other religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but we do all have some pride. We tend to put ourselves first. So, we shouldn’t think that Jesus’ words could only apply to religious leaders.

Still, religious leaders do fall into particular temptations. Many do succumb to pride. This happens in our celebrity age. The celebrity Christian is someone who is in danger of great temptations. We have celebrity pastors and celebrity Christian musicians and celebrity Christian authors and even comedians. And many of them have fallen and will continue to fall. Some fall into sexual sin, into affairs and sexual abuse. They think that their position of authority somehow gives them license to take advantage of women or, even worse, children. Some fall because of arrogance and pride, refusing to take wise counsel, acting like bullies. Some fall because of money issues. There’s something about celebrity, about fame, that leads people to think they are greater than they are. It leads people to think that they are above the law. And with religious leaders, it can lead them to think they are above the law that they teach.

And there’s a history of religious leaders using their positions to get rich. This often happens by taking advantage of the poor and gullible. Today, preachers of the prosperity gospel do this. The prosperity gospel is the message that says that if you’re faithful to God, if you really believe in God’s power and promises, you will receive God’s favor, usually in the form of wealth or happiness or a good family or health or friends, or something along those lines. In other words, if you’re a good Christian and you really trust in God, then he will make your life abundant in some obvious way right now. It’s the message taught by Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar and many others. It’s sometimes called the “word of faith” theology. If you say something and really believe it, it will come to pass. That’s why it’s called “name it and claim it” or “blab it and grab it” theology.

I saw one example of this recently. Donald Trump appointed Paula White to be the head of his administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The next day, Paula White sent an email to her ministry supporters, asking them to give $3,600 to her to receive God’s blessings.[5] She made a video in which she claims that God is ready to perform “a suddenly”—that’s what she calls God’s sudden activity of bringing blessings to his people.[6] She quotes a lot of Scripture quickly in a way that might fool people who don’t understand what the Bible says in context. She says that people should give her $3,600, or $300, or $70. This is supposedly based on numbers of animals given to God in 2 Chronicles 29:32–33. She writes to her email list: “GOD IS PREPARED TO SHIFT YOUR SEASON TO A SUDDENLY! This is time sensitive. I ask you to act NOW! And as you act I declare by Apostolic authority that over the next three months your SUDDENLY season will arrive. . . . The heavens will move as you move.” Give to Paula and God will give to you—that’s what she’s saying.

This theology isn’t just nonsense, it’s evil. It takes advantage of the gullible, who think that if they make a sacrificial financial gift to these people, God will later reward them. I’ve heard prosperity gospel preachers say that people who can’t afford to give should in faith put their donations on a credit card, trusting that God will bring finances into their life that they don’t currently have so that they can later pay off their credit card balance. I’m sure some people have responded. After all, these prosperity gospel teachers are wealthy, which means some people must be supporting them. Getting rich by telling lies in the name of God is an evil thing.

The scribes are described as hypocrites, people who put on a public show of being holy in order to achieve fame and fortune. And Jesus says such people will be condemned by God—assuming that they don’t humble themselves, confess their sins to God, and turn to him in faith. These scribes may fool other people, but there’s no fooling God.

But Jesus doesn’t just condemn religious hypocrisy. He also praises those who are sincerely religious. And we see this in the next few verses. Before we read them, I want to make a general comment about reading the Bible. The chapter and verse numbers that we have in our Bibles are not part of the original text of the Bible. Chapter numbers were created in the thirteenth century and verse numbers were created in the sixteenth century. They are very helpful in many ways. We can all find the same passage quickly even if we have different translations and editions of the Bible. But sometimes chapter numbers create divisions where there shouldn’t be any. That’s the case in this passage. I think we’re supposed to read the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21 together. With that being said, let’s read Luke 21:1–4:

1 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

In the temple complex in Jerusalem, there were thirteen receptacles into which people could make offerings that were used to support worship at the temple. Jesus looks at the rich making their offerings. In Mark 12:41, we’re told, “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.” Perhaps the number and weight of the coins they put into these receptacles made a loud sound, publicly announcing how very generous they were.

But there’s also a poor widow who makes an offering. She puts into two copper coins, two leptons, which in today’s currency might be equivalent to two dollars, perhaps even less. Jesus says that this widow has actually given more than the rich, because “they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Rich people sometimes are quite generous with their money. It’s not uncommon to hear of millionaires giving large gifts to some charity or non-profit institution. But a millionaire can easily afford to give tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Billionaires can easily give millions of dollars. But for someone who is barely surviving to give their last two dollars is a greater sacrifice. In giving whatever money she had, this widow had to trust that God would provide for her. She would have to pray to God what Jesus told his disciples to pray: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). She would have to hope that other people, whether family members or neighbors, would have to give her more money or food, so that she could continue to live.

She wasn’t giving this money because she was manipulated by a religious authority. She wasn’t giving this money so that she could meet the needs of some law. She wasn’t giving sacrificially to achieve her “best life now,” in response to some prosperity gospel teacher. She gave because she loved God, because she thought that worship of God at the temple was more important than anything else. She realized that everything she had was from God, and she wanted to give back to God what he had given to her. And Jesus commends her.

Last week, I talked about the importance of living life with an eternal perspective. If we think this life is what matters most, we will tend to be greedy and selfish. We will want to experience all of the world’s pleasures right now. But if we realize that this life is brief, and that the greatest pleasures will be found by spending eternity with God, we can give generously. We can also obey knowing that God isn’t withholding anything good from us. Likewise, we can give generously now, knowing we’ll be rich in eternity.

Jesus said, earlier in Luke, “Blessed are who you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Jesus doesn’t mean that every poor person is automatically part of God’s kingdom. That would go against much of what he taught elsewhere. To be part of God’s kingdom, one must be born again of the Holy Spirit, transformed by God to be a new kind of person (John 3:3–8). One must believe in Jesus, the Son of God, as the world’s only Savior (John 6:27–29). But poor Christians can be comforted by knowing that in eternity, they will be rich. That doesn’t mean that in the new creation, every Christian will have a mansion and a sports car, or whatever your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or “MTV Cribs” fantasy is. But in eternity, there will be no suffering for Christians, and all who have put their faith in Jesus will have equal access to the one true God, the greatest treasure there is.

What we do we learn from this? First, we should learn from the negative example of the hypocritical scribes. We shouldn’t put on an air of religiosity, appearing holy in order to make a public impression. We should never use religion to manipulate God, because God can’t be manipulated. He knows our motivations—he knows them better than we do! If we don’t truly trust and love God, we shouldn’t obey him in order to get what we really want, which is money or health or a nice life. If you do trust and love Jesus, don’t make a show of what you do. Don’t do things, whether giving or praying or anything else, in order to be seen.

Second, we should learn positively from the example of this widow. She gave generously in faith. I’m sure that all of us could give more to the church, more to missionaries, more to organizations that translate the Bible. We could all give more to the poor, to charities that help orphans and widows and the homeless. When it comes to giving, we should do so according to our ability to give. The apostle Paul gave instructions to church in Corinth for their giving. In 1 Corinthians, he said, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” (1 Cor. 16:2). In other words, give according to how God has prospered you. But giving super-abundantly and sacrificially is commended. In 2 Corinthians, he commended the church in Macedonia, because “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord” (2 Cor. 8:2–3).

Paul goes on to say that our giving shouldn’t be done “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our giving should be done from a heart that has been changed by God, a heart that is thankful, a heart that recognizes how much God has done for us in Jesus.

And we see a hint of that in this passage. We’re told that this widow “out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Literally, the original Greek says that she gave πάντα τὸν βίον, which could mean “her whole life.” “Bio” can mean one’s living, meaning one’s possessions, but it refers to life more generally. Biology is the study of life. Biography is something written about a life. This woman gave more than the rich because she gave her whole life to God. And what does that have to do with Jesus? Jesus gave his whole life to bring us back to God.

That’s the story of Christianity. God made us to know him, love him, trust him, worship him, serve him, and obey him. But from the beginning, humans haven’t done that. We’ve rejected God. We don’t treasure him. We don’t trust that his words are good for us. So, we shut him up and go our own way. While we don’t always do great evils in the world’s eyes, to ignore the One we are made for is a great evil. We were made to spend our lives for the worthiest cause, which is to know God, to love him, and to live for him. But we don’t do that. We sin. And God cannot dwell with sin. He can’t have sin tearing apart his creation. He is patient now, but one day he will condemn sinners and cast them out of his creation forever.

But God is merciful and gracious, and he sent his Son to become a man. Jesus left his home in heaven, a home full of glorious riches, to live on Earth. That didn’t mean that he stopped being God. It meant that as a human, he had to deal with the things we all experience: hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. But he endured more: he was rejected and betrayed, laughed at and mocked, tortured, and even killed. He was the only person who ever lived a sinless, perfect life, yet he was executed like a criminal. This was the greatest act of evil. But it was also God’s plan to punish sin without destroying all sinners. Jesus took the penalty that we deserve, which is death and hell. And he rose from the grave, showing that he paid that penalty in full, and that he has power over sin and death. All who come to him in faith are forgiven of even the worst of their crimes, the greatest of their sins. They will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world. But those who come to faith will be changed. They will live differently.

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about giving, he urged them to give generously. The reason why they should give was the example of Jesus. Paul writes this:

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 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. 8:8–9).

I think Paul would want us to do more than give financially. After all, Jesus didn’t literally give money. By becoming a man and dying for sinners, Jesus became poor. He gave his life for us. What should we give him in return? Our whole lives. That means we will give money generously, but we should also give our time, our minds, our hearts, and our obedience to Jesus.

What would it look like for you to give a bit more to Jesus? Some of us might need to give our lives to him. We haven’t put our faith in him. We still think that we’re the king of our worlds, so we refuse to acknowledge that Jesus is the true King. We fail to see how we’ve rejected God, so we don’t see sin as a big deal. If that’s you, I urge you to turn to Jesus now.

Some of us might need to make a greater commitment to Jesus. We might need to read our Bibles more and pray more. We might need to commit to a church, becoming members—committing to the church is committing to the body of Christ. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christians who do the Christian life on their terms, apart from the authority of the church. Real Christians recognize the church as God’s plan for his people. Some of us might need to give more—not just money, but also time and effort. What would it look like for you to give more of your life to Jesus? Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Get in the arena and spend your life in the worthiest cause.

Notes

  1. Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University, https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Culture-and-Society/Man-in-the-Arena.aspx.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1643.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Nicole A. Menzie, “Paula White Joins White House, Asks Ministry Supporters for $3,600 in Return for God’s Favor,” Medium, November 1, 2019, https://medium.com/@namenzie/paula-white-joins-white-house-asks-ministry-supporters-for-3-600-in-return-for-gods-favor-30242ade0c90.
  6. You can see the video of Paula White here: https://paulawhite.org/videos/Suddenly2015_Pgm2_Seg1_EmailVersion.mp4?inf_contact_key=cb4a9a3cf858c34aa45bc7971fc4f85ea61f15688044e0df333a256a7a7fd2ca.

 

God of the Living

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

We don’t live in a culture that seeks to understand. We live in a culture of people who think they’re right and want to shut down anyone opposed to them. Or, that’s how it seems to me, at least. It appears that many people of different persuasions want to assume that what others believe is incoherent, and, if put to the test, absurd. And the way that people sometimes try to prove this is through what you might call a “gotcha” question.

Let me give you an example of such a question that some Christians have asked atheists who believe in some form of Darwinian evolution. They ask something like this, “If humans have evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The question is supposed to expose how foolish the evolutionists are. Now, I don’t believe in some form of Darwinian evolution, or what is called macroevolution. I don’t believe that random, undirected mutations of DNA could, against all the odds, produce different species. I don’t believe in that for theological reasons, but also scientific ones. I have studied what neo-Darwinians believe and I find errors in their reasoning. And because of that, I recognize that the “gotcha question” I posed earlier is a really bad one. Darwinians don’t believe that we evolved from apes who, inexplicably, still exist when natural selection should have wiped them out. No, they believe that we and modern apes have a common ancestor, an ape-like species that no longer exists. To quote an atheistic neo-Darwinian, Jerry Coyne, “We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa.”[1]

Now, I’m not going to talk a lot more about evolution. My point is that Christians can engage in this “gotcha” question business. Of course, atheists do it, too. You’ve probably heard someone question your belief in the Bible by asking a question like, “Adam and Eve (at first) had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, and then we’re told Cain had a wife. Where did she come from?” Or, atheists and Muslims might question the doctrine of the Trinity. “How can God be one and three? Isn’t that a contradiction?” They might question the doctrine of the incarnation: “How can Jesus be fully God and fully man?”

There are many different answers to those questions. Adam and Eve might have had daughters that we’re not told about, and Cain could have married one of them. God is three persons who share one divine substance, who are so united in their thoughts, will, and purpose that they act as one. Jesus is the only person with two natures, one divine and one human. And there are excellent books written about these subjects.[2]

But my point is not to answer those questions in detail. I bring all of this up because today, in the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see some of Jesus’ enemies ask him a “gotcha” question. They don’t come to him seeking to understand what he believed. Instead, they try to trap him with what they think is not only a tricky question, but one that can’t be answered well at all. And Jesus answers them by showing that they’re wrong. Then, he asks his own “gotcha” question, and they can’t, or won’t, answer him.

We’ll see all of this in Luke 20:27–44. I invite you to turn there now. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. We’re getting closer to the end of the story that Luke tells. Jesus is now in Jerusalem, and it’s three days before he will be crucified. He is facing opposition from all kinds of people, including different groups of Jewish theologians and leaders and politicians. Eventually, he’ll face Gentiles, too. None of these people can show that Jesus is in the wrong.

We’ll begin by reading verses 27–33:

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”[3]

We’ve met the Pharisees before. They were one group of prominent Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time. Now, we meet the Sadducees. They were “the priestly aristocracy of the Jewish people.”[4] The name “Sadducee” comes from Zadok, who served as high priest about a thousand years earlier, when Solomon was the king of Israel. Many of the high priests in the first century were Sadducees. But most English speakers learn who they are by this little saying: “The Sadducees denied life after death, which is why they were sad, you see.” Luke tells us that they denied there is a resurrection. They also didn’t believe that all of the Hebrew Bible was binding. They adhered to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. And, they thought, since those books don’t clearly teach about the afterlife, there must not be any.

These men come up to Jesus to try to show him that the doctrine of life after death is absurd. So, they come up with an outlandish scenario. But first, they quote Moses. What they’re referring to is part of the law that God gave to Israel through Moses. This is what Deuteronomy 25:5–6 says:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

This practice is very strange to our modern ears, but the law held that if a man dies, leaving a childless widow, his brother should take the widow as a wife and give her a son. In that day, widows were very vulnerable. They wouldn’t or couldn’t make much money, and they would have to rely upon the kindness of strangers, as it were, to survive. But perhaps more importantly, if the dead man had no left no children to carry on his name, it would “be blotted out of Israel.” It would be as if the man never lived. In the Sadducees’ way of thinking, since there is no afterlife, the only way to have one’s memory retained is through descendants. Perhaps some atheists today might think something similar: it’s important to leave a legacy.

Assuming that law, and that people are married in the resurrection, the Sadducees then present their absurd scenario, which isn’t seven brides for seven brothers, but one bride for seven brothers. A woman is married to one brother who dies, leaving her without a child. Brother two steps in, but he dies before the woman can have a son. The same happens with brothers three, four, five, six, and seven. So, this poor woman has been married to all seven brothers, not one of which has fathered a child.

Now, the Sadducees, ask, perhaps holding back their snickering, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” They assume that life in the resurrection will be like this life, only eternal. They assume that people will be married in that life. So, who will this woman be married to? Not one of these brothers has a better claim on her than the others. Will she be married to all seven? That seems absurd. In fact, the Sadducees are employing a tactic called reduction ad absurdum: they think they are reducing a belief in the resurrection to an absurdity. If we are raised from the dead, they think, then absurd situations will result.

Now, using that technique isn’t always wrong. Sometimes the best way to test out an idea is to see what consequences would follow from it if it were true. But to use that technique rightly, you have to understand the idea in the first place. And that’s were these men fail.

Let’s look at Jesus’ answer in verses 34–40:

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question.

Jesus tells them they’re wrong. I don’t know why, but Luke doesn’t include what Matthew and Mark do. In Matthew 22:29, Jesus says, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” The Sadducees don’t understand the Hebrew Bible, they don’t understand the resurrection, and they don’t understand that God has the power to raise up people from the dead.

So, Jesus corrects them. He says that people marry in this age, but they won’t do that in the new creation. In the new creation, there is no death, and no need to produce more people. Procreation will no longer be needed. And God’s purpose for marriage will have an end. I’ll explain why in a moment. But the key thing that Jesus is correcting is their assumption that eternal life is going to be exactly like this life, only infinitely longer. Jesus is implying that things will be dramatically different in the new creation.

Then, to show that the Sadducees are wrong about their denial of the resurrection, Jesus meets them where they are. It’s like he’s saying, “You believe in what Moses wrote? I do, too. Now, don’t you know in Exodus 3, when God speaks to Moses at the burning bush, he says that he is the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those men were dead for hundreds of years. God didn’t say he was their God. No, he still is, because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still exist. They haven’t been resurrected yet, but they will be one day. Still, they’re alive as spirits in heaven. God is the God of the living, not the dead.”

The technique that Jesus uses here is a great one to use. You start by pointing out something that both you and your debate partner agree on. Then, you show how your beliefs better explain that agreed-upon data better than your opponent’s beliefs. Christians, we can do this with human rights. We can say to atheists and agnostics, “You believe in human rights? I do, too. Now, if there’s no God and we’re the product of undirected, impersonal forces, why should all humans have rights. If we’re continually evolving, and if natural selection tends to eliminate the least fit members of a species, why shouldn’t we treat only those who are healthy, smart, and talented as fully human and ignore the needs of the disabled and people who are less gifted? That really doesn’t make sense. But if we’re all created by God and loved by God, then regardless of our abilities, we are all valuable.”

You can do that with other issues, such as rationality, or human intelligence. You could say to the atheist, “You believe that humans have intelligence and can discover the truth? So do I. But if we’re the products of undirected, impersonal, unintelligent forces, and if evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest, then that means that everything about us is tuned for survival, not truth. If every organ of our body, including our brains, are the product of the survival of the fittest, then that means they are good at surviving. But that doesn’t mean our brains will know what is true. Perhaps our brains believe a lot of useful fictions, lies that help us survive longer. But if we’re the products of a super intelligence, God, who has made us in his image and after his likeness, then we are intelligent, too, and can come to know the truth.”

That may sound strange at first, but a number of people, including Darwin himself, have realized that if the universe is the product of a godless process of evolution, then there’s no reason to trust our brains. Even Darwin had this thought.[5] If our thoughts are just the result of chemical reactions in our brains, then there’s no reason to trust they are true. But we couldn’t get anywhere in our thinking if that were the case. That’s why C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.”[6]

Jesus’ answer is brilliant, and even some of his other opponents, the scribes can recognize this. And at this point, no one else—not the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, or the Sadducees—dared ask Jesus another “gotcha” question.

I’m going to come back to the idea of resurrection in a moment, but first I want to see how Jesus asks his own question. Let’s look at verses 41–44:

41 But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? 42 For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
43  until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

44 David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

This is a bit tricky to understand if you don’t know the Bible. In the Old Testament, God made many promises made that one day, a special person would come who would fix all of the problems of Israel and all of the problems of the world. And, just to give us a more complete picture of the biblical story, in case we don’t know it, in the beginning God made the universe to be a theater for his glory, a temple where he and his people would dwell together in harmony. He made us in his image and after his likeness, which means that we were supposed to have a special relationship with God, one marked by our love of God, our worship of God, and our obedience to God. But the first human beings didn’t love and trust God, and therefore they disobeyed. Ever since, we have lived apart from God’s special presence, separated from him by our sin, which is our rebellion against him. God didn’t abandon his creation, however. He always had a plan to bring his people back to himself. He even promised that one day he would recreate the universe to be a perfect place once again. That’s what I mean when I talk of the resurrection or the new creation. God will recreate the world so that his people live with him forever in a real, physical world, one that doesn’t have an evil or death.

God promised that there would be someone who could bring about this new creation, who could fix this mess. We learn that this figure would come from Israel, from one of Abraham’s descendants. More specifically, he would be of the tribe of Judah. Later, we learn that he will be a descendant of David, the greatest king of Israel who lived and reigned roughly a thousand years before Jesus was on the Earth. This figure would, like kings and priests, be anointed. That’s why he’s called Messiah, which is based on a Hebrew word for “anointed,” or Christ, which is based on a Greek word for “anointed.”

So, Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 110, which he says was written by David. Again, this would have been written about a thousand years earlier. In the Psalm, David says that “the Lord,” which we can understand as God or, more specifically, God the Father, said to David’s “Lord,” “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The “right hand” isn’t a literal description as much as a description of power. Whoever is God’s “right hand man” shares his position of power and authority. God says to David’s Lord, “Come here until I put all your enemies under your feet.” Now, in Jesus’ day, it was assumed that David’s “Lord” would be a king who is his descendant. It could have referred to Solomon, his son. But it doesn’t seem to describe Solomon very well. It seems to be talking about the Christ, a descendant of David who would do more than Solomon could ever do.

Now, how could David, the king, refer to his own descendant as “Lord.” Fathers don’t usually address their sons as their own leaders. In David’s case, his son Solomon wouldn’t become king until after David died. Who could be David’s “Lord” when he wrote this Psalm? That’s what Jesus is asking when he says, “David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

Jesus doesn’t get an answer from his enemies. Luke doesn’t tell us that clearly, but Matthew says, “no one was able to answer him a word” (Matt. 22:46). What Jesus was getting his audience to consider was that the Christ had to be greater than David, and probably not a mere human being. Because we have the whole Bible, we can answer Jesus’ question. Jesus is David’s Lord. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He existed in David’s day. And he has all the authority and power of God the Father. In fact, other passages in the New Testament say that Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) and that Jesus will reign until all enemies, including death, are “under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25–26). Jesus is both David’s son and his God and King, as strange as that may seem, because he is both God and man. The Son of God became a human being over two thousand years ago. He did this without ceasing to be God. He added a second nature to himself, one that coordinates with his divine nature so that he is one person with two natures, fully divine and yet also fully human. And, by the way, David’s son can be his Lord only if there is a resurrection, if David is still exists as a spirit and will, one day, be raised in bodily form from the grave.

Jesus is the answer to the riddle that he asks, just as Jesus is the answer to other riddles of the Old Testament. In Moses’s day, almost fifteen hundred years earlier, God said that he is “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6–7). How can God be merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and also be a God “who will by no means clear the guilty”? Which is it? Is he going to forgive sin or punish sin? Perhaps it’s both. God’s plan to fix the problems of the world focuses on the problem of sin, because sin is what corrupted the world. To renew the world, God must remove sin. But how can God remove and even destroy sin without destroying his people? If the penalty for sin is death, which is what the Bible says (Rom. 6:23), then how can God be a righteous judge and punish sin without everyone dying forever?

The answer is Jesus. When the Son of God became man, he came to do what we cannot. He came to live a perfect life, always loving, honoring, and obeying God the Father and loving other people. Though he was perfect, he took the death penalty for his people. He died on the cross, an instrument of torture and execution reserved for the enemies of the Roman Empire. But when Jesus died, he didn’t just die a painful death—a literally excruciating death. He also faced the wrath of God, the spiritual punishment for our sin. The best way to understand this quickly is to think of him enduring hell on Earth so that his people don’t have to go to hell. All who trust in Jesus, who put their faith in him and swear their allegiance to him, will be spared that fate.

After Jesus died, he rose from the grave, in a body that cannot die again. He did this to show that the penalty for sin had been paid, that he has power of sin and death, that he is the Son of God, and that his predictions of death and resurrection were true. He also rose from the grave as the first installment of a new creation, a guarantee that someday in the future, all of God’s people will have a resurrection. Jesus then ascended to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father. But he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Everyone will have a resurrected body, and everyone will live forever. But not everyone will be in the new creation with God. Those who don’t put their trust in Jesus will be cast out, into darkness, into torment.

So, this passage teaches us about the identity of Jesus. He has the same authority and power as God, which is why God the Father can say to him that he is his right hand man. He is the Son of God, which doesn’t mean he has less power or authority than God the Father. But he’s also David’s son because he was born to a descendant of David, Mary, and he lived life as a real, though unique, human being. And from the whole Bible, we know that Jesus is the answer to sin and death. He is the key that unlocks the riddles of the Bible and the gate to the new creation.

We also get a brief glimpse of what life in that new creation will be like. We don’t have a lot of specific information about what life in that perfect world will be like, but from what God has revealed to us, we know that there will be continuities and discontinuities. In other words, some things will be the same, and other things will be different. God’s people will live on Earth, but the Earth will be perfected, with no more sin and evil, no more decay. We will have bodies that are recognizable, but they won’t have the effects of decay and they won’t die. We will worship God, but our worship will be enhanced because will be directly in God’s presence. And we will have relationships with each other, but they will be different. We will no longer be married to one another. Instead, we will be married to God. That sounds really strange at first, but think about what marriage is. It’s supposed to be a lifelong, exclusive relationship of love. We’re told in the Bible that the reason that God created marriage is to provide a picture of the relationship between himself and his people (Eph. 5:32–33). Our marriages right now foreshadow the true marriage. God could have made humans from scratch, instead of having them procreate. He could have made humans that multiply in other ways that don’t involve sex. And God didn’t need to create the only right context for sex, which is marriage. But he did all of this to provide a picture of the relationship he will have forever with his people. Marriage is one metaphor of the relationship between God and his people. There are others. Christ is the head of his body, which is the church. The Holy Spirit dwells in the temple, which is now the church. God is the King of his royal subjects. He is the Master of his servants. Jesus is also our friend and brother. Each metaphor provides us with a different understanding of our relationship to God. In a similar way, Jesus is our groom and we Christians are his bride. That doesn’t mean anything sexual, by the way. That relationship transcends sex and romance. It means that we are bound to one God in an exclusive relationship that includes love and trust. When we make other things more important to our lives, we’re cheating on God. God wants us to be faithful.

Now, the whole idea of no marriage and no sex in eternity sounds very strange to us. We tend to think that sex is one of the most pleasurable experiences that this life provides. But what we don’t know is that eternal life will be so pleasurable and so amazing that we won’t miss sex. To understand this, I want to quote again from C. S. Lewis. This passage comes from the book I already quoted, Miracles:

The letter and spirit of scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognisable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. Hence where fullness awaits us we anticipate fasting.[7]

When we hear about the fact that there won’t be marriage or sex in the new creation, we’re like kids who can’t imagine that sex would exclude what we think is the great pleasure. Perhaps today kids would think that would be playing video games. They might say, “If I can’t play video games while doing that, well, I don’t want to do that at all.” That’s because they can’t imagine a greater pleasure. Right now, we can’t imagine that life in the new creation with God will be so much better than our experience right now that we won’t lack for anything. But that’s what God has told us. Life with him will blow our minds. It will be like this life, only far, far, far greater, to such an extent that we really can’t understand it now. But the reason life will be so much better is because we’ll be with him, and there’s nothing greater than him.

If you are a Christian, continue to put your hope in Christ and live your life in light of eternity. There are things that are more important than marriage and career and entertainments. Even the suffering of this life will be counted as nothing in light of eternity. In fact, our suffering will make us appreciate eternity even more (2 Cor. 4:16–18).

If you are not a Christian, I will tell you this: The only way to experience real life after death, and the only way to have pleasures so great that even sex will count as nothing, is to trust in Jesus. He is the answer to the riddles of your own life. Humble yourself, confess your sin to him, and follow him as if he is your King. He is the only one who can conquer sin and death and unlock the door to a new, greater, more pleasurable eternal life.

Notes

  1. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Penguin, 2009), 192. He goes on to assert, “These are indisputable facts.” Well, no they aren’t facts. We don’t have irrefutable proof of such an evolution. As some have said, the theory is underdetermined by the data. For a fine refutation of Darwinian evolution (in its original and modern forms), see Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). See also my review essay on these books: https://wbcommunity.org/two-views-evolution.
  2. The books that deal with creation are many. I would recommend books by Hugh Ross as a starting place. For the Trinity, see Michael Reeves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012) or Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). For the incarnation, see Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (1986; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001) or Bruce A. Ware, The Man Jesus Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 71.
  5. In a letter to William Graham, written on July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkeys mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1887), 1:315–16, quoted in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 316.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, rev. ed. (1960; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 21.
  7. Lewis, Miracles, 260–61.

 

God of the Living (Luke 20:27-44)

Jesus’ opponents ask him a “gotcha” question, intended to show that he is wrong. Jesus answers their question by showing that they do not understand what Jesus believes, neither do they know the Bible and the God of the Bible. Then, he asks a question of his own that they cannot answer. Find out why God is the God of the living, who Jesus is, and the hope of eternal, resurrected life that we have in him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 20:27-44, on November 3, 2019.

Render to Caesar

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

A little over two weeks ago, CNN held a town hall event for Democratic presidential candidates to discuss LGBTQ issues. Beto O’Rourke was asked if religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriages should lose their tax-exempt status. He quickly said, “Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.” This comment raised again issues of religious freedom, the First Amendment, and the relationship between government and religion.

There’s a lot that I could say about O’Rourke’s comments. I could say that Christians are committed to human rights and civil rights, but that not everything that is claimed to be a right is indeed a right. I don’t think anyone has the right to redefine what marriage is. And, really, that was the issue. People were already free to marry. But marriage has a definition, one created by God and one understood by all kinds of people for millennia. But that’s not the issue I want to address today. I do want to talk about the relationship between the government and religion, between the state and the church, and between civil leaders and God.

The reason why I want to talk about that is that the issue comes up in the Gospel of Luke, which is the book of the Bible that we have been studying on Sunday mornings. At this point in Luke’s biography of Jesus, it is only three days before Jesus will die on the cross. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to die. He knows that this will happen. And the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders of his time grows day by day. The religious leaders rejected Jesus and his teaching. They didn’t believe that he is the Son of God and the Messiah, the anointed King of the house of David. They were jealous of him, they thought he was a nuisance, and they simply wanted him gone. So, they tried to trap him in his words. They tried to get him to say something that would get him in trouble with the Roman Empire so that he would be put to death.

One of the last traps that they have is a question about government. We’ll see that Jesus avoids the trap by answering the question brilliantly. And what he says has ramifications for political and religious history.

Now, let’s turn to Luke 20:19–26:

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.[1]

Last week, we saw that Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the central religious and political symbol of Judaism, and Jesus went there to show that its days were numbered, and that the leaders of the Jews had failed to serve God. Over the centuries, they had often rejected the prophets that God sent to them. Now, they were rejecting God’s own son.

When Jesus taught a parable saying that much, the Jewish leaders knew that he was speaking against them. They wanted to kill Jesus right there and then, but they couldn’t do that without starting a riot. Starting a riot would lead to problems with the Roman Empire, the superpower of that time, and the occupying force in Judea since 63 BC. If there was a riot, the Romans would hold the Jewish leaders responsible. They could be killed, and the Romans would appoint a new high priest. So, Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders didn’t do anything at that moment, because they feared the people. That’s a sad commentary. Instead of fearing God and his Son, they feared the people.

Then, they started some sneaky business. They sent people to spy on Jesus. These people pretended to be sincere, to ask a simple question of Jesus, but what they were trying to do was set a trap. They wanted to catch Jesus in something he might say so that they could deliver him to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. And that’s what they do in the end.

So, these falsely sincere people come to Jesus, and they try to flatter him. “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.” Now, they don’t believe any of this. But what’s ironic is that they are telling the truth. Jesus is the only one who always speaks the truth, who doesn’t show favor to the rich and powerful, and who gives us the clearest revelation of God. In fact, Jesus doesn’t just teach the truth. He is the truth. He famously says elsewhere, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

There’s one details that Luke doesn’t give us that’s important. Both Matthew and Mark, in their Gospels, say that this group of “spies” included Pharisees and Herodians (Matt. 22:15–16; Mark 12:13). Pharisees were a group of Jewish religious leaders who were very serious about applying the law found in the Hebrew Bible to all of life. Herodians were Jews who wanted the Roman Empire to appoint a Jewish king. They get their name from Herod the Great, who was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate. Herod died about thirty-five years earlier, and the Herodians hoped that there could be another king like Herod, someone who was Jewish but who ruled under Rome. In short, the Pharisees resented Roman rule, because they believed this land belonged to Israel and there shouldn’t be Gentiles ruling over them. The Herodians embraced the political situation and accepted Roman rule. These two groups didn’t agree on many issues. They wouldn’t have spent time together. But they agreed that Jesus was bad for their business, so they planned to get rid of him. (Mark 3:6 tells us that they had planned this much earlier.) There’s an old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” A common enemy can unite two very different parties. This won’t be the last time this happens in the Gospel of Luke.

Now, these spies ask Jesus a question: “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Caesar was the Roman emperor, who happened to be Tiberius at this time. What they are asking is if it’s right to pay the poll tax, which every Jewish man was supposed to pay. There were various taxes that Jews had to pay to Rome; this was just one of them. Other taxes included taxes on produce and land. The Jews resented paying taxes to Rome. In the year AD 6, a man named Judas led a revolt against Rome because of this tax. These spies wanted to know if Jesus was a revolutionary or if he was something of a sell-out.

Jesus knows what they’re up to. He knows that if he says, “Yes,” then the Jewish people will think that he’s not the Messiah, because they believed the king of the Jews wouldn’t capitulate to Rome. If he says, “No,” then his enemies would be able to bring him before the Roman governor and tell him that Jesus is a rebel. In fact, that’s more or less what they will do (Luke 23:1–5). If Jesus is going to avoid their trap, he can’t give a simple yes or no answer.

So, he does something brilliant. He says, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” A denarius was a Roman coin, the coin used to pay this tax. On one side of the coin, there was an image of Tiberius, the emperor, and words that said: “Tiberius Caesar, Son the divine Augustus.” Augustus was the emperor when Jesus was born, and he came to be regarded as a god. Tiberius, his son, was therefore regarded as a son of a god. On the other side of the coin, there was a woman, possibly Augustus’s wife, Livia. The text said, “High Priest.”

Jews would have used these coins, but they would have resented using them, because of the religious claims made on them. Jews would regard the coins as bearing graven images of a false god. They knew Caesar wasn’t God. They knew that no Roman figure was a high priest. But they also had to use these coins.

Jesus’ question has an obvious answer. These coins bear the image of Tiberius, the emperor, and they belong to him. So, he says, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Literally, he says, “give back to Caesar Caesar’s.” It’s his coin, so there’s no problem giving it back to him.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He also says, literally, “of God to God.” In other words, “and also give back to God the things that belong to God.” Caesar’s image was on a coin. What is God’s image on? Well, God doesn’t have a body. He’s immaterial. He’s spirit. But the Bible says that we are made in his image and likeness, which means many things. We are made to represent God on Earth, to reflect his greatness. We are supposed to serve God and worship him. And we are supposed to be God’s children, which means we are supposed to love him and obey him the way perfect children will obey a perfect father.

By using the language of “likeness” when talking about the coin, and by talking about what belongs to God, I think Jesus is alluding to the language of Genesis 1:26–28, the passage that says we are made in God’s image and likeness. He’s saying that it’s good and right to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but don’t forget to give back to God that which is God’s. And what belongs to God? Well, everything. Because he made the whole universe, everything belongs to him. But, more specifically, we belong to him. Human beings are made in his image. They bear his likeness. And we are supposed to give our whole lives to God. There’s a line in a poem by A. E. Housman that says of men who die young, “They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man.” We are God’s coins, you might say.

What Jesus is saying is that human government is legitimate. Jesus will later tell Pontius Pilate that the authority that Pilate has was given to him “from above,” from God (John 19:11). It’s right to pay taxes to the government. But, he quickly adds, don’t forget that everything belongs to God. You belong to God, so recognize him as your ultimate King. Recognizing the authority of the state and recognizing the ultimate authority of God are not mutually exclusive. We can obey God by being good citizens in whatever country we find ourselves in. God is ultimate, and he has given authority to the state.

Before I unpack that idea a bit, let’s recognize that Jesus escapes the trap. Luke tells us that these spies “were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.” Because Jesus didn’t give a simple yes or no answer, and because his answer was brilliant, he disarmed his enemies—at least for the moment. They marveled at Jesus’ wonderful answer. They had nothing to say.

Now, let’s think more about what Jesus teaches us in this passage. The first thing we should notice is that secular governments are legitimate. They have been ordained by God to perform a certain function. Jesus’ recognition of this truth is very important, because it wasn’t something that people of his day believed. In much of human history, governments were tied to one religion. Israel was a theocracy: God was their King, and their whole form of government was established to recognize that fact. In the Old Testament, you can’t separate what is religious from what is political. And that was true of other nations in the world. That was true even in the Roman Empire, where many different gods were worshiped. Every city had its own god. Different crafts or trades had their own gods. But Romans were also supposed to recognize that Caesar was a god. Jesus says here that Caesar is not God. That’s a significant statement that we take for granted. But he also says that Caesar’s rule is legitimate.

Jesus isn’t the only one to say this. Jesus’ greatest messenger was the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, he says the following:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Think about that for a moment. Paul says that all government has been instituted by God. Even the Roman Empire, which often persecuted Christians in the first three centuries of the church. In fact, the emperor at the time Paul wrote this letter was Nero, a very wicked and godless man who would later put Paul to death. Paul says that even a godless government has authority.

Another apostle, Peter, says pretty much the same thing. In 1 Peter 2:13–17, Peter writes

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.

Peter tells Christians to be subject to the emperor and to governors. Christians should honor such people. They should fear God, not men, but they should recognize the authority of civil leaders.

In Paul’s other letters, he tells Christians to pray for such leaders and to submit to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, he writes,

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.

And in Titus 3:1–2, Paul writes,

1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

So, human government has been instituted by God. Christians should recognize these authorities and submit to them.

Now, Jesus doesn’t tell his followers what the role of government is. But in those passages that I just read, Paul and Peter give us some indication of what the state should do. Paul says that rulers are a terror to bad conduct. He says that such a ruler “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The government does what the church should not, which is punish the wicked. The government exists to restrain evil, whether that’s through imprisonment or even the death penalty. This can also be through fines. And since there are many different nations in the world, and because there is bound to be conflict between these nations, we can imagine that the sword the government wields includes national defense.

Peter says much the same thing. The government exists “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” What that praise amounts to isn’t clear. Praise might be some kind of public recognition.

What’s important to see is that neither Jesus nor his apostles never say that government is intended to fix all the problems of the world. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say that government is the source of all evil, and neither does it say that it’s the solution to all evil. Jesus never tells his followers that to fix poverty and hunger, they must campaign to get the right emperor and senators in place in the Roman Empire. He never suggests that the answer to such problems is the government. Instead, he commands his followers to take care of the poor.

Additionally, Jesus doesn’t say that the government exists to advance the kingdom of God. The government isn’t the church. It doesn’t evangelize or make disciples. It can’t do that. And I would argue that the government’s ability to shape virtue and character is quite limited. Government is great at punishing vice but rather bad at instilling virtue.

So, we have seen that secular governments are legitimate, and from the rest of Scripture, we get a sense of what the government is supposed to do. How does the government relate to the church? This isn’t spelled out clearly in the passage. But throughout history, Christians have thought carefully about this. Christians have largely agreed that the government has a certain sphere of authority and that the church has a certain sphere of authority. Both have been granted by God.

One of the important documents in the history of the church that relates to this issue is a letter that Pope Gelasius wrote at the end of the fifth century to the emperor. The first half of the letter says this:

There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will.[2]

Gelasius tells the emperor that he is permitted to rule over humans, but not in spiritual matters. He also says that the church is weightier than the state. And that seems to be what Jesus is saying, too. Caesar has some things that we must give back to him, but all things are God’s.

This division between the state and the church is reflected in our own nation’s Constitution. The First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first clause, the so-called Establishment Clause, says that there should be no state church. Many countries have had an official religion and an official church. Think about the Church of England, for example. The Constitution says that the government should not establish such a church. The government doesn’t have the right to decide which religion is true and which religion we should adopt. The Free Exercise Clause says that the government should not prohibit its citizens from freely exercising their religion. And that doesn’t just mean that we should be free to do what we’re doing now, gathering in a church. It means that people should be able to live according to the dictates of their religion.

Much more can be said about the relationship between church and state. I don’t have time to say all that I’d like to say, but I do want to respond to Beto O’Rourke. If our government decided to remove tax exemptions from certain religious institutes, but not others, then it would essentially be establishing an acceptable religion. It seems that if the government starts to pick which religions are acceptable, then the Establishment Clause is being undermined. Remove tax exemption from all churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, or don’t remove them at all. The second thing I would say to O’Rourke is that the history of churches not being taxed is a long one that goes back to Constantine, the Roman emperor in the beginning of the fourth century. This tax exemption is not a reward. Rather, it’s an understanding that the government does not own the church. It’s a reminder that the government’s authority is limited. It’s a sign that says, “God is King; the government is not.” The Bible states, in both Daniel and Revelation, that governments that get too large tend to become beasts, oppressing people.

Now, we’ve seen that the government has a legitimate authority, a certain role to play in God’s economy, so to speak, and how it should relate to the church. There’s something else that we need to consider. How should Christians relate to the government? In general, we should be the best citizens. We should submit to authorities, pay our taxes, and pray for those in government. But what happens if the demands of government and the demands of God come into conflict with each other?

If the government asks us to do something that God forbids, or if the government forbids us to do something that God commands, we must not obey the government. There is room for civil obedience in the Bible’s teachings. In the Old Testament, there are two examples from Daniel. The king of Babylon commanded everyone to worship an idol. Daniel’s friends didn’t obey the king’s commands, and they were ready to suffer the consequence, the death penalty (Daniel 3). The king of Babylon commanded people not to pray to any god. Daniel went ahead and prayed to the true God, and he also was ready to face the music (Daniel 6). In the New Testament, we have the example of the apostles. The Jewish authorities told them not to teach about Jesus. But they went ahead and did that. They said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The apostles suffered a consequence; they literally took a beating. And they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” of Jesus (Acts 5:41). Then they continued to proclaim the message of Christianity.

The Bible says that we should be good citizens of whatever country we’re in. But the Bible also reminds Christians that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). We are citizens of two different cities, the city of man and the city of God. We must obey both the state and God. But if the two come into conflict, we must obey God rather than human rulers. And we must be willing to suffer. We’re not told that the church should overthrow governments. Paul didn’t advocate overthrowing the wicked Nero. Jesus didn’t advocate overthrowing Pontius Pilate.

In fact, that’s another thing that is amazing about Jesus. He tells the Jews that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. The taxes that the Jews paid would support the Roman Empire. That money would be used to pay Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and Roman soldiers. And three days later, Jesus was be killed by these people. Jesus knew this would happen (Luke 18:31–33). Yet Jesus says, “Pay your taxes, even to people who would do you harm.” Paul says the same thing, even though the Roman emperor would have him killed.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we should gladly vote for people who will cause us suffering. I would tell you not to vote for candidates who threaten religious freedom, just as I would tell you not to vote for candidates who are against the things that God has created, whether that’s marriage or vulnerable human lives. I don’t think that either of our political parties is necessarily a godly party. I’m not impressed by the political leaders that we have, and I often wish we had different choices, and perhaps a different political party. But I can’t vote for a political party that celebrates what God forbids, and which threatens to forbid what God commands. Still, if we have a government that is wicked, we must be willing to peacefully disobey the government and be willing to suffer the consequences.

We can suffer because Jesus suffered. Jesus knew he would suffer at the hands of those who received taxes. Jesus wasn’t killed simply because certain people hated him. He wasn’t killed simply because he was a nuisance, and it was politically expedient to destroy him. He died because his life, death, and resurrection comprised God’s plan to rescue sinful people. The fact is that though we are made in God’s image and likeness, we don’t accept that role. We rebel against God. We don’t want to come under his authority. We don’t want to obey him. We don’t love him as we should. We ignore him. We don’t worship him. Instead, we make lesser things the center of our lives. We don’t want God as our King. That’s why so many people act as though government is the ultimate authority. That’s why people are so very passionate about politics. As rebels against God, we deserve the death penalty. Our rebellion against God destroys his creation, and God cannot put up with that forever. But Jesus, the true image of God, the very likeness of God, lived a perfect life. He died in our place. If we trust in him, his perfect life is credited to us, as though we always did what God wanted us to do. And if we have faith in Jesus, all our sins, all our evil, all our rebellion, is forgiven. Our crimes have already been punished. Our debt to God has already been paid. Jesus laid down his life so that citizens of the kingdom of man could become citizens of the kingdom of God. No president, no governor, no senator, and no representative could do that for you.

So, what do we do? First, trust in Jesus. Indeed, he is. Trust him for your salvation. And come under his leadership in all areas of life, religious and political.

Second, be good citizens. Obey the authorities—unless they ask you to do something contrary to the way of Jesus, or if they forbid you to do something that Jesus would have you do. Pay your taxes. Honor your political leaders. Pray for them.

Third, don’t expect the government to solve all the world’s problems. The government can’t fix poverty. It can’t change hearts. It can’t save us. Don’t expect the government to proclaim the gospel or make disciples. The government isn’t the church.

Fourth, when it comes time to vote, or to do anything political, do so as a Christian. In fact, if you’re a Christian, your faith should influence everything you do. Our Constitution says that the government should not establish a church or keep us from living out our faith. But it does not say there is a “separation between church and state.” That phrase is based on a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut when he was in the White House. It is not part of the Constitution. Americans should refer to their faith when being political. Religion should influence public policy. The Founding Fathers believed that to be true. Christians, we can speak truth to power. Martin Luther King, Jr., wasn’t afraid to quote the Bible when talking about the sin of racism. We can’t be afraid to that when talking about other evils, or when promoting other goods. But we must never expect the government to do the job of the church.

So, be good citizens, pay your taxes, pray for your leaders. But most importantly, trust in Jesus and live as if he is King. Because he is. Human governments will all fade away, but Jesus, his word, and his reign will endure forever.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Gelasisus I, Famuli vestrae pietatis, written to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius in 494. A translation of this letter can be found at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/gelasius1.asp.

 

Render to Caesar (Luke 20:19-26)

What is the relationship between God and government, Christianity and kings, Christians and politics? Jesus addresses the issue when his enemies tried to trap with a tricky question. Learn how Jesus evaded that trap and taught about our responsibilities to state and to God. Brian Watson preached this message, based on on Luke 20:19-26, on October 27, 2019.

In the Temple

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

What is the most important place in America? When I say “place,” I’m thinking not of a state or a city, but of something more specific, a site, a piece of land, a building. What do you think is the most important place, a place that Americans regard as sacred?

I had a hard time coming up with just one place. For some, it might be a place that has a lot of symbolic weight, like the State of Liberty. Lady Liberty stands as a symbol of freedom, beckoning the tired, poor huddled masses to a new life in America. The Statue of Liberty is important because of what it stands for. But in another sense, it’s not important. It’s less than one hundred fifty years old, no historical events took place right where it stands, and nothing important happens there—well, other than tourists visiting it.

Perhaps a political building is the most important place. Depending on which branch of government you think is most important, the most important place might be the White Office, the Capitol Building, or the Supreme Court Building. Important things happen in those places.

For some people, the most important place might be a religious site. I have a hard time coming up with one particular church or cathedral in America. But if we were in France, the Notre-Dame would probably be the most important religious building. That’s why so many people grieved when the building was on fire earlier this year.

We Americans might not have one site that is the most important symbolic, political, and religious site. There are probably a lot of cultural, political, and religious reasons why that is the case. But for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the most important symbolic, political, and religious site was the temple in Jerusalem. There’s nothing in America that we can compare it to. Imagine if the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore, the White House, the US Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, and the most important church buildings were all combined. That’s kind of like what the temple was for Judaism.

Today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus, we’re going to see Jesus go to the temple in Jerusalem and challenge the authority of the temple’s leaders. It would be like taking a tour of the White House, then sneaking past Secret Service and going to the Oval Office and telling the President what to do. Now, there are a lot of people who tell the President what to do and where to go on Twitter, but it would be something else to go right into the Oval Office and act like you’re the real President. But that’s more or less what Jesus does. And, as you can imagine, that gets him into trouble with the religious leaders of his day.

We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke for some time. The Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. Today, we’re going to read the very end of chapter 19 and the beginning of chapter 20. We’ll start by reading Luke 19:45–48:

45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”

47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.[1]

This story is Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple. Both Matthew and Mark have longer accounts of this event (Matt. 21:12–16; Mark 11:15–18). Luke focuses on the essential details. Jesus goes into the temple, kicks some people out, and quotes two different passages from the Old Testament. Then he starts teaching at the temple daily during the last week of his life. This is most likely Monday. He will be crucified four days later.

As I said earlier, the temple was the most important symbolic, political, and religious place for Jews. The temple represented where God dwelled among the Jews. Specifically, he was supposed to reside in the Most Holy Place, the inner part of the temple building. The temple was also the place where priests offered up animal sacrifices which were supposed to pay for the sins of the people. The priest would touch the heads of animals that were sacrificed, symbolically transferring the sin of the people to the animals, who would then be slaughtered in place of sinful people. This taught Israel that the penalty for sin was death, but that this penalty could be taken by another, a substitute. The temple was also a place where priests taught people, and where prayers were made.

Jesus goes into this most important place and acts like he owns it. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a brief story of how Jesus, at age 12, was sitting among teachers at the temple and asking them questions. When his parents, who didn’t know where he was, found him there and rebuked him , Jesus said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 12:41–49). God the Father owns the temple, and what belongs to the Father belongs to the Son of God, Jesus.

At the temple, people were supposed to offer animal sacrifices. People who traveled to the temple from a distance could buy animals at the temple instead of traveling with animals. They also had to pay a tax to the temple, and the tax had to be paid in a particular currency, a coin made in the city of Tyre. So, there were people who sold animals, and there were money changers, people who exchanged currency. The people who sold animals and changed money did so for a profit.

Why did Jesus drive out people who sold things? There are at least two different possible interpretations, understandings of this passage that aren’t mutually exclusive. One is that people were selling animals and exchanging currency at high rates, making money off the poor and the pious. Perhaps Jesus drove them out because they were capitalizing on religious practices. That would make sense of Jesus’ quotation of Jeremiah 7:11, the bit that calls the temple a “den of robbers.”

Another interpretation is that Jesus’ action of driving out these sellers is a symbolic and prophetic action. He’s announcing that the days of the temple building are coming to an end.[2] There will be a new temple, a true temple, one where no animal sacrifices are needed, one that all of God’s people can access directly, wherever they are. There will be no more pilgrimages to one holy site. Jesus is the true temple of God. He is the “place” where God and his people meet. His body will be the true sacrifice for sin. The blood of animals cannot pay for human sin. If someone is going to take the penalty for my sin, it must be a human. In the animal sacrificial system, only unblemished animals could be sacrificed. They had to be perfect. This meant that something valuable was sacrificed. Jesus is the only unblemished human. And he can take the penalty of sin away from many people because he’s not just a man. No, he’s the God-man, truly God and truly human. He is infinite, and his sacrifice on the cross can take away the sins of every single person who comes to Jesus in faith, who trusts that he is divine, that he’s the world’s only Savior, and that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Anyone who trusts Jesus personally, knowing that he is the only way to be made right with God, and that is the ultimate authority, becomes part of the true temple of God. When you come to Christ, you become a dwelling place for God. God the Holy Spirit lives in you. You have 24/7 access to God, wherever you are.

Jesus came to the temple to show that the leadership of the people had become corrupt. If you look at Jeremiah 7, which Jesus quotes here, you can see that about six hundred years earlier, the people of Judah were corrupt. They oppressed and killed other people. They put their trust in false gods, in idols. They even made the temple into an idol, trusting that as long as they had the temple building, they could not go wrong. God warned the people that because they had not listened to him, he would destroy the temple.

But Jesus also came to announce that the temple was no longer going to be needed. The true sacrifice for sin was about to be offered to God. And Jesus knew that many people would come to the true temple, his body, and become part of God’s people. That’s why he quotes Isaiah 56:7, which refers to the temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah, over seven hundred years earlier, foresaw a day when foreigners, Gentiles, would “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants” (Isa. 56:6). And that same passage in Isaiah 56 speaks of the leaders of Israel as “watchmen [who] are blind” and “shepherds who have no understanding” (Isa. 56:10–11). Jesus seems to indicate that the leaders of his day didn’t really know God. They were blind. They didn’t recognize God’s own Son when he was right in front of them.

Jesus acts like he owns the temple. He seems to say that the current leadership of Israel is wrong. And that’s why the leaders—the chief priests, the scribes, and other leading men—wanted to destroy Jesus. But they couldn’t destroy him right then and there. There were too many people “hanging on his words.” Many people were attracted to Jesus because there was never anyone like him, someone who taught with complete authority. If the Jewish leaders killed Jesus in front of these people, there would be a riot. The Jewish leaders couldn’t afford a riot, because that would lead the Roman Empire, which controlled the land, to punish the Jewish leaders. The high priest was a political appointment. The Roman governor of Judea had the authority to remove a high priest and replace him with another. The chief priests didn’t want to lose political power, so they had to find some other way to get rid of Jesus.

Since Jesus comes to the temple and acts like he owns the place, the Jewish leaders want to know what kind of authority Jesus has. So, they ask him. Let’s read Luke 20:1–8 to see what happens:

1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know where it came from. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

The Jewish leaders ask Jesus two questions that are related. Really, they want to know where he gets such authority. Jesus didn’t have political power. And he wasn’t an official religious leader. He wasn’t a priest. So, how can he act like he owns the place. Again, if you were to confront the President in the Oval Office, e hmight say, “Who gives you the right to tell me what to do?”

Jesus answers by asking his own question. He asks them if John the Baptist had authority from God or if John’s ministry was simply manmade. John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus who preached in the wilderness. He told people that the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel, was coming. He told people to prepare for this event by repenting of their sins. And he baptized people as a sign that they needed to be made clean. He told them that being biologically related to Abraham, the father of all Israelites, didn’t guarantee them a place in God’s kingdom. He told them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He also told people, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). He was referring to Jesus. Many people responded to John’s message, but most people ignored him, including the leaders of the Jews.

So, Jesus is asking them if John’s message was from God. If so, then they should have responded to him. And they should have known that Jesus was the one greater than John, the one that John promised would come. If John came from God, then the leaders should have known that Jesus came from God, and that he is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But if John’s message wasn’t from God, then it’s possible that he was wrong, and that Jesus wasn’t from God.

The Jewish leaders then huddle up and discuss how they will answer Jesus’ question. If they say that John was from God, then they should have believed John. And that means they should recognize who Jesus is. If John’s ministry wasn’t from God, then they can simply reject Jesus. But the crowds thought that John was a true prophet, so if they say that John wasn’t from God, they’ll get into political trouble. The Jewish leaders don’t believe that John was a prophet, but they don’t want to get into hot water with the people, so they give a very political answer: “We don’t know.” That’s like a politician saying, “I don’t recall,” or, “I’m not allowed to speak to that,” or, “That’s above my pay grade.” We’ve heard these political answers before, and we’ve come to expect that kind of dishonesty from politicians. It’s sad that these men, who were supposed to speak for God, are mere politicians.

Jesus therefore says that he won’t answer them. But, in fact, Jesus does answer them—just not directly. He tells them where his authority comes from. Jesus also tells them who they are. He does this in a parable. Let’s read Luke 20:9–18:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?

18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

This parable is almost like an allegory. In an allegory, every character in the story stands in for someone in real life. The man who plants a vineyard is God. The vineyard represents the place of God’s people. In this story, it could represent the temple or Jerusalem, or possibly all the land of Israel. The tenants are the leaders of the people. The servants of the owner are prophets. And the son is the Son of God.

In the Old Testament, Israel is often called a vine (Ps. 80:8; Jer. 2:21; 12:10; Ezek. 17:6; 19:10–14; Hos. 10:1). And God planted his “vine” in his “vineyard,” the land of Israel. In Isaiah 5, there’s a famous passage that speaks of God carefully making a vineyard. He expects the vineyard to produce good fruit. Instead, it produces “wild grapes.” And God says that he will then destroy the vineyard (see Isa. 5:1–6). That passage ends with these words:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry! (Isa. 5:7)

God expects good fruit from his people. God is our Creator, and therefore he owns us. God can’t have a bunch of rotten fruit spoiling his creation. He’s very patient, and he puts up with our bad fruit for a long time. But his patience has limits. There will be a day when all the rotten fruit will be removed from his vineyard, so to speak, and destroyed. We refer to that as Judgement Day. But even before that final day of judgment, there are times when God brings things to an end. These are lesser acts of judgment. Israel’s temple had already been destroyed about six hundred years earlier, in 586 BC. And this second temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed in forty years, in AD 70.

Jesus is telling the Jewish leaders that they are like those wicked tenant farmers of the story. They were supposed to manage God’s possessions and produce good fruit. But they didn’t. God sent them many servants: the prophets. But the people rejected the prophets, and even killed them. There are stories in the Old Testament of prophets being killed (Jer. 26:20–23; 2 Chron. 24:20–22) and Jewish tradition says that many of the prominent prophets, like Isaiah, were martyred. Hebrews 11:36–38 says that many were killed. At then end of the book of Chronicles, which chronicles a long portion of Israel’s history, we’re told this:

14 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem.

15 The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy (2 Chron. 36:14–16).

And right after that passage, we’re told about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the act of judgment that God brought upon Jewish people because of their idolatry and sin (2 Chron. 36:17–21).

So, in this story, the servants are the prophets, and they are treated worse and worse. Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his own son, thinking that the tenant farmers will treat him with respect. But these wicked tenants kill him, thinking that, somehow, they can keep the vineyard that way. This is the owner’s only son. He is thrown out of the vineyard and put to death. But because of that death, the owner will destroy those evil tenants and give the vineyard to others. Those who reject God’s Son will be judged, and other people, those who embrace the Son, will become part of God’s people.

When Jesus tells this story, the crowds say, “Surely not!” They understand what Jesus is saying about Israel. They don’t want God to judge them and replace them with others. But Jesus says that the Son who is rejected will be the foundation of a new people of God, anyone who comes to the Son. He quotes Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I talked about Psalm 118 a bit a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how people quoted another part of that Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Ps. 118:26). Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But he’s also the one who is rejected, the one who will be taken outside of the city walls and crucified, even though he was an innocent man. Yet even though he is killed, he rises from the grave, and he becomes the cornerstone of the church. The church is built on Jesus, the one who is rejected by sinful humans but who is precious and chosen in God’s sight (1 Pet. 2:4).

Jesus is saying that he is the one sent from God. He is the Son of God. But he also knows that he will be treated like the prophets. He will be rejected and killed. Yet this is all part of God’s plan. God’s uses evil and turns it for good. The people will kill the Son of God because they don’t believe him. But God’s plan was always for the Son to become human and die, so that the sins of his people could be punished without the people themselves being destroyed. This was the Son’s plan as well as the Father’s. Jesus lays down his life for his people.

So, the irony is that while these wicked, faithless leaders think they can stop Jesus, by arranging to have him killed, they are actually making sure that the Son’s plan comes to pass. Jesus cannot be stopped or thwarted. He is the ultimate authority. If people try to kill him, he will rise from the grave. And when people try to kill Christianity by persecuting Christians, more people come to Christ. God uses evil for good. In fact, God’s plans include using evil for good. So, evil cannot stop God. It is no match for him. These Jewish leaders conspired to kill the King of the Jews. And Jesus was killed. But that was his plan all along. He was crucified so that sinners could have their sin punished. He was exiled from the vineyard so more people could enter into it. And that vineyard is given to people who trust in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. No one is born into the vineyard. But we can be born into God’s vineyard if God transforms us, gives us the Holy Spirit, and leads us to turn away from our sins and to trust in Jesus.

What does this passage have to do with us? Let’s think through what Jesus is doing in this passage. He comes to the temple and acts like he owns it. As the Son of God, he owns everything. He owns us, because he made us. What would it look like for Jesus to show up in our lives right now? What would Jesus find if he were to investigate our lives? Would he find us trusting in him and living life on his terms? Would he see that we believe he is the ultimate authority because he is God? Would he see us obeying his commandments? Or would he find us faithless? To put it another way, how would Jesus cleanse our lives? What from our lives would he drive out? Or, to look at the situation from another perspective, what good things would Jesus drive into our lives?

Those are personal questions. I can’t answer them for you. I imagine that what he would see would vary from person to person. But I’m sure that all of us have things in our lives that need to be driven out. All of us live in ways that don’t completely line up with the way of Jesus. We are often like those Jewish leaders—we want to be the ones in control, we want to be the ultimate authority. To quote that popular song from the ‘80s: “Everybody wants to rule the world.”

If you are a Christian, I ask you to pray to God something like this: “Father in heaven, please reveal to me the ways in which I’m being rebellious. Please show me where I’m not following Jesus. Please show me the things in my life that need to be removed. Give me the strength the follow Jesus the way that I should.”

If you’re not a Christian, I urge to trust in Jesus. You can fight against his authority. You can deny him and ignore him. But you can’t avoid him forever. You will have to deal with him, either now or on that great day of judgment. And you will either be part of his vineyard because you’ve come to embrace him in this life, or you will be removed from his vineyard, where there is nothing but a joyless and painful existence for all eternity. Turn to Jesus now. There is no greater authority, because he is God. To reject Jesus is to reject your Maker. And there will be consequences for that. But know that Jesus is not just some harsh preacher of judgment. He’s also the one who lays down his life for sinners. His death can pay for all the sins you’ve ever committed. There’s no sin that Jesus’ sacrifice can’t atone for. But to have your sins forgiven, you need to trust in Jesus. And that will lead to a change in your life. You will live as if he is King. I would love to talk to you about following Jesus if you’re not doing that now.

There’s still another thing for us to think about. What if Jesus came to all churches that bear his name? What would he find? Many churches don’t worship the way the Bible tells us to. Churches ignore what the Bible says about church leadership. They ignore what the Bible says about preaching. They ignore what the Bible says about evangelism, about telling people the good news of Jesus. They ignore what the Bible says about making disciples, teaching them all Jesus commanded—either directly or through his prophets and apostles. They ignore what the Bible says about money and generosity, or about church discipline, or about all kinds of things. No church is perfect. This church is certainly not. Churches contain people who strive for positions of power, like the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. It is often the case that people who aren’t godly try to gain control of a church. And they don’t want to give up that control, even if that would lead to following the Bible’s instructions more closely. Struggles for power often make people do very ungodly things. It’s happened in this church, and I can assure that it has happened or is happening right now in just about every church there is.

What would Jesus say about this church? What would he drive out? Let us think about that and pray about it. May God give us the wisdom and the grace to make any changes that are necessary.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. I must give credit for this interpretation to Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 161–164.

 

Blessed Is the King

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on October 6, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

It’s October 6 today, which means it’s only twenty-five days from Halloween. It also means it’s less than thirteen months away from the next presidential election. Frankly, I’m not sure which one is scarier. On Halloween, we’ll see kids dressed up as all kinds of characters, and we have all kinds of characters running for president.

If you’re like me, you would like to have some different options for who is running for president. Who do you think would be an ideal leader? Some people want a leader who is able to maintain composure under pressure. We’ve had some presidents who have been military leaders, like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe your ideal leader is the most educated, the most intelligent. John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were professors; Barack Obama was a lecturer. Perhaps you would like an entertaining president. Ronald Reagan was an actor, and Donald Trump was—and still is—a reality show star.

Whatever you think of the presidents we’ve had, they have had different strengths and many different weaknesses. But not one of them could ever compare to Jesus. There has never been a leader like Jesus, and there never will be. He is rightfully called the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).

We have been studying the life of Jesus for some time by carefully examining the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Today, as we continue our study, we’re going to see that Jesus is the King who approaches the capital city of Jerusalem. We’re going to see that Jesus has a number of paradoxical properties. Jesus is a King who is in complete control, yet he knows what will happen in Jerusalem—he will be killed because of an angry mob and leaders who refused to take responsibility. We’ll see that Jesus comes not as a typical king, proud and full of himself. And yet he says that he deserves praise, that if people stopped showering him with accolades, even the stones would cry out. Jesus was a King that was prophesied in the Old Testament. Yet when he came to Jerusalem, the people who knew the Old Testament didn’t recognize him. Jesus is a King who was received by some and rejected by many others. And Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him, yet who also weeps over that rejection.

We’ll see all of this and more in today’s passage, Luke 19:28–44. We’ll begin by reading verses 28–40:

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”[1]

Jesus and his disciples have been making their way to Jerusalem for quite some time now. Jesus has told his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem (Luke 18:31–33). Yet as he approaches the city, he prepares a royal entrance, fit for a king.

As I said, Jesus is a King who is in complete control. He tells his disciples to do something specific, to arrange for him to ride into Jerusalem on a colt. He knows exactly where the colt is, he tells them what to say to its owners, and the disciples do exactly as he tells them. We should notice that even as Jesus approaches his own betrayal, arrest, and execution, he is in complete control. We have no reason to think that he had somehow secretly arranged for his disciples’ conscription of this colt. So, how does he know where it is and what they should say? Because he’s not just a man; he’s also God. As strange as it is to think about, Jesus has a divine nature and a human nature. That means that he has a divine mind, a mind that is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows what is going to happen to him. He is arranging everything, including his own death. What happens to Jesus is not an accident. He will lay down his life, but he’s no victim. Everything must happen as it does to fulfill God’s plan.

So, Jesus tells two of his disciples to take a colt, a donkey, for him to ride on. In all that we’ve read about Jesus, we have never read that he rode on anything. He has always traveled by foot. So, why does he need to ride on a donkey? Well, there are two reasons. I’ll deal with one right now. His entrance in Jerusalem on a donkey might have reminded some people of events in Old Testament history. When Israel’s great king, David, was dying, there was some political intrigue in his kingdom. One of his sons, Adonijah, claimed that he would be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:5). But David chose his son Solomon to be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:28–30). David ordered that Solomon should ride into Jerusalem on his own mule and be anointed as the next king (1 Kgs. 1:32–35). And that is what happened, and when Solomon was proclaimed the next king of Israel, the people rejoiced (1 Kgs. 1:38–40). Also, the fact that people here spread their cloaks on the ground, giving Jesus something like the red-carpet treatment, is reminiscent of when another king of Israel, Jehu, was anointed (2 Kgs. 9:13).

Jesus, like Solomon, rides not a war horse or a chariot, but a more humble animal, a donkey. As in the case of Jehu, people spread their garments before him. And a large group of disciples praise God for the mighty works he has done through Jesus, and they quote Psalm 118:26. The original says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But here, the disciples say, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” They make it clear that Jesus is the King of Israel. That Psalm was one of several that was sung at Passover, the feast that remembered God’s great salvation of Israel when they were in Egypt. The Psalm is all about God saving his people: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Ps. 118:14). “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (Ps. 118:21). “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” (Ps. 118:25). The people realize that God has come in the person of Jesus. “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (Ps. 118:27).

That same Psalm says this:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes (Ps. 118:8–9).

The disciples realize that Jesus is no mere man, no ordinary king. He is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6–7), the one who has come to reconcile rebellious sinners to their Maker. He is the one you can put your trust in. And we’ll see why we can trust him as we continue to look at this passage.

Part of the reason why Jesus is trustworthy is that he isn’t like a typical king. He doesn’t come on a war horse, or on a chariot, with a great show of power. He’s riding a donkey, accompanied by a rag-tag group of ex-fisherman and other oddballs. Jesus could have arrived in a chariot of gold. He could have ridden into Jerusalem with a great army. But he didn’t. He’s a humble king, born in humble circumstances, living in a small town and working as a carpenter. Imagine how a political leader travels today: in a private plane, and in armored, black SUVs, with bodyguards. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a minivan with a bunch of nobodies.

But even though Jesus is humble, and doesn’t show off, he knows who he is. He’s not falsely humble or modest. He’s self-assured. When his disciples call him the King, some Pharisees, an important group of religious leaders, tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They want him to correct them. But Jesus doesn’t. He knows that he’s the King. He knows that he is worthy of praise. He says that if the disciples were quiet, even the stones would cry out. If no humans praised the Son of God, then creation itself would cry out. Jesus’ humility and his self-confidence seem to be paradoxical, but truly great people don’t need to show off or draw attention to themselves.

Here’s another thing that is paradoxical about Jesus: He was the King that the Old Testament promised would come, but many didn’t recognize him. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Jesus. Here, Jesus fulfills perhaps two prophecies. Both come from the prophet Zechariah. The more obvious passage is Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It seems that Jesus ordered the disciples to get a colt for him to ride so that he could fulfill this prophecy. Jesus is the righteous king who comes to bring salvation. The very next verse in Zechariah says that this king will bring weapons of war to an end, and that he will “speak peace to the nations” and rule “from sea to sea.” Jesus didn’t bring an end to all wars the first time he came, but he did come to bring peace to those who had been enemies of God. And his rule does extend to the whole world, even though many people don’t recognize that he is the true King.

Another passage in Zechariah, this time in chapter 14, speaks of a day when the Lord will come to Jerusalem to fight for his people. It says, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward” (Zech. 14:4). When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he came from the Mount of Olives, and I don’t think that’s an accident. When Jesus came, obviously the mountain wasn’t split in two. But the language of the prophets isn’t always literal. It’s often symbolic. The idea of the mountain being split in two is that a path has been opened, and it’s an earth-shattering event. Jesus will later be in the Mount of Olives on the night before he is died. It is where he will be arrested. Jesus knew he had to die. He knew he had to face God’s righteous judgment against sin. He had to drink the cup of God’s wrath, poured out against those who destroy his creation, who rebel against him. Jesus’ grief at that moment is so great at that moment, that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). We might say that Jesus was being split into two as the moment of his sacrifice was approaching.

The prophet Zechariah says, at the end of chapter 14, that all of Jerusalem will be made holy. It ends with this comment: “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). Jesus will soon go to the house of the Lord, the temple in Jerusalem, and he will cleanse it of traders (Luke 19:45–46). In time, Jesus will replace the temple. There will no longer be a need to offer up animal sacrifices for sin, which couldn’t really pay for the sins of human beings anyway. Jesus himself will be the true sacrifice, the only one need to pay for all the sins of his people, and he will offer himself up on the altar of the cross. All who put their trust in Jesus, instead of putting their trust in themselves or politicians or in anything else, have all their sins removed, wiped out, completely forgiven, and they have access to God. Christians don’t need to go to a special place in order to pray or worship. We do need to come together to worship, to encourage one another, but we don’t need to make a pilgrimage to a holy city. We already have access to the city of God, wherever we are. What Jesus did was earth-shattering.

So, Jesus fulfills prophecy. The Jewish people should have seen this. There are so many ways that Jesus fulfills the promises of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. He is the one born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), the son of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), the one of the tribe of Judah who has a donkey’s colt (Gen. 49:10–11), the son of David anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:1–2), the suffering servant who “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3—see Isa. 52:13–53:12). Yet so many of the Jewish people who knew the Scriptures best didn’t recognize Jesus. The Pharisees, who took the Old Testament very seriously, couldn’t connect the dots of Scripture to Jesus. They had eyes that couldn’t see the truth when it was standing right in front of them. And nothing has really changed. So many people today can’t see who Jesus is, even when all the evidence points to his true identity.

And this leads us to the next several verses in Luke. Jesus knew he would be rejected, and he knew that judgment would come to those who reject God’s anointed King. Yet the same King who promises judgment also weeps over the fact that judgment is coming. Let’s read Luke 19:41–44:

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Jesus is a King who was gladly received by some but who was rejected by many others. Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him. This is something he has done several times in this Gospel. If you read any of the Gospels, this becomes very clear. Those who reject Jesus reject God. You cannot have a right relationship with God without having a right relationship with Jesus. Those who reject Jesus will be condemned for their sin. There is no forgiveness for them.

Yet Jesus isn’t just a tough preacher of hell. Jesus also also weeps over the fact that people reject him. It’s amazing to think that the eternal Son of God, who is all powerful, would weep about anything. But this shows us that God has emotions. He is not cold and impersonal. And even though his eternal plan includes the condemnation of many, it’s not because he doesn’t care.

I want to point out something here in case we come to a wrong conclusion about why Jesus is weeping. Some people would say that Jesus is sobbing because he can’t make people love him, as if he were an unrequited lover. Jesus desperately wants people to believe in him, but he can’t violate their free will, and they don’t believe in him, so he’s really sad. That’s what some people think. But that’s not the case. And the reason we know that is because of what the whole Bible says. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, God has predestined some to salvation, which means all others will be condemned. And God crafted a plan that, for reasons that only he knows fully, includes sin, and all the works of Jesus, including his becoming human and dying on the cross and, later, rising from the grave. And all of this brings God glory. But even in this passage, we see that this is God’s plan. Jesus says, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” The unbelieving Jews should have seen that Jesus came to do “things that make for peace.” But they couldn’t see those things. Why? Because “now they are hidden from your eyes.” Who hid these things from their eyes? When the passive voice is used this way in the Bible, it means that the actor is God. Why God would do this is something of a mystery. But all of this is part of God’s plan. And yet Jesus weeps.

This is all very similar to what happens when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the grave (John 11). Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to die. He says that this is all part of God’s plan to glorify himself (John 11:4). Lazarus had to die so that Jesus could raise him. Jesus knew all of this. Yet when Lazarus died, and his sisters were mourning, Jesus wept (John 11:35). And then Jesus rose Lazarus back to life (John 11:38–45). The Son of God, who is in complete control, weeps that some things must happen.

Jesus is like the prophet Jeremiah. (We’ve been studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings, and you all are welcome to join us.) Jeremiah was given the difficult task of prophesying to Judah shortly before Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian empire. That destruction came because the people didn’t believe in God. They didn’t respond rightly to his words. Instead of trusting in God, they trusted in the words of false prophets, other messages that said things they wanted to hear. They worshiped false gods, gods they could manipulate. Jeremiah was told he would “pluck up” and “break down,” he would “destroy” and “overthrow,” he would “build” and “plant” (Jer. 1:10). And Jeremiah spoke God’s words to unbelieving people. Like Jesus, he promised destruction to those who didn’t trust God. Like Jesus, he wept (Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17). And, like Jesus, Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.

Here in Luke, Jesus says that enemies will come to Jerusalem and set up barricades to surround the city on every side. These enemies will destroy the people, the city, and the temple. Why? “Because you did not know the time of your visitation.” That means that they didn’t know that God had visited them in the person of Jesus. They didn’t know that Jesus was a man of God. They didn’t realize that Jesus is God.

What Jesus says here comes to pass forty years later. Because the Jewish people will rebel against the Roman Empire, the Romans will retaliate. They will surround the walled city of Jerusalem. And they will then destroy the city and its temple, killing many people in the process. This finally happened in the year 70. This destruction came because of the people’s rejection of Jesus, which was a rejection of God. And the stones of the temple were destroyed because the temple was no longer needed. The true temple, where God meets with his people, where people pray to God, and where sacrifices were offered to God, is Jesus’ body. And Jesus’ body on Earth is the church.

Jesus didn’t just come to tear down and to destroy. He also came to build up. He came to build the kingdom of God on Earth. To build a kingdom, you need citizens of that kingdom. In order for people to become citizens of the kingdom of God, they need to come under God’s rule. But the human condition is that we don’t want that. We don’t want God to be our ultimate authority. We like calling on God when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want God’s words to dictate how we live. That was true of the first human beings. Because they didn’t love God and trust him, they rejected his words. And because of that, God rejected them. He removed them from his special presence, from paradise, where there was no evil and no death. And ever since, humanity has been living in a wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, and dying. To get back into God’s good graces, we need someone who provides a way back.

We need someone who will take the punishment for our sin that we deserve so that we can be forgiven. We need someone to be exiled so that we can go back home. To be built up as God’s people, we need our sin to be torn down and destroyed. How can God destroy sin without destroying us?

The answer is Jesus. As a human, he can sacrifice his life for other humans, paying their penalty in full. As the God-man, he is infinite, and can pay not just for one person’s sins, but for the sins of the world. Jesus’ disciples quoted part of Psalm 118, the part that says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Earlier in that Psalm, it says,

22  The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23  This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24  This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 118:22–24).

Jesus is the stone rejected by humans, but who becomes the cornerstone of a new temple. Jesus said that if the Jews didn’t praise him, the rocks would. Earlier, John the Baptist said that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In other words, God can make his people out of nothing. It doesn’t matter where you were born, who your parents were, how much sin you’ve committed. What matters is if God takes you and brings you to faith. And if he does that, you have a place in God’s kingdom. In fact, you are a living stone who is part of the true temple of God.

Consider what the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:4–5:

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.

Why does John the Baptist say that God can make rocks into his people? Why does Jesus say that the stones would cry out? Perhaps they had in mind what Peter would write later. God takes people like us, nobodies, and makes them into his people. God takes people like us, undeserving, not particularly powerful or smart or even lovable, and uses us to make his temple. And if we’re part of God’s people, we are a holy priesthood. We’re priests of the King! We don’t have to offer up sacrifices for our sin. That sacrifice was offered when Jesus died on the cross. But we offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and of doing good works (Heb. 13:15–16). We offer up our very lives as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). Or, as Peter says a few verses later, God’s people have been rescued from sin and condemnation so “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are supposed to “abstain from the passions of the flesh,” from our sinful urges. We are supposed to “Keep [our] conduct . . . honorable,” so that when other people see us, “they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:10–11), that day when Jesus comes again in glory.

The question for us today is, Which king are we following? We will follow some authority. We will put our trust in the “princes” of politics or in ourselves, or perhaps in our money or entertainment or in our spouses or other loved ones. But they will all fail us. The one who never fails is Jesus. There has never been a king like him, one who is in complete control yet who would lay down his life, one who is humble yet perfectly self-assured, one who speaks tough words but who also weeps. “Blessed is the King” and blessed are those who come under his authority.

If you are not a Christian, I strongly urge you to consider the claims of Christ Jesus. Do not reject him. No politician will die for you. And they’re certainly not in complete control. No other person can remove your sins and bring you to peace with God. No one else and nothing else will give you eternal life, in a restored world where there is no suffering and no death—that’s another promise that Jesus makes. If you don’t know a lot about Jesus or if you have questions, please talk to me. I would love to help you know more about Jesus. If you are ready to follow Jesus but don’t know how or what that would look like in your life, I would love to help you get started.

If you are a Christian, live like Jesus is your King. Praise him. Don’t be afraid of what others say, the ones who reject Jesus. Some of them may come to “glorify God on the day of visitation.” And let us imitate Jesus as far as we are able. We aren’t in complete control. We aren’t the rulers of the universe. We can’t pay for the sins of others. But we can be humble and do God’s will. We can be tough-minded and tender-hearted, speaking truth with tears in our eyes to people who may not listen. Let us tell others about our King. Perhaps one way to start a conversation with people is to ask who or what they put their trust in. Ask people who their ultimate authority is. They may never have thought about that before. Then tell them about who your ultimate authority is.

“Blessed is the King” and blessed are his people. May the Lord bless us.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

Blessed Is the King (Luke 19:28-44)

Who is your ultimate authority? Who is your king? There has never been a king like Jesus, in complete control, yet laying down his life, prophesied yet not recognized, accepted by some and rejected by others, who promises judgment to those who reject him yet who weeps over that fact. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 19:28-44 on October 6, 2019.

Engage in Business until I Come

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 29, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” Have you heard that before? That line was being said a few years ago against anyone that would dare say that marriage has a fixed definition: it is a complementary union of a man and a woman, a relationship that is meant to last a lifetime. People who wanted to redefine the institution of marriage assumed that they were “progressive” and “on the right side of history.” Anyone who stood in their way, who held to the definition of marriage that the Bible states clearly, the one that God created and Jesus affirmed (Matt. 19:4–6), was somehow on “the wrong side of history.” They were likened to people who tried to stop the abolition of slavery (or desegregation in schools or in any other public place).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” is a nice bit of rhetoric. It’s a threat, really. After all, who wants to be on the wrong side of things? And who wants to be viewed as some regressive, backwards bigot? I doubt that any of us want to be viewed that way.

But think about that argument for a moment. What does it even mean to be on the wrong side of history? Does it mean we’ll be viewed as on the wrong side in a year or two? What does that matter? Imagine that Adolf Hitler had said, at the beginning of World War II in 1939, that all who opposed the Third Reich were on the wrong side of history. That might have appeared the case for a year or two. But it certainly wasn’t the case after D-Day, in 1944. At that time, people might have said, “Hitler, you’re on the wrong side of history!” Less than a year later, he committed suicide and Allied forces celebrated victory in Europe. And it would be hard to imagine how Hitler could possibly be vindicated at any later date. So, it seems that at any point in history after 1945, Hitler will be on the wrong side of history.

But there are many cases that aren’t so clear cut. How do we know when to judge people as being on the wrong side? Do we pronounce such judgments twenty years later? Fifty years later? One hundred years later? Even then, we could be mistaken.[1]

Take the case of Christianity. Obviously, when Jesus died, many people probably thought he was on the wrong side of history. But Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, so it’s hard to say that he’s on the wrong side of history or even death. Still, many people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave. Christians were persecuted at different times in the Roman Empire. It would have been easy for unbelieving Jewish leaders to say of the first group of Christians, who were also Jews, that they were on the wrong side of history. Gentile pagans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history. A little over thirty years after Jesus died on the cross, Christians faced persecution under Emperor Nero. There was another wave of persecution in the late first century under Emperor Domitian. As late as the early fourth century, almost three hundred years after Jesus died, there was another outbreak of persecution under Emperor Diocletian. At any point in time during those years, Romans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history, and that might have seemed plausible.

But history is a funny thing. Fast-forward a couple of millennia, and there are supposedly two billion Christians in the world. I think the number of true Christians is significantly less, but the point is that there are a lot of Christians in the world. And, last time I checked, there is no Roman Empire.

My point is that you can’t really know what’s going to happen in history. How do we know what will happen throughout history? How do we know where history is going?

Different worldviews say different things about history. It used to be that many people thought that history was cyclical. The Stoics, a group of people who held to a certain Greek philosophy, believed that the world was destroyed in a series of fires. History goes in cycles, round and round again. Their view of history has been summarized this way: “Once upon a time, there was nothing but fire; gradually there emerged the other elements and the familiar furniture of the universe. Later, the world will return to fire in a universal conflagration, and then the whole cycle of its history will be repeated over and over again.”[2] It’s hard to see how anything would matter in such a view of the world. There could be no lasting progress or achievement. You just go round and round on history’s carousel.

That may seem like an odd view, but it’s not totally different from the view that some people have today. Those who believe in reincarnation believe in some form of cyclical history. Some believe we are in the midst of a countless number of big bangs and big crunches of our universe. These people believe that there is no god, and no purpose to life. While not all atheists share that view of an endless series of big bangs and big crunches, all atheists believe we’re here because of some accident. Somehow, the universe got started, without a creator or a designer, and it has developed throughout a long period of time, improbably leading to all the complexity of life we find today. But it will all end, at least in our solar system, when the sun dies, billions of years from now. Whatever we’ve accomplished ultimately won’t matter. A famous atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5]

Strangely, Russell didn’t seem to be bothered by this. He thought it was noble to carve out some meaning for one’s life, even if there really is no ultimate point. He wrote, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only . . . to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces” that will trample over him one day.[6] It’s hard to see how self-made shrine bound for destruction is worthy of worship.

If there’s no purpose to life, there is no goal of history. If history has no goal, no final day of reckoning, there’s no wrong side of history. There’s no right side of history, either.

So, is history just an accident? Perhaps Macbeth was right when he said:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.  [7]

Or perhaps history is not an accident, and not an endless cycle, but perhaps it’s going somewhere. Perhaps history has a certain beginning and a certain ending. Perhaps it has meaning and purpose.

But how can we know that? How can know where it’s all going? We would need God to tell us. And God has told us. When we look to the pages of the Bible, we see that God has given us a broad outline of all of human history. It has a certain shape, marked by significant events. It has a definite beginning: God created the universe to be his temple, a theater to display his glory, and the great actors in that theater are human beings, made in God’s image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). We were made to worship God, love him, serve him, represent him on Earth, reflect his greatness, and obey him. But after Creation, the first act of the great drama of the Bible, comes the second act, the Fall. The first human beings decided that they didn’t want to follow God’s script. They didn’t want to obey God. They didn’t trust that God was good. They wanted to be like God. And as a result, everything in this world has become polluted, cracked, broken, tainted. Once there was no hate and war, and not even a hint of death. But now, when sin entered the world, everything changed. When humans turned away from God, the source of light, love, beauty, truth, and life itself, God gave them over to their desires. He said, more or less, “You don’t want me? Fine. Go your way.” And when we turned from God, we found the opposite of light, love, beauty, truth, and life. We found darkness, hate, ugliness, lies, and death.

The whole story of the Bible is basically a rescue mission, an adventure story of how humanity can get back to God. The path back to God truly opens up again with the third act, Redemption. God sends his Son into the world to fulfill his design for humanity. Only God the Son, who is truly God and also becomes truly a man, lives the perfect life. He is the perfect image of God. And though he lived a perfect life, he dies in place of his people. He takes their punishment so they can be forgiven. He is sealed in a tomb so that they can go free. He is exiled so that they can come back home.

It’s a wonderful story, and it’s potentially a sad one. It would be a tragedy it not for the fact that Jesus rises from the grave on the third day, triumphing over sin and death. His resurrection shows that he defeated sin on the cross. Death can’t stop him. And all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the dead in bodies that can never be destroyed. But that great day of resurrection is in the future, in the final act of the Bible’s story, Consummation. We only get glimpses of what life will be like when all is restored, when God’s plans are consummated. But what we understand is that all God’s people will live with God forever in a world that has been remade, purged of all evil, cleansed of all sin, recreated so that there is only peace and life, not conflict and death.

But there’s a long period of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of his people. There’s a long period of time between the coming of the King of kings to inaugurate his kingdom, and the return of that King, to establish his kingdom fully. We live in those in-between times. And what do we do during that time? We use what Jesus has given us for his purposes, to the glory of God.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we’ll look at one parable that Jesus told, a story that tells us some important truths about the kingdom of God. Jesus was about to go Jerusalem, and his followers thought that he was the Messiah, the descendant of the great king of Israel, David. The Messiah was the one who was going to make everything right. He was going to defeat all powers that were against God and his people. He would overthrow all opposing forces, which in their minds included the Roman Empire. Jesus tells this story to correct their expectations.

Let’s now take a look at today’s passage, Luke 19:11–27:

11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”[8]

Most of that passage is a long parable about a king and his servants. That story could be interpreted in many different ways. The only clue that Luke gives us is verse 11. He says that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Jesus had already said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are under God’s rule and blessing, where God is present with them. The God-man, the King of kings, was there in their midst, so he could rightly say the kingdom of God had come. But it wasn’t going to arrive in its fullest form when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He wasn’t going to receive a golden crown, sit on a glorious throne in a palace, and command an army to defeat all his enemies. Instead, he was going to go away. And while he’s gone, he expects his followers to be engaged in a certain kind of business.

The story itself isn’t too hard to understand. There’s a nobleman who leaves to go to a “far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” Before he leaves, he gives ten servants one mina each. A mina was a coin worth about three or four months of wages. So, the nobleman left them all a very significant amount, but not a massive amount, perhaps equivalent to $10,000 to $15,000. Then, the nobleman tells his servants to “engage in business until I come.” We’re not told how long the nobleman is gone, but he expects his servants to use that money to make more money.

Before continuing with the story, let’s think about how this relates to Jesus. Jesus is the nobleman who, after dying on the cross and rising from the grave, will go to a “far country,” heaven, to receive his Father’s kingdom. In a sense, the Son of God always possessed this kingdom, but the New Testament says that upon Jesus ascending into heaven he is exalted. As God, Jesus has always possessed the kingdom. As a man, the Davidic King, he sits on his throne when he goes to heaven. His work has been accomplished.

While away, Jesus has given his servants a task to do. He has given all Christians different callings and different spiritual gifts. We may not all do the exact same thing for Jesus, but we are all expected to engage in Jesus’ business while he is away. We have no idea how long he’ll be gone. He might return in a few years or in a millennium or more. But while he’s gone, he expects us to use what he has given us.

Now, back to the details of the parable. After the nobleman leaves on his journey, his citizens get together a delegation and they go to the authority who is going to give this nobleman his kingdom. This delegation expresses what the citizens are thinking: “We do not want this man to reign over us.” The story has some parallels to something that happened in history about thirty years earlier. After Herod the Great died—he was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the one who had the infant boys of Bethlehem killed—his kingdom was divided among his three sons. His sons had to have their rule confirmed by the Roman Empire. So, Archelaus, one of the sons, went to Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time. Before he left for Rome, Archelaus entrusted his castle and his wealth to his officers. After leaving, the Jews revolted. They didn’t want Archelaus as their king. They sent a delegation of fifty men to Rome to oppose Archelaus. Augustus decided that Archelaus wouldn’t be called a king, but instead he would be an ethnarch, a ruler of his people, until he could prove himself to be worthy of the title of king. When Archelaus returned, he removed the high priest and replaced him.

What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, perhaps Jesus is saying, “You know what happened with Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great? That’s kind of what will happen with me.” The details of the Archelaus story, and the details of this parable, can’t be mapped onto Jesus’ story exactly. That’s not how parables work. But there are certainly many people who don’t want Jesus to be their king. Of course, they can’t send a delegation to God the Father to complain. And they wouldn’t want to do that, anyway. But they rebel against God and his Son all the same.

Well, what happens when this nobleman returns? He checks the work of his servants. Did they engage in business while he was away? One servant was able to take his mina and make ten minas in profit. And he receives a commendation: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” He took his relatively modest sum of money and made a ten-fold profit. And as a reward, he has authority over ten cities. He has proven that he is responsible, and he is given more responsibility. Something similar happens with another servant. He has made five minas, and he then is rewarded with authority over five cities.

Then, there is a third servant. When called to account, he says that he hid his coin. He didn’t put it in a bank, or even bury it in the ground, but wrapped it in a cloth. That’s not the best kind of safekeeping. And he offers a lame excuse as to why he didn’t do anything with that coin. Then he says that did this because he was afraid of the nobleman. He calls him a “severe man” who takes what he didn’t deposit and reaps what he didn’t sow. Think about his: if this servant really was afraid of the nobleman, he would have worked hard to make something with the money he had been given. Also, the nobleman has just rewarded two servants with positions that far outweigh what they had made for him. So, it doesn’t appear that he is harsh or greedy. So, it seems this servant is making a very poor excuse. In reality, he doesn’t know, trust, and love the nobleman. And, as a result, the coin he had is taken and given to the one who had made ten minas.

What does this have to do with Jesus? When Jesus returns in glory, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. And we will have to give an account for our lives. As I’ve said before, I don’t know exactly how this will work. We’re not given all the details. But what we’ve done in this life will be examined. As the apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 4:5, when “the Lord comes,” he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Those who have served Jesus will be given some kind of reward. But that reward isn’t probably what most people think. We tend to think in terms of money. But notice that the servants who made money weren’t given money. They were given authority. The truth is that all Christians will receive the greatest reward possible: God himself. There is nothing greater than God. All Christians will be in the direct presence of God for eternity. You can’t top that. But we’re given some hints that Christians will have different positions in eternity, perhaps some who have been particularly faithful in this life will have greater responsibilities.

Perhaps we can think of an analogy in sports. Those who work hard in practice will be rewarded with more playing time. The quarterback who learns the playbook thoroughly and works hard to execute the plays exactly as the coach imagined them will be rewarded with a starting position. The one who is lazy and doesn’t do what the coach wants will be but cut from the team. In that way, “to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

What does this have to do with us? If you’re truly a servant of Jesus, you’ll do what he wants during this time in history when he is “away,” in the “far country” of heaven. And when he returns, he will reward your work. The reward may simply be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might mean that you will have some wonderful things to do in eternity in the new creation. Whatever it is, Jesus will acknowledge your work. What you have done will not be have been done in vain.

In this parable, the third servant showed he wasn’t a servant at all. He made a lame excuse. And what he had been given was taken away. There are some people who think they’re Christians. They think they’re Christians because they believe some statements about Jesus are true. But Satan knows those truths even better than Christians do (James 2:19), and he won’t be with God for eternity. Just because someone has said they believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian. Just because someone has been baptized doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian.

Salvation is a gift. It is not something earned. But, salvation is a work of God, and it’s not just about having sins forgiven. That’s a huge thing, but that’s just one facet of salvation. Salvation also includes being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, being a new person. When God saves a person, he starts to transform that person. So, a real Christian should, over the course of his or her Christian life, have some works to demonstrate that change. The apostle Paul said we’re saved by grace through faith, and this is not our work. But he says we’re saved to do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). James, the brother of Jesus, says that a so-called “faith” without works is a dead faith. It’s not real at all (James 2:17). Faith is demonstrated by works (James 2:18). Works are not the root of our salvation, but they are fruit of our salvation.

So, on judgment day, I expect that there will be many who thought that they were Christians who are surprised to learn that they never really trusted Christ. If they truly loved him, they would obey him (John 14:15, 21, 23).

And, speaking of judgment day, in this parable, the noble man will punish those who were opposed to him, the ones who said, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” And we’re told Jesus will do the same. Now, some people think Jesus would never do such a thing. But the Bible doesn’t flinch away from punishment. In the Old Testament, several men of God slaughtered God’s enemies. Joshua killed five Amorite kings (Josh.10:16–27). Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:32–33). Elijah slaughtered hundreds of prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:40). Don’t think that this is just some Old Testament violence. The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as a greater Joshua, slaying those who refuse to repent (Rev. 19:11–21). That’s just one picture of condemnation (similar to 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Another is sending people into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). Another picture is the damned being thrown into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:14–15). These are all images of a reality that is too awful for us to fully appreciate. It’s what we deserve. We are all like those people who say, “We don’t want this man to be our king!” If God hadn’t changed our hearts, we would reject him still.

If you think all of this is too harsh, you need to understand how serious our sin is, how great a rejection of God it is. And you need to remember that Jesus himself subjected himself to violence. He volunteered to become a man, to be hated, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed in a gruesome way. His death wasn’t an accident. It was the triune God’s plan, so that sin could be crushed without having to crush all sinners.

Jesus isn’t a harsh King. He’s a king who sacrifices himself so that we can live. He’s a King who will richly reward us for our service to him. He has given us a modest amount of time, a modest amount of money, a modest amount of talents, a small amount of opportunities and spiritual gifts. He expects us not to receive those things and hide them. He wants us to put them to use. We may not all do massive things for the kingdom of God. Living a quiet life of humble obedience to Jesus may not look great in the world’s eyes. But doing that is huge in God’s eyes. And he will reward us.

Our reward will be to live with him forever, and to have even greater responsibilities in the new creation. What will that be like? I don’t know. But this life is a shadow, and the substance is eternity, a never-ending existence. Will we serve God in his kingdom or will we be cast out into darkness forever? If you want to serve in God’s kingdom forever, you will serve in it now. Your refusal to serve now is an indication that you won’t be with God forever. Jesus is warning us not to be like that third servant, the one who truly didn’t love, trust, and even know the king. That servant was no servant at all, and what he thought he had, he lost.

Let us use the gifts that Jesus gives us now, because all of history is pointing to him. Several people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[9] The idea is that justice will certainly come, even if it takes a long time to get there. More recently, one Christian author corrected this line: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.”[10] Let us get ready for that day when we stand before Jesus by using what he has given us.

Let’s be on the right side of history by being on the right side of Jesus.

Notes

  1. For an assessment of the “wrong side of history” argument, see Kevin DeYoung, “What’s Wrong with the ‘Wrong Side of History’ Argument?” The Gospel Coalition, August 5, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/whats-wrong-with-the-wrong-side-of-history-argument.
  2. Anthony Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81–82.
  3. 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.
  4. Ibid., 107.
  5. Ibid., 115.
  6. Ibid., 117–18.
  7. William Shakespeare, Macbeth V.v.
  8. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  9. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe.
  10. Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 204.

 

Engage in Business until I Come (Luke 19:11-27)

Where is history going? Does it have an intended goal? Christianity says that it does, and history’s end is Jesus. We will all have to give an account of our lives to him. What will we do with the time and other resources that he has entrusted to us? Find out how Jesus responds to different people by listening to this sermon, based on Luke 19:11-27, preached on September 29, 2019 by Brian Watson.

Recover Your Sight

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 22, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Though my children are young, they often have homework to do. The other night, Simon had a math sheet with some basic addition problems. Then, he had a sheet with words that he had to place in categories based on their vowel sounds. Simple stuff. As he was working on them, I could see the answers immediately. But he couldn’t. And that’s the way it is for many areas of life. Some of us can see things that others can’t. Some people can look at a broken machine, like a car, and immediately see what’s wrong with it, while others of us wouldn’t have a clue. Some people can look at what’s in the fridge and in the cupboards and immediately see the ingredients of a meal, while some of us have a hard time boiling water. Some can see in their mind’s eye how a room could be repainted and redecorated, with the furniture rearranged, to renovate a living space. Some of us can see groupings of letters and see a foreign language that we understand, while others see only gibberish.

Some of us can see what others can’t see. Some us could see those things with a bit of help. Others of us could never see those things.

And that’s how it is with spiritual realities. Some people will immediately apprehend the things of God. They see the light, so to speak. Other people have an interest in those realities but need help seeing. Many will never see those things. Some of those people will be indifferent and apathetic. Others will try to keep other people from seeing what they cannot.

We will see this in two passages in the Gospel of Luke that are back-to-back. We’ll begin by looking at how Jesus heals a blind man who cries out for mercy. That’s in Luke 18:35–43. Then we’ll look at how Zacchaeus comes to faith in Jesus in Luke 19:1–10. I think Luke means for us to see these two episodes together, juxtaposing them to show how two different men come to see Jesus, and how both faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. We might miss this juxtaposition because of the way one chapter number ends and another begins. But keep in mind that chapter numbers were added to the biblical text in the thirteenth century and verse numbers in the sixteenth century. They help us find passages, but they’re not part of the original biblical text, and sometimes they create divisions where divisions shouldn’t be.

With that being said, let’s begin by reading Luke 18:35–43:

35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.[1]

For some time, Jesus has been approaching Jerusalem (since Luke 9:51). That is where he will die by crucifixion. Here, he approaches Jericho, the only specific location mentioned in this section of Luke. He’s getting close to his last days before dying. He knows his death is coming, but he isn’t hiding. He’s not running away from it. He will perform one last miracle outside of Jerusalem to show who he is and what he came to do.

As Jesus approaches, he passes a blind man. This man is begging. He is completely relying upon the mercy of others to help him. The man hears a crowd, and since he can’t see what’s happening, he asks others. They tell him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Clearly, Jesus has a public reputation. People have heard about his miraculous healings and his teachings. I suppose the mention of Nazareth is important. This is where Jesus grew up, but it’s also where he was earlier in Luke, when he began his public ministry. He famously read a portion of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, which says:

18  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, citing Isa. 61:1–2).

Jesus said he came to fulfill that Scripture (Luke 4:21). He came to do all those things, including bringing sight to the blind.

The blind man can’t see Jesus, but when he hears that Jesus is coming, he can see something that no one else could. He sees that Jesus is the “Son of David.” He’s the only one in Luke’s Gospel to call Jesus that. David was the great King of Israel who reigned roughly a thousand years earlier. David was told that one of his offspring would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16). This Son of David would be born, but he would also be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace,” and he would establish peace forever as he ruled with justice and righteousness (Isa. 9:6–7). He would be anointed by the Holy Spirit and would bring about an era in which there is more death. The nations would come to him (Isa. 11:1–10). At least, that’s what passages in the Old Testament promised. The blind man could see that Jesus was the one to fulfill these promises. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed King in David’s lineage. He was the one who can fix the brokenness of the world.

So, the blind man calls out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” But the crowd rebukes him, telling him to be quiet, just the way that Jesus’ disciples rebuked people who brought infants to Jesus (Luke 18:15). They thought Jesus was too important to be bothered. But the blind man won’t be shut up. He continues to call on Jesus. He perseveres in faith, because he knows Jesus is his only hope of seeing again.

Jesus isn’t too important for the blind man. Jesus hears him. Jesus stops and asks the man what he wants. Of course, the blind man wants to see again. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, said that God was going to “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). That is what Jesus does here. He realizes that this blind man has put his faith in him, and he heals the man. He simply says, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.”

And with that, the blind man sees. And what does he do? He follows Jesus, something that all people who respond rightly to Jesus do (Luke 5:11, 27–28; 9:23, 59, 61; 18:22, 28). He also glorifies God, giving God the credit for his healing and praising him. Again, in Luke, Jesus’ miracles lead to people glorifying God (Luke 1:64; 2:20; 5:25–26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 19:37). Other people also praise God for what Jesus has done for this blind man.

This blind man is a model of faith. He realizes his poor condition. He knows he can’t fix his own blindness. He realizes that others can’t, either. And he sees that Jesus is the only one who can. He recognizes who Jesus is and he calls out to him for mercy. Faith is the instrument through which this man is healed. He could already see the truth, and the truth set him free.

The fact is that this man could see much better than many others. Many people don’t see who Jesus really is. That is because they are spiritually blind. The apostle Paul, Jesus’ great messenger, once wrote that the message about Jesus, the gospel (which means “good news”) is “veiled” to people who can’t see its truth. But then he wrote this:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:3–4).

Those who can’t see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” are blind. They can’t see what’s really there. This good news is good in light of some other news we find in the Bible. God made us in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means we are supposed to represent him on Earth, ruling over the world by first coming under his rule and blessing. We are supposed to reflect his glory; when other people look at us, they should get some idea of what God is like. But we don’t represent and reflect God well. God is perfect in every way. He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). We are often not loving. He is righteous. We often do what is wrong. God made us to love him, worship him, serve him, and obey him. We don’t do that. He made us to love each other, and we often fail there, too. And the bad news for all of us is that God demands righteous people. He can’t have unrighteous people making a mess of his creation. So, God gave us a partial punishment for sin. He removed us from his special presence, which means living in a fallen world, in which there are bad things like natural disasters, diseases and disabilities, including blindness, and death. And if we continue to reject God through our lives, even until we die, we would be condemned after that to live an eternal life apart from God’s presence and blessing. We call that hell. That’s what we deserve.

Yet the good news is that God sent his Son, who took on a human nature, becoming more than just God, but also a human. And Jesus of Nazareth is that Son of David who will bring about peace and justice and who will rule forever. He is the only human who has ever been perfectly righteous, always doing what is right, always obeying, honoring, and worshiping God the Father, always loving other people. He is the true image of God. When we look at Jesus, we can see what God is really like. Jesus came to fulfill God’s designs for humanity. If we would only turn to him, we would find healing. Perhaps not in this life—Jesus never promised that he would heal every disease or fix all the world’s problems when he came that first time. But, in the end, Jesus will fix all those problems. And that is great news.

Not everyone can see this. But the blind man could. God must have given him that ability to recognize who Jesus is. I already quoted the apostle Paul’s words about our spiritual blindness. Right after what I read earlier, in 2 Corinthians 4, he writes this: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Just as God created the universe, he can recreate us to be the people he wants us to be. He can shine light into our darkness, revealing the truth, showing that his glory is on display in the person of Jesus. If see our sad condition, as people who have sinned against God, and we see who Jesus truly is, and we come to trust Jesus as our only hope and help in this life and the next, then we can be healed.

That is what faith looks like. But faith is one side of the coin of salvation. The other side is repentance. And we get a model of repentance is the next episode in Luke’s Gospel. Let’s read Luke 19:1–10:

1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus now enters Jericho, and again he is attracting attention. A crowd has come to see him. Among the people is a man named Zacchaeus, who isn’t just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. As I’ve said before, tax collectors had bad reputations in first century Israel. They were known for collecting more taxes than they needed to and for pocketing the excess taxes. In other words, they were dishonest and greedy. But far worse than that, they were viewed as traitors. They helped the Roman Empire, the superpower of the world at that time and the occupying force in Palestine, collect taxes. They were aiding and abetting the enemy. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. This meant that he had paid the Roman Empire for his position. The Romans farmed out tax collection to people like Zacchaeus, who would pay the Romans what they needed once a year, and then had taxes collected in his area. He was free to charge more than what he needed, and he pocketed the excess funds. That’s how he became rich.

I used to deliver The Salem Evening News, a local newspaper, for about two years when I was a boy. I had about twenty-five papers delivered to me, and I had to deliver those papers and collect money from the customers. I think the price was something like $1.60 per week at that time. I had to pay the newspaper company each week, and I was allowed to keep whatever was left over. If I told the customers that the price was $2.50 or $3.00, and then I pocketed the rest, I would be like a tax collector. If I was the guy who delivered the papers and collected from the paperboys, telling them to pay more than they needed to, I would be like Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector who was rich. He was also short. He had a problem seeing over the taller people in the crowd. Earlier this year, I attended the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade in Boston. I had to go into the city for something, so I decided I would watch the parade, too. The city was packed, and when I arrived there, it was hard to find a space along the parade route. I did manage to find a spot on Tremont Street, and though there were some people on the sidewalk in front of me, I could see the parade because I’m fairly tall. But there were others who couldn’t. I was across the street from the Granary Burying Ground, right next to Park Street Church, on the edge of Boston Common. There was a man who went through that cemetery and climbed onto a large stone pillar or column in order to get a better view. The police kindly invited that man to come down.

That’s like what Zacchaeus does here. Since he can’t see well, and since he really wants to see Jesus, he climbs a tree. Other people probably thought he looked foolish, but he didn’t care about their opinion. After all, they already hated him for being a tax collector.

When Jesus passes by, he calls out to Zacchaeus. He calls the tax collector by name. How did Jesus know his name? It’s probably because he doesn’t just have a human mind, but he also has a divine mind, and God is omniscient. (See John 1:47–48 for a similar event.) Jesus knows this man.

Jesus asks Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and he gives him a reason: “I must stay at your house today.” This is odd. Why must Jesus stay at this man’s house, this man with whom he hasn’t had a relationship yet? Luke often uses the language of “must” to describe things that Jesus had to do, or things that had to happen (Luke 1:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:16, 33; 15:32; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Theologians call this “divine necessity”—these things have to happen because they are part of God’s eternal plan. Jesus had to spend time with Zacchaeus because Jesus came to save people like Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus eagerly. He comes down from the tree with joy. If one of the Patriots asked me to come out of the crowd and get on one of their duck boats, I would have been full of joy, too. But Jesus is far more important than a star football player. And Zacchaeus seems to know this.

Though Zacchaeus is excited about Jesus, the crowd isn’t excited about what Jesus is doing. They grumble. They complain that Jesus is going to go the tax collector’s house. The Jewish religious leaders have already grumbled that Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and other sinners, and that he would even dare to eat with them (Luke 5:30; 15:2). In their eyes, such sinners were too unrighteous, too unclean to spend time with. How could Jesus be a teacher and even a prophet, much less the Messiah and the Son of God, if he’s hanging out with deplorables like Zacchaeus?

But the grumbling crowd doesn’t seem to affect Zacchaeus and Jesus. When Zacchaeus is in Jesus’ presence, he announces a change in his life. He is now going to give half of his belongings to the poor. On top of that, he is going to give back four times as much as he defrauded from others. In the Old Testament Law, the Israelites were required to give away about 20 percent of their earnings. This was considered generous. Zacchaeus went far above and beyond what Israelites were supposed to give away. And the harshest penalty for stealing, in terms of paying back what one took, was to give four or five times the amount taken (Exod. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6). But Zacchaeus does this, and he seems to do this voluntarily. That’s because he has come to see how he has been greedy and dishonest, and he has come to see who Jesus is. If he wants to follow Jesus, he must renounce his old ways. He must straighten up and fly right.

This is what repentance looks like. When we put our trust in Jesus, we realize that we cannot fix ourselves and that only Jesus can make us whole. Salvation is a gift, but it’s a gift that is meant to change us. We can’t have real faith in Jesus if there’s no change in our lives. We must repent of our sins, turning away from our old ways of doing things. Zacchaeus repented of taking too much in taxes. That’s exactly what John the Baptist had told tax collectors to do in Luke 3:12–13. And he freely gave away what he didn’t need. He must have realized that Jesus came, not to collect taxes from him, but to pay his debt. And if Jesus gave Zacchaeus everything, the least that Zacchaeus could do was share his wealth with others. He is the opposite of the rich man that we met last week (Luke 18:18–23). That rich man refused to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus is that rare camel who fit through the eye of the needle, all because of the grace of God. God had opened up his eyes to see the glorious face of Jesus. When Zacchaeus could see rightly, he gave away what he didn’t need, and he tried to make up for his dishonesty. That is repentance.

When Jesus hears what Zacchaeus resolves to do, he declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. And he says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. As a Jewish man, Zacchaeus could already trace his ancestry back to Abraham, the great father of the Israelites who lived about two thousand years earlier. When Jesus says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, I think he’s saying that he is a true son of Abraham. That means he, like Abraham, is trusting God. Abraham trusted God’s great promises to him, and that faith was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Zacchaeus trusts Jesus and he is declared righteous. The apostle Paul says that the true children of Abraham are those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 4:16–17; Gal. 3:7–9, 29).

Jesus also states why he came. In verse 10, he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is the “Son of Man,” a divine figure prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 7:13–14). He came to find the lost and to save them, the way a shepherd looks after lost sheep. Jesus knows who his sheep are. In this case, he came to find a particular sheep named Zacchaeus.

Jesus doesn’t say here how he saves the lost. As I said earlier, part of how he saves the lost is by living the perfect life that we should but do not live. But that’s only one side of the coin. Just like faith can’t be separated from repentance, Jesus’ righteous life can’t be separated from his atoning death. When he died on the cross, he paid the penalty of sin that we should pay. He didn’t just die a terribly painful physical death. That would be bad enough. But on the cross, he experienced the wrath of God, God’s righteous judgment against sin. And that is something we can’t fully appreciate. Basically, Jesus experienced hell on the cross. He did this so that all his people could be set free from condemnation and eternal death. All who come to Jesus are credited with his righteousness, his moral perfection, and their sins were credited to him. When he died on the cross, he was regarded as sin itself, and he was crushed. Because God is a holy judge who can’t have sin exist forever in his creation, and because he desires to save lost people like you and me, he took our sin, put it on his Son, and crushed him. And the Son, Jesus, took this on voluntarily.

It’s interesting to compare the blind man and Zacchaeus. Both men were outcasts from society, though for different reasons. The blind man was poor and had to beg. His disability separated him from society. Though he was rich, Zacchaeus wasn’t respected. He was sort of like Martin Shkreli, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that jacked up the price of their antiparasitic drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. You might have seen the smug Shkreli in front of members of Congress. He was called “the most hated man in America” and was eventually sent to prison. He was rich, but hated. Zacchaeus was a bit like that.

Both men needed healing. Zacchaeus needed salvation just as much as the blind man. We have a tendency to think that the poor and the sick need salvation more than the prosperous. But the fact is that all have sinned and all are in need of salvation. This includes poor and rich, drug addicts and the clean and sober, people with disabilities and pro athletes.

Both men had a problem with physical vision. The blind man was obviously blind, and Zacchaeus had a hard time seeing over the crowd. But both men pursued Jesus.

Both men were opposed by crowds. But they didn’t listen to the crowds. They persevered in their pursuit of Jesus.

Both men received salvation, and their lives were changed. Both followed Jesus. Both experienced Joy. Both glorified God. They weren’t saved in order to do have easy lives, or to live for themselves. They were saved so that they would follow Jesus and glorify God.

The question for us today is, are we like these men? Do we have the faith of the blind man, seeing what only the eyes of faith can see? Are we repenting like Zacchaeus, not only putting an end to our sinful ways, but also trying to do what is right?

If we have truly come to Jesus, we will trust in him. We will see things that not everyone can see. We will see that God is the Creator of the universe and everything exists for him. The whole point of life is to live for our Maker. We will see that we have failed to do that. And we will see that Jesus is God’s lifeline, the only means we have of coming back to God, of getting into a right relationship with him. We will trust Jesus and we will start living as we should.

If we have the faith and repentance of these men, there may be obstacles in our way, things that might stop us from following Jesus. But we won’t let those obstacles keep us away. A lot of people say they are interested in Jesus, but they let other things stop them from pursuing a relationship with him. I think that being part of a local church is one important part of following Jesus. The church is Jesus’ design for his followers to worship together, live together, declare the gospel together, and teach together. Yet many people make lame excuses for not even showing up when the church meets. The blind man wouldn’t let his blindness stop him from calling upon Jesus. He wouldn’t listen to the crowds who tried to tell him to be quiet, to tell him that he wasn’t important enough for Jesus. Zacchaeus also wouldn’t let the crowds stop him. He didn’t care if he looked foolish climbing a tree. He didn’t care that the crowds grumbled, saying that he was too sinful to spend time with Jesus.

The fact is that Jesus came for people who are unimportant in the world’s eyes. Jesus came for the worst of sinners. He has come. We’re hearing about Jesus right now. Are we responding to him the way that these men did? Are we pursuing him, not letting obstacles stop us? Are we ignoring the crowds, the ones who can’t see who Jesus really is? Are we trusting in Jesus and repenting of our sins? Are we following him and joyfully praising God? If not, salvation has not come to us, and we are not true children of Abraham, true children of God.

If that is where we are, then we need to run to Jesus. I can’t make this happen for you. But if you are starting to see who Jesus is, I would love to tell you more about him. I would love to talk to you about what it would look like for you to follow Jesus. I’d like to talk to you about how you could serve God in this church and help us glorify God together.

But if you are a Christian, keep this in mind. Part of our goal is to tell other people about Jesus so that they, too, can follow him. We want other people to enter God’s kingdom, to be freed from sin and condemnation, and to live forever with God. There will be a lot of people around us who can’t see the truth. Some of them will oppose us. Many simply won’t care. But there will be a few who see. Some might see the truth instantly, like the blind man. Some people might need a little help to see the truth. The world has crowded the truth from their sight, and they need you to tell them the truth, to explain it to them in ways that they can understand. We have to be willing to look for those people and help them.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. And all his sheep will be saved. We can save no one. We can’t pay for anyone’s sins. But we can seek out the lost and tell them how they can be saved. We should do this. Yes, many people won’t see the truth. But some will. And they will follow Jesus joyfully, praising God and living lives that glorify him. Let us go out and find those people.

Notes

  1. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

Recover Your Sight (Luke 18:35-19:10)

Those who have faith in Jesus see what others can’t. Those who have faith in Jesus live changed lives, following him and praising God. Hear about two men who could see who Jesus was and what he came to do. Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 18:35-19:10, on September 22, 2019.

To Such Belongs the Kingdom of God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 15, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Many of the world’s greatest athletes have had setbacks in their careers. They’ve had injuries that have required them to have surgery. This is true of many of the greatest players in Boston’s sports history, from Larry Bird to Tom Brady. When an athlete is seriously injured and requires surgery, we realize that it’s wise for them to have that surgery so their bodies can heal properly and they can continue their careers in time. Eleven years ago, Tom Brady had a serious knee injury during the first game of the year, one that required knee construction surgery. He missed the rest of that 2008 season. But he returned the next year and has been playing very well ever since.

I doubt that when Brady had surgery, anyone thought that he made the decision to have surgery because he was weak. I don’t think there were critics who said, “Tom, you’re going to have surgery? That’s such a crutch!” Right after surgery, I suppose there was a time when Brady had to use actual crutches, and I doubt people were heckling him by saying, “Crutches? That’s such a crutch!” Yet, strangely, when it comes to the topic of religion, some people think that way. They think that religion is a “crutch” for people who aren’t strong enough to face the world on their own. They think that believing in God, particularly the God of the Bible, is something that comforts people who are too weak to live in a world that is cold and threatening. It’s a far braver thing, in their eyes, to be one’s own lord. Such people gladly quote the famous poem by William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” which ends with these words:

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

It’s interesting how no one seems to do that with surgeries. What would we think of Tom Brady if, eleven years ago, he refused to have a doctor repairs the ligaments in his knee? Imagine the team doctor is urging Brady to have the surgery, and so are Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft. And Tom Brady says, “I’m not going to have a doctor knock me out and then cut into my body. I am the master of my career, I am the captain of my body.” We would think he was being foolish. Now imagine that Brady says that he realizes he needs surgery, but he’s going to do it on his own. He’ll study a little and then fix himself. There have been player-coaches in the past, players who coached their own team at the same time. Bill Russell and Pete Rose did this at the end of their careers. But I’ve never heard of a player-surgeon.

We realize in some areas of life that when we have a problem, the wisest thing to do is to have someone else fix it. When we have a serious injury or a disease like cancer, the wisest thing is to have a surgeon repair a part of our bodies or remove a tumor. Agreeing to surgery is a recognition that there are problems that we can’t solve on our own. We must let someone else take control of our bodies. We must trust that they can fix us.

The same thing is true when it comes to our human condition. The reality is that we have problems we can’t face. The biggest one is death. Everyone who is thoughtful thinks about the inevitability of death and wants to know how to live triumphantly in the face of that brutal reality. I’m reminded of the work of a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. In his book, A Brief History of Thought, he says that all philosophies and religions deal with the reality of death. He says that “Man 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] Of course, we don’t always think of literal death itself. But we do think of the many faces of death: death of a career (perhaps due to an injury), death of a relationship, death of a season of life, death of our favorite restaurant or TV show, death of a loved one. How do we deal with all this decay and death? Ferry says that “the irreversibility of things is a kind of death at the heart of life.”[2] “To live well, therefore, to live freely, capable of joy, generosity and love, we must first and foremost conquer our fear—or, more accurately, our fears of the irreversible.”[3]

So, what promises us real life in a world of irreversibles? What promises us hope in a world of death? Or, setting aside death for a moment, what can fix this world that is broken by greed, selfishness, war, and corruption? What can fix my broken soul? Is there a doctor who can perform a surgery on the human condition, removing the bad parts, healing whatever good remains?

Christianity promises us that there is a Great Physician who can and will make everything right. It offers us salvation from death and decay. It offers an ultimate healing of our souls and of the whole world.

Since Christianity promises such wonderful things, why aren’t more people Christians? I suppose there are many reasons, all of which can be called unbelief. People don’t believe it’s true. And there many reasons why people don’t believe. One is that they really don’t know what Christianity is and they’ve never been given good reasons to believe. In our society, that happens frequently. People simply don’t know the evidence for Christianity. A second reason is pride: Christianity says there is a King who reigns over the universe and that King is not you. Or, to put it differently, it says that you can’t fix yourself. Christianity requires humility, and the people who think Christianity is simply a crutch are often people who are quite proud. A third reason why people don’t believe is that they already have a god in their lives that they worship. We call this idolatry. Of course, most people don’t think they are worshiping a god or an idol. But whatever is most important to us, whatever we trust in for security and peace and meaning and comfort, whatever we love the most, whatever dictates our behavior, that thing is our true god, the true object of our worship. Christianity says that we must worship the true God and forsake all false gods. Many people don’t want to do that, so they don’t come to Christ in faith.

The reason I bring all this up is because today we’re going to look at a passage from one of the Gospels, one of the biographies of Jesus, that contrasts two types of people. There are children, who can be quite trusting in others. And then there is a proud man whose real god is his wealth. Jesus tells us that to enter into God’s kingdom, to be one of God’s people, to be forgiven of all the wrong we’ve ever done, and to have life eternal, we must have the faith of a child. Jesus also says that those who put their trust in other things will not enter the kingdom of God.

We’ll see all of this in Luke 18:15–34. We’ll start by reading the first three verses. Here is Luke 18:15–17:

15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”[4]

People were bringing infants to Jesus, probably so that he could bless them. The word used here of them, βρέφος, is used of babies, including unborn babies (Luke 1:41, 44). In a world of high infant mortality, perhaps they wanted Jesus to heal them, even preemptively. But when Jesus’ followers see this, they rebuke these people. They probably thought that Jesus was too busy to bother with babies. They were not viewed as important people. But Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, . . . for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t saying that all babies and toddlers are automatically part of the kingdom of God. He’s not saying anything about infant baptism. He’s making a point about faith. So, he says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Young children rely on parents and other adults for many things. An infant is totally reliant upon a parent for food, clothing, protection, and just about everything short of breathing. A toddler relies on parents for those same things, even though they are a bit older and can walk. Even young children trust their parents to do many things for them. It wasn’t all that long ago that my children were asking us to help them brush their teeth. The point that Jesus is making is not that we should be childish in every way. There are many ways in which we shouldn’t be childish. Children aren’t well educated or wise. They don’t know how to handle the complexities of this world. But Jesus says that we must rely upon God the way that a child relies upon a parent. We must trust that God and God alone can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

God alone can open the wide the gates of his kingdom for us. God alone can remove our problem, our tumor, our disease, the incurable wound of our soul. We call that sin. Sin is all the wrong actions we do. But it’s more than that. It’s a power at work in us, one that distorts our desires. It takes us away from God and causes us to think that we are gods. It’s a failure to love God, to trust him, to worship him, and to obey him. God made us for those things. He made us to have a right relationship with him. But sin destroys that relationship. Sin is what causes decay and death in this world. And the one thing that we can’t do on our own is remove sin and its effects. We cannot uproot it and kill it. It kills us. So, we must trust that God can do this. Such faith honors God.

Luke, the author of this Gospel, contrasts the faith of a child with the faith of a proud man. We see this in the next passage, verses 18–30:

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Now, someone else comes to Jesus. It’s a ruler, probably a man who had some position of civic or political authority. He was a man of good standing, probably someone very respected, someone very successful and, in the eyes of the world, a good man. He addresses Jesus as a “Good Teacher,” and he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. In other words, how can I be part of God’s kingdom? The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, promised that there is life after death for God’s people. Death is not the final word. There will be a resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:2). Those who are part of God’s kingdom will rise to “everlasting life.” They will live with God in a new world, a physical world much like this one but cleansed of all sin. There will be nothing evil, nothing bad. It will be a beautiful and bountiful world in which there is no death (Isa. 25:6–8; 65:17–25).

It’s a bit strange that the ruler would ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You don’t do something to inherit something. You inherit something as a gift, usually because you just so happen to be related to someone else who died. But Jesus doesn’t focus on that. First, he asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” That is true. The Bible says that all mere human beings are not good (Rom. 3:10–12). In fact, Jesus has already called his disciples evil in this Gospel (Luke 11:13). I think the reason why Jesus says this is not just to claim that he is God. Jesus is not a mere man. He is the God-man. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He is not a created being. But over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. And he alone lived a perfect life. He never did anything wrong. He didn’t sin because he wasn’t tainted by the power of sin. So, Jesus might be saying something like this: “You have called me good, but only God is good. So, if I’m truly good, I must be truly God.” I think what Jesus is really doing is getting this man to see that he, the ruler, is not good. He is also getting the ruler to focus on God, and not on himself.

Then, Jesus says, more or less, “Obey the commandments to inherit eternal life.” Then, he mentions five of the Ten Commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents. The Ten Commandments were at the heart of the covenant made with Israel in the Old Testament. Basically, God said to Israel, “If you want to remain my people, this is how you’re supposed to live.” The logic of the Bible when it comes to sin is that if it were possible for us never to sin, we would live forever with God. But our obedience must be perfect. Our righteousness must not be relative to others. We can’t say, “Well, I’m better than most people, so that must be good enough for God.” God demands perfection. Jesus is trying to get the ruler to think about whether he has been perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous.

Amazingly, the ruler says, “Oh, I’ve always kept those commands, even from my youth.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to avoid breaking those five commandments, at least in fairly literal ways. However, elsewhere, Jesus says that if we have lust for someone who is not our spouse, we’re committing adultery, and if we hate someone else, we’re committing murder (Matt. 5:21–30). But the ruler didn’t understand that. He sincerely thought he had a perfect record when it comes to those commandments.

But Jesus knows this man’s heart. Jesus left out some other commandments. The first is not to have any other “gods” before the true God. The second is not to make any idols. Jesus knows what this man’s true god is and he asks this man to forsake that god. So, he says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus does not command everyone to sell everything. This is the only time he says that. Next week, we’ll meet Zacchaeus, a wealthy man who leaves his old life to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, not all of it, and there’s no hint that he failed to do what Jesus required of him.

One thing that’s important to see about Jesus is that he treated people as individuals. He knows the hearts of people. He doesn’t automatically put everyone in groups. He doesn’t say that all rich people are bad and must give away all their wealth. He doesn’t say that all poor people are good and have been unfairly oppressed. In short, he doesn’t play identity politics. He doesn’t lump people together into stereotyped or generalized groups. He is the Great Physician, and part of what makes a doctor great is the ability to accurately diagnose a person’s health. Jesus peers into the soul of this rich man and sees that his true god is money. So, he asks this man to get rid of that god. The best way to remove the grip of greed in your life is to give your wealth away.

But this ruler won’t do it. He won’t part ways with his wealth. Instead, he is “very sad.” The same Greek word is used of Jesus on the night before he died. In that case, it’s translated as “very sorrowful” (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:26). Jesus has promised him eternal life, a heavenly treasure that can never be taken away from him, and the man won’t make that deal. He was grieved at the thought of it. Jesus then says that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, which is simply an impossible thing.

Why does Jesus say that? Is it that being rich means one is a particularly bad sinner? No. The Bible doesn’t say that the wealthy are worse sinners. The Bible doesn’t say that money itself is the root of all evil. The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Money is a powerful idol, one that promises comfort and security.

I saw a powerful illustration of this in the recent movie called All the Money in the World. It’s based on a real story. The grandson of J. Paul Getty, an oil magnate, was kidnapped by Italians in Rome when he was a teenager. This was in 1973. Getty was recently known as the richest man in the world. The kidnappers demanded a $17 million ransom for the teenager’s release, but Getty refused to pay. At first, he believed that his grandson, Paul, and the boy’s mother, Getty’s daughter-in-law, concocted the kidnapping story as a way of bilking Getty. Later, he finds out Paul has actually been kidnapped, but he still refuses to pay.

In a scene with Mark Wahlberg (who plays a fictional security agent and former CIA agent, Fletcher Chace), Christopher Plummer (who plays Getty) says he can’t pay the ransom because his financial position has never been more vulnerable. There is news of an oil embargo, which has raised the price of oil. However, he fears that the embargo will be lifted and that the price of oil will crash. The two characters then have this exchange:

Chace: We have to pay.

Getty: This simply isn’t possible. My financial situation has changed. . . .

Chace: Mr. Getty, with all due respect, nobody has ever been richer than you are at this moment.

Getty: I have no money to spare.

Chace: What would it take? What would it take for you to feel secure?

Getty: More.

A little over three minutes later in the movie, there’s a scene that teases the audience. Getty is called into a room by a secretary to meet with a man who asks if he’s serious about making payment. Getty says he wouldn’t be meeting with the man if he were not. The man says there can be no more games; payment must be made in cash on that day. Getty asks for proof first. “After you,” says the man. Getty asks a man to give proof of his money; his assistant opens a briefcase containing cash. Then Getty walks to a small painting, which has been under a veil. It is a painting of a mother with a child. The man says, “Because of the painting’s disputed provenance, it can never be publicly displayed.” In other words, this is probably a stolen painting. Getty says he’s disappointed about the painting’s condition and isn’t sure if it’s worth the $1.5 million price. The other man says that true masterpieces rarely go on sale. If Getty is unwilling to pay, he will never own one. So, Getty pays.

Getty was willing to pay $1.5 million for a painting he could never display outside his home, even though he just said he had no money to spare to free his grandson. That is the power of greed. That is a picture of idolatry. He was so attached to his money and the things it could buy that he couldn’t part with it.

But if “the love of money” is an idol, you don’t have to be rich to worship that false god. Poor people can love money just the same. And idols aren’t limited to money. The most important thing in your life could be a relationship, or sex. Some people won’t come to faith in Jesus because it means not having sex outside the bounds of marriage. Some people won’t become Christians because their boyfriend or girlfriend, or their husband or wife, isn’t a Christian. Other people put their careers, or their entertainment, or their devotion to the great god of the gridiron, ahead of Jesus. If Jesus were standing here, looking into your eyes and peering into the depths of your soul, what would he ask you to give up? What would he tell you to forsake?

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read this:

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?” (Luke 9:23–25)

Inheriting the kingdom is a gift. It’s free. But following Jesus is costly. It requires giving things up. But we gain far more by losing than we could ever gain by keeping. By giving up, we gain God and the whole world. By keeping, we retain our pride and our idol, but we lose everything in the end. Jesus gives us the best of deals. It may appear that we are losing, but when we come to him, we can only gain. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples that though they had left their homes and their careers, they have gained. He says that everyone who is willing to leave their old lives “will . . . receive many more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” We may leave old relationships behind, but we gain new ones in this life. We also gain peace and purpose by becoming Christians. And, in the life to come, we gain a perfect world, real life unending. We will live in a beautiful, joyful world, one full of the deepest pleasures, because we will live with the great being there is, God himself. So, becoming a Christian is not losing. It’s gaining. The missionary Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

The disciples, who had given up so much to follow Jesus, wondered how anyone could be saved. How can we be saved from death? How can we be saved from the punishment that we deserve for our sins? How can anyone gain admission to the kingdom of God? If an upright man like this rich ruler couldn’t gain entry, how can anyone else?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question of who can be saved by stating that those who follow him, those who are willing to forsake everyone else, those who trust Jesus the way a young child trusts a loving parent, can be saved. Jesus said that this is impossible for us to achieve. “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” But Jesus didn’t say exactly how God could bring about this impossible state of affairs. How can God save those who can’t merit salvation on their own?

Let’s look quickly at the next four verses in Luke, Luke 18:31–34:

31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

Jesus had already predicted his upcoming death before (Luke 9:22, 44). But this prediction gives us more information. He says that in Jerusalem, where they will soon be, all the things written about “the Son of Man,” a title Jesus uses of himself, will be fulfilled. He will be handed over by the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles, the Romans. He will be mocked and spat upon. He will be flogged. He will then be killed on a cross, a Roman instrument of torture and execution. But on the third day, he will rise from the grave, in a body that can never die again.

The disciples couldn’t understand this. They understood the words Jesus said, but they didn’t believe it was possible. They couldn’t see how Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Messiah, could possibly be treated this way. God hid this understanding from them until Jesus rose from the grave.

But we live on this side of the cross and resurrection, and we have the rest of the Bible. We know that Jesus was killed because of many factors: unbelieving Jews, unbelieving Romans, and even Satan, the devil himself. But ultimately, his death was God’s plan (Acts 2:21–24; 4:27–28). The way that God could do the impossible, saving sinners, is by having someone live a righteous life in their place, die an atoning death in their place, and rise from the grave to show the penalty of sin had been paid in full and that all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the grave, never to die again. All who have a childlike faith in Jesus are credited with his righteousness. It’s as if we never sinned. God doesn’t just overlook our sin. No, the sins of all Christians were punished when Jesus died on the cross. And we’re told that all who trust in Jesus will rise from the dead and live with God in paradise forever.

The question for all of us today is, do we believe this is true? Are we willing to trust Jesus? Do we trust that he is the Great Physician, the only one who can heal us? Are we willing to follow him?

If not, perhaps our pride is holding us back. We want to be in charge of our lives. But doing that is foolish. It’s like wanting to be in charge of your own surgery. Perhaps we don’t want to follow Jesus because it means changing our lives, giving up things we know are wrong, or things that we love and cherish too much. Think about this: someone or something will separate you from what you love. If you’re not separated from that idol by something in this life, then death will separate you from it. What you’re clinging to won’t last. And it can’t rescue you from death and from condemnation. What do you love more than God? What do you trust more than God? What dictates your behavior more than God? That is your idol. Give it up and follow Jesus. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to do this now. I would be glad to talk to you personally to help you follow Jesus and to answer your questions. But, Christians, we also must hear the words of Jesus today. We have a tendency to go back to our idols. We have a tendency to not want to follow Jesus, because that path can very well lead to suffering. If the world hated our Master, it will hate us, too (John 15:18–19). But at the end of that path, beyond suffering and beyond persecution, is glory. Beyond even death is the risen Jesus, who will receive God’s children into his kingdom. Let us follow him on that path.

Notes

  1. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

To Such Belongs the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:15-34)

How can one be part of God’s kingdom? What can one do to inherit eternal life? We must have a child-like faith in Jesus, trusting that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But pride and false gods get in the way of such faith. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 18:15-34 on September 15, 2019.

God, Be Merciful to Me

This sermon was preached on September 8, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Let’s imagine something for a moment. Imagine you have a job. For some of you, this isn’t all that hard to do. Imagine that your company was recently purchased by a new owner, who has brought in new management. The new management announces that they are going to interview everyone who works for the company. They present this as a “getting-to-know-you” exercise. They schedule interviews with every single employee, including you. At beginning of your interview, they ask you simple questions about you, such as what your role in the company is, how long you’ve worked there, where you went to school, what other kinds of experience you have—that sort of thing. Then they ask you what you do at the company. As they start to ask more specific questions, it dawns on you that they’re not just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to see if they want to continue to employ you. In short, they’re asking you to justify your position with the company. So, you start to give answers that you would give when you interview for a job. You tell them how you work hard, how much experience you have doing your job, how productive you are, how well you get along with your coworkers, and anything else you can think of to convince them that they should keep you on the payroll.

That’s a bit of what “justification” looks like. It means something like an acquittal. Being justified means being viewed as not guilty, as innocent, as in the right, as acceptable. Justification is a big word in Christianity, and we don’t always hear about it in other contexts. But the fact is that we all try to justify ourselves in some way or another. We try to demonstrate that we’re in the right, that we’re good people, that we have the right beliefs and the right behaviors, that we’re people who should be accepted and embraced.

The key question that we all should ask is, How can I be acceptable to God? What sort of justification can I offer to him? We should think along those lines, but there are many people who don’t even realize that we need to be justified in the presence of God. But we do need justification. We need something that makes up for our sin, that reconciles us to God, that shows that we’re acceptable to him, that we’re worthy. What are you relying upon for justification?

Today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see a famous parable that Jesus tells, a story about two people who come to the temple to pray to God. These two people have very different attitudes, and they make two very different speeches. Jesus tells us that only one of them is justified.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[1]

Luke tells us up front why Jesus tells this story: Jesus has in mind people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That kind of mindset is opposed to the way of Jesus for two reasons. One, Jesus repeatedly says in different ways that no one is righteous. So, to believe that one is righteous, without sin, not in need of mercy, is to be deceived. Two, those who treat others with contempt fail to see that other people are made in God’s image and likeness. We have no right to act as if we are superior to others, particularly if we realize our own unrighteousness. Jesus probably is addressing this story to the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who were known for their strict adherence to the Hebrew Bible.

The story itself has a setting and two characters. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem. This is where God was worshiped, where sacrifices for sin were offered, and where people prayed. We don’t know if this was one of the twice-daily times of prayer at the temple (at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.) or if the men just happened to go to the temple at the same time to pray individually. The point is that both were going to meet with God.

Then, we are told about the two characters of the story. The first is a Pharisee. There were a few groups of Jewish religious leaders at this time. There was the high priest, as well as the many priests who served at the temple. Then there were two groups of influential Jews. One was the Sadducees, who had more political power but who had unorthodox beliefs. Famously, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. The other group was the Pharisees, who were lay leaders known for taking the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, very seriously. They were very disciplined in their approach. They tried to apply the whole Bible to all of life in very specific, rigorous ways. The apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, was a Pharisee, and he had previously boasted of his adherence to the law (Phil. 3:4–6).

But Jesus has criticized the Pharisees repeatedly for being hypocrites, for not seeing their own lack of righteousness, and for using their positions of privilege to earn money. In short, the Pharisees don’t come out looking good in this Gospel.

The Pharisees have grumbled that Jesus would spend time eating and drinking with obviously sinful people. In Luke 5:30–32, we read this:

30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus came to save people from their sin. Sin is a sickness, a rebellion against God but also a powerful, evil force that finds its way into everything we do. The only people who go to a doctor for healing are those who are willing to admit they are sick and need help. The Pharisees still wrestled with sin, but they had lost sight of that fact. They acted as if they were truly righteous and everyone else was not.

We’re told that this Pharisee stood by himself when he prayed. We don’t want to read much into that. There are times when people stand while praying in the Bible (1 Sam. 1:26; 1 Kgs. 8:22). But perhaps he was by himself because he thought he was above everyone else.

At any rate, we are given his prayer. It consists of twenty-eight words in the original Greek. He begins well: “God, I thank you.” It’s good to begin prayers by thanking God. But look what he thanks God for: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He’s basically praying, “God, I thank you that you made me so great. When you made me, you did an excellent job. I’m not like those other sinners. I’m nailing it when it comes to all the religious things.”

The Pharisee thanks God for not making him like sinners. He even is so bold as to point out the tax collector, the other character in this story. “I thank you that I’m not like that poor slob over there.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation for two reasons: one, they often took more than they needed to take. In an era before computers or advanced paperwork, it was easy to tell people they owed more than they actually did. But, perhaps more importantly, tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire. They were Jewish people working for the enemy, the superpower of the day, the occupying force that oppressed Jews. Tax collectors were not only dishonest, but they were traitors. That’s what this Pharisee surely thought.

What the Pharisee is doing is comparing himself to other people. As he thinks about other people, he is evaluating his own moral performance against theirs. By that standard, the Pharisee comes out well. He’s thinking, “I’m not as sinful as them.” He also boasts about his good deeds. He fasted twice a week. Fasting might mean consuming only water and bread (Shepherd of Hermas 5.3.7). The Jews were only commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29; Num. 29:7). They might also fast when mourning or repenting. Pharisees were known to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. They went above and beyond what the law required.

The Pharisee also claims to tithe everything he gets. Israel was supposed to over various tithes of their produce (Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27). A tithe literally means a tenth, though if you added Israel’s tithes, they were supposed to give something like 23.3 percent of their crops. Perhaps the Pharisee is saying that he tithes all his income, or perhaps he means that for everything he spends—for all the stuff that he “gets”—he gives ten percent away. At any rate, he’s bragging about how much he gives to the temple.

Though the Pharisee begins by praying to God, the “prayer” is really all about him. He’s the subject: I thank you, I’m not like other men, I fast twice a week, I tithe everything. I, me, mine.

The other character in this story is the tax collector. I’ve already explained their reputation. It was not good. The Pharisees complained that Jesus ate with such sinners (Luke 5:30) and would spend time with them (Luke 15:1–2). Yet this tax collector humbly makes his way to the temple. Given their reputation, it’s not unreasonable to think that tax collectors didn’t go to the temple often, perhaps because they wouldn’t want to go, perhaps because they knew how they would be viewed by others.

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands. But he stands at a distance. The Pharisee might have gone right into the courtyard of the temple. This tax collector was standing “far off,” perhaps on just the edge of the temple complex. Though some people prayed while looking up to God (Ps. 123:1; Mark 6:41; 7:34; John 11:41; 17:1), this tax collector can’t do that. He feels unworthy to look directly toward God. He beats his breast, a sign of mourning. And he simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the original Greek, his prayer is only six words (compared with the twenty-eight words of the Pharisee).

Now, I don’t often play the “in the Greek . . .” card, but I will here, because it’s important. The way that the tax collector’s prayer is translated hides a couple of important details. First, he literally says, “God, make atonement for me.” He knows he needs God’s mercy. But the way to get mercy from God is if atonement is made. The Greek word used here is also used in Hebrews 2:17, where we’re told that Jesus made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” To be right in God’s eyes, to be acceptable to God, to be forgiven by him, he needs someone who can make God propitious towards him. In other words, he needs someone who can make God look favorably upon him. This man knows that he has nothing to bring to God that can turn away God’s judgment against his sin. He confesses that he’s a sinner. He doesn’t brag about who he is or what he’s done. He simply knows that he needs atonement for his sin, and he knows that God must be the one to atone for his sin. No amount of good works can make up for the sin that he’s committed.

The other interesting detail that is found in the original Greek text is that this man says, “God, make atonement for me, the sinner.” He doesn’t say “a sinner.” Instead, he says, “the sinner,” using the definite article. Why does that matter? It’s like he’s saying, “I’m not comparing myself to other people. I’m not saying that I’m just another sinner, like everyone else around me. I am the sinner who needs atonement for his sins.” The Pharisee compared himself to others and did so favorably: “I’m better than everyone else.” But this tax collector isn’t comparing. He’s not judging himself by that standard. Instead, he’s judging himself against God’s standard. It’s like when the apostle Paul called himself “the foremost” sinner (1 Tim. 1:15).

These two men couldn’t be any more different in their stature in society and in their attitudes. Yet in verse 14, Jesus provides the twist: the tax collector and not the Pharisee went back home justified. The tax collector found favor in God’s eyes. The Pharisee did not. Jesus gives the reason why: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is like so many of the twists that we see in Jesus’ parables: the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was the one who loved his neighbor (Luke 10:25–37); the younger sinful brother came back home and was embraced by his father while the older righteous brother stayed outside (Luke 15:11–32); the rich men went to hades while the poor men went to paradise (Luke 16:19–31).

There are three truths that I want us to see from this parable. The first truth concerns the attitude we should take in approaching God. The tax collector had it right. He humbly approaches God and seeks forgiveness that only God can give. He seeks a solution to his sin that he cannot possibly provide, but that God can. He acknowledges he’s a sinner. He doesn’t compare himself to anyone else. He knows that he stands in need of God’s mercy.

The Pharisee isn’t really praying to God at all. His prayer is really a boast. He compares himself with others and, since he’s relatively obedient to the law, he thinks he’s superior to others. He looks down at “this one,” this tax collector. He brags about all the good things he has done. There’s no awareness that he, too, is a sinner standing in need of atonement. He is justifying himself, assuming that all his good works have put him in the right before God.

The right attitude before God is captured in King David’s famous confession of sin, which we find in Psalm 51. King David had committed adultery, then when he found out the woman was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin by arranging for her husband to sleep with her. When that didn’t work out, he had the husband killed. (See 2 Samuel 11 for the story). When the prophet Nathan called him out for his sin, David confessed that he had done what was wrong, and he asked God for forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:1–13). Look at Psalm 51:1–4:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

David knew that he had ultimately sinned against God, and that he needed God’s mercy. God would be justified in condemning David, but David appealed to God for mercy. He confessed his sin and he found healing and forgiveness.

Later in the same Psalm, David says (in verse 17):

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

He knew that what God wanted was a sign of repentance, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a godly remorse over sin. God doesn’t want pride and boasting. He wants people to realize what they have done, and to come to him humbly and in faith.

That is the attitude a sinful person should have before God. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. We have all failed to love God as we should. We have failed to obey his commandments. We have failed to love other people as we should. We have even failed our own moral standards and moral codes. We have done wrong, and God knows it. He would be justified to condemn us. We must seek the atonement that only he gives.

Of course, not everyone realizes this. Just this past week, I happened to catch a bit of a video clip from an interview between Ben Shapiro and Bishop Robert Barron. If you don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, he’s a relatively young man who is a significant conservative figure. He’s a lawyer, an author, a writer, and a host of a very popular podcast. He’s made appearances on CNN and other television channels. He’s also an Orthodox Jew. So, he had this interview with a Catholic bishop, and at one point, Shapiro asks this question: “What’s the Catholic view on who gets into heaven and who doesn’t?” Then, he immediately adds, “I feel like I lead a pretty good life, a very religiously based life in which I try to keep not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?”[2]

I like Ben Shapiro. I agree with many things that he says. But what he’s doing there is very similar to what the Pharisee does in the parable. He’s claiming that he lives a good life. Actually, Shapiro hedges that a bit to say he lives “a pretty good life.” He claims that he tries to keep the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. (I’m not sure how he keeps all the commandments related to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and offering animal sacrifices.) But I doubt that he does well even with the Ten Commandments. Who has not coveted (Exod. 20:17)? Who hasn’t put something before God in their lives (Exod. 20:3)? Who has always loved God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5)? Who has always loved one’s neighbor as one’s self (Lev. 19:18)? Shapiro doesn’t seem to think he has sins that he can’t make up for.

The Bishop says that Shapiro is not “screwed.” He says that the Catholic Church has taught since Vatican II that people other than Christians can be saved if they follow their conscience. Jesus is the privileged path to salvation, and he must be followed, but the Bishop waters down what that means. He says that the atheist who follows his conscience is actually following Christ, though he doesn’t know it.

Then, Shapiro asks the Bishop if Catholicism is faith-based or acts-based. Shapiro acknowledges that Judaism is an acts-based religious, “where it’s all about what you do in this life, and that earns you points in heaven.” The Bishop says that Catholicism is “loved-based,” which is a nice answer. He does say that Catholicism requires faith, but it is perfected by works. He rightly acknowledges that a relationship with God begins with grace, and that it requires a response that includes obedience, but he suggests that human effort contributes to salvation.

Those are two wrong ways of looking at salvation. This leads me to what Jesus didn’t teach clearly in this parable, and this is the second truth that we should know this morning. How is one saved? What is the basis of salvation? If it’s true what the Bible says, that all of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that even our best acts of righteousness are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6), how can we be saved? The parable makes it clear that we must go to God humbly and ask for mercy. But how does that work?

God is a righteous judge who must punish sin. He promised punishment and exile for sinners. How can God punish sin without destroying all sinners?

God also desires righteous members of his covenant. He demands a righteous people. How can we be declared in the right, innocent, as if we had never sinned but had only done what he wants us to do?

The answer is Jesus. He is the only truly righteous person who has ever walked the face of the earth. He is the God-man, forever the Son of God, yet who added a human nature over two thousand years ago. He alone loved God the Father (and God the Spirit) with his whole being. He alone has never failed to love his neighbor. He alone has obeyed all the commandments.

Yet Jesus died a sinner’s death, bearing the wrath of God when he died on the cross. He was treated like the worst of criminals though he never did anything wrong. He then rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid the penalty for sin in full and to demonstrate that all his people will rise from the grave on day when he comes again in glory. If we trust in him, our sins have already been punished. The apostle wrote to the Colossians that “you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–15). If we have faith in Jesus, if we trust that he is who the Bible says he is and he has done what the Bible says he has done, our sin is paid for, and we are credited with his righteousness.

This can only be accessed by faith, not works. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:15–16).

Paul makes this abundantly clear in Romans, as well as in Galatians and Philippians and his other letters. In Ephesians, he famously writes,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9).

Paul also says that we should do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10), but those good works are not the basis for our salvation. They are not the root of our salvation, but the fruit that naturally comes out of life changed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

If we have a right relationship with Jesus, one marked by trust, love, and obedience, we will know who he is. We might not know everything, but we do need to know some things. Importantly, we will know that he is God. In John 8:24, Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “I am he” is a reference to the God of the Old Testament. It is how God referred to himself when he first spoke to Moses (Exod. 3:14). It is how God refers to himself in the book of Isaiah (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4).

The Bible pictures salvation as being united to Jesus. The Bible also says that Jesus is our bride. If you are married to someone you will know it, and you will know important things about your spouse. So, if you’re married to Jesus, you’ll know that he’s the Son of God, the world’s only Savior, and the King of kings and Lord of lords. You’ll know that he died on the cross for your sins and that he rose from the grave.

The third truth I want us to think about is that we will stand before God on judgment day. We will have to give an account for what we have done. I don’t know the mechanics of how this will work out. I don’t know that we’ll be given a chance to speak to God and present a case for our justification. But let’s say we will. What will you say to God? Will you say, “God, I deserve to be with you for eternity because I’ve done all these good things. I’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show you all the good things that I’ve done.” Or will you humbly say something like this? “God, I know that you would be right to condemn me. I know that I have failed to love you and to obey you. Have mercy on me, the sinner. Please forgive me. My only hope is your Son, Jesus. I trust that his righteousness and his atonement are enough to save me from sin. My faith is set upon Christ. He is my only hope for salvation.” If that is the posture of your heart, you have faith in Jesus. The good news is that he can save us from any sin we’ve committed. We can be acceptable to God because of Jesus. But we must first acknowledge our sin and humbly seek forgiveness. We must repent, turning away from sin, and turn to our only hope, who is Christ.

Christians, we must not look down at other people as though we were better than them, or more deserving of God’s grace. We must not say, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Democrat,” or, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Republican.” We can’t even say, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.” We must not boast in ourselves, but we must boast in Christ. Paul wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; quoting Jer. 9:24). He then wrote, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oDt8wWQsiA&feature=youtu.be. The relevant portion of the interview begins at about 16:20.

 

God, Be Merciful to Me (Luke 18:9-14)

What is our justification before God? What are we relying upon to make us right with God? Jesus taught this parable to those who trusted in themselves. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 18:9-14 on September 8, 2019.

Cry to Him Day and Night

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 1, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

When something is wrong, to whom do you appeal? In our house, we have two boys, and they play together well—for the most part. But they can also be rough with each other. And if they play long enough, someone will take another’s toy, or someone will call someone a name, or someone will hurt someone else. Usually, they try to sort out their differences—often with a bit of “street justice.” That is, if tempers flare long enough, one will hit the other. But sometimes, they’ll appeal to a higher authority. They’ll call to one of their parents. “Mom, Simon took my Lego.” “Dad, Caleb called me a name.” In fact, I wish they appealed to a higher authority before they started hitting each other. But, eventually, they will appeal to a higher authority.

We all want to do be able to do that at times. When there’s an injustice, and we don’t see that injustice being righted, we want to call upon someone who can fix the problem. That’s why we have that all powerful line, “Can I speak to your supervisor?” When you’ve reached that point, something isn’t going your way, and so you play the “I want to talk to the boss” card. That’s why we have a Supreme Court. When it seems that the Constitution is being violated, we can appeal to a higher authority, and the Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in our country.

But what if the Supreme Court gets it wrong? To what higher authority can we appeal? What if there are injustices in other lands, ones to which our nation’s laws don’t apply? To whom do we appeal?

The good news is that there is an ultimate authority, one to whom we can always appeal. And that authority is God. And he stands ready, listening to his children. As someone said Wednesday night at our prayer meeting, “With God, there’s never a busy signal. The line is always open.” There are no waiting lines to talk to God. There’s no admission ticket that we need to pay to speak God. He is the ultimate judge, and we can appeal to him for justice at any time. And God has told us that he will bring about final justice, in his own time. And he calls upon us to pray that his kingdom would come, that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Today, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we begin chapter 18. Last week, as we looked at the end of chapter 17, we heard Jesus talking about how the kingdom of God is here already, though not in its fullest. It’s already, but not yet. That means that people can come to the King of kings, Jesus, and bow down before him in faith. When people turn away from living as if they are kings, or as if other people are kings, and put their trust in the true King, they can be part of God’s kingdom. Yet look around the world. It doesn’t take much to see that many people don’t live as if God is their king. If God’s kingdom is like this, we may wonder if a better kingdom is coming! So, even though the kingdom of God is present, it’s not completed or perfected here. But Jesus promised that it will come in its fullest one day. So, Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21).[1] But he also said that his disciples would “desire to see on of the days of the Son of Man [that’s a reference to Jesus], and you will not see it” (Luke 17:22). Jesus suggested that things would be difficult for Christians in the in-between times, the time between his first and second appearances on earth.

It’s important to remember that, because what we see at the beginning of chapter 18 should be read in that context. As we wait for Jesus to return, as we long to see “the days of the Son of Man,” we will see injustice. As another day without Jesus returning appears, we may become discouraged. And here, in this passage, Jesus tells us to keep praying for that day of justice.

Without further ado, let’s read today’s passage. Here is Luke 18:1–8:

1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This passage itself isn’t very difficult to understand, but I did want to remind us of the context. This passage isn’t about prayer in general. It’s certainly not about praying for just anything. It’s about praying for God to make things right.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable, this little story, to his disciples so that they should always pray and not lose heart. The story concerns “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” Earlier in the Gospel, we’re told that the greatest command is to love God with everything we have and also to love our neighbor—our fellow man—as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27). Apparently, this judge didn’t do either of those things. We’re told he was an unrighteous judge. In Israel, judges were supposed to fear God and to care about justice, particularly for those who were vulnerable, people like widows. In fact, there’s a passage in the Old Testament, in 2 Chronicles 19, when one of the kings, Jehoshaphat, appoints judges and he explicitly tells the judges, “Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chron. 19:7). So, we get the sense that this judge was far from an ideal judge.

Yet this judge had power. He had authority. He could correct some injustices. And so we’re told that a widow comes to him. She says, “Give me justice against my adversary.” We don’t know who her adversary is or what injustice she was suffering. It was probably something financial. At that time, widows were particularly vulnerable. A widow, especially one without children, had no men to provide for her and protect her. The injustice might have concerned her late husband’s estate. Women generally were not heirs of an estate. When a man died, his wife could receive financial support from the estate, but she depended on the male heir to do the right thing.[2] Perhaps her adversary here was that heir. We can’t be sure, but it’s as good a guess as any.

So, this woman comes to this judge looking for justice. We get the sense that she came repeatedly to him. At first, the unrighteous judge doesn’t give this woman the time of the day, even though the Old Testament explicitly talks about how Israel should care for widows (Exod. 22:22–24; Deut. 10:17–18; 24:17; 27:19; Pss. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25; also James 1:27). Yet the widow keeps coming to him, demanding justice. Even though he doesn’t fear God or respect humans, he doesn’t like being bothered by this woman. She is wearing him out with her demands for justice. So, he gives her justice to avoid being bothered any more by her.

Then “the Lord,” Jesus, gives his disciples the point of this story. He says, even an unrighteous judge will grant justice if he’s bothered enough. How much more, then, will the perfect judge give justice to “his elect, who cry to him day and night?” The point is not that God is an unrighteous judge. The point is not that if we bother God enough for what we want, he’ll get sick of hearing our prayers, and to shut us up, he’ll grant our wishes. Jesus is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. If an unrighteous judge will grant justice from bad motives, then the perfect Judge will certainly grant justice to his children.

Jesus says three very important things in verse 7. One, Jesus calls God’s people “elect.” That means they are chosen by God. One of the amazing truths that the Bible teaches is that God has elected certain people to be his people. He has predestined them to be adopted as his children, not because they are so lovable or so good, but simply because he loves them (see Rom. 8:28–30; Eph. 1:3–14). If you’re a Christian, God wanted you even before you existed. He wanted you knowing all the sins that you would commit, all the wrongs that you would do, all the times you have failed to love God and to love others as you should. God knew all these things, and he still chose you. And that should give us confidence that when we pray to God, he will answer. He knows we’re praying—he knows all things. But because we are his chosen children, he will answer.

The second important thing Jesus says in verse 7 is that God’s elect “cry to him day and night.” I don’t think Jesus means that only if we pray to God at literally every moment, then he will listen to us. But we are told in the Bible to pray regularly. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells Christian to “pray without ceasing.” In Romans 12:12, he says, “be constant in prayer.” In Ephesians 6:18, Paul says that we should be “praying at all times in the Spirit.” In Colossians 4:2, he says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” As a church, we should be praying regularly, and we have confidence that some Christian somewhere on earth is always praying to God for justice. Individually, we should do this regularly.

The third important thing that Jesus tells us in verse 7 is that God will not delay in granting us justice. He asks a rhetorical question: “Will he delay long over them?” The answer is “no.” However, God will do this on his own timing. God’s answers to our prayers are always perfect. He always answers our prayers, even if the answer is “no.” But we don’t always know how or when he answers our prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” but it comes later than we want or expect. But God’s timing is always right.

In another part of the Bible, in the apostle Peter’s second letter, Peter talks about how some don’t believe that Jesus will come a second time. If you stop and think about it, the claim that Jesus will come again is hard to believe. It’s hard to believe because, first of all, the Christian claim is that Jesus is no mere human, but he’s also the Son of God. He’s the God-man, truly God and truly human. Second of all, we’re told that when he comes again, it will be in power and glory, and he will right every wrong. We’re told that he will remove all evil, all sin, from the world, he will judge everyone that has ever lived, and that he will recreate the world to be a paradise, a perfect place where God dwells with his people in peace and harmony. There will no longer be pain, disease, wars, and death. It’s hard to imagine all of that. And it’s no wonder that people who aren’t Christians would think this is just a fairy tale.

But Peter says it’s not. Jesus will come, but he will come according to God’s timing. Peter writes this:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Pet. 3:8–10).

The point is that an eternal God has a different time scale than we have. We want things done now. But for God, who always existed, a day is a blink of an eye. A thousand years in our experience are like a day in his. We’re told to be patient and to wait. The reason why Jesus has not returned is because God has given us more time for people to turn from their sins—to repent—and to turn to Jesus in faith. There is a day when Jesus will come, and God knows when that is (Acts 17:31). But if Jesus returned a hundred years ago, none of us would exist, and none of us would ever have the opportunity to be part of God’s kingdom.

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John is given an image of all the people who died for their faith in Jesus. We read this in chapter 6:

10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been (Rev. 6:10–11).

That cry, “How long, O Lord?” appears throughout the Bible. It is a cry for justice. How long, God, until you set things right? How long until Jesus comes to remove all sin from the world, and all sin from our own hearts? How long do we have to live like this? The answer to those questions is, “Not long.” It may seem like an eternity to us, but not to God. God will not delay. His timing is right. Wait for it. In verse 8, Jesus says that God “will give justice . . . speedily” to his people.

But then Jesus turns the tables. He asks his own question. He says that when he, the Son of Man returns, “will he find faith on earth?” We ask that question, “How long?” and Jesus says, “Not long.” But then Jesus asks us what he will find when he returns. Will he find faithful people who are doing what has commanded us to do? Will he find people who are praying day and night for justice? Will he find people who trust that Jesus alone is King, that he alone is our Savior, that he alone is the perfect Judge who will right every wrong? Or will he find us putting our trust in lesser things?

This brings us to an important question that we should ask: What is the point of prayer? Earlier, I said that God is all knowing. God is omniscient. He has always known all true things. It’s not as though when we pray, we tell God anything new. It’s not as if we can say, “God, I have this great idea that you might not have considered yet. Maybe you should try this.” God already knows everything, including the content of our prayers. So, in that sense, we don’t need to pray.

But God has called us to pray. Why is that? It’s not to give him new information, or new plans. It’s not to inform him of our heart’s desire, because he knows that already. Why did God come up with the very concept of prayer? Why are we commanded to pray?

I believe the answer is that prayer keeps us connected to God. Prayer is simply talking to God. We don’t always have to request something of him when we pray. We can praise him. We can tell God we’re thankful for what he’s done for us. We can simply acknowledge who God is. We can think about his attributes and praise him for being almighty, all-knowing, holy, good, just, perfectly wise, and the creator of all things. We can tell God how we’re feeling and we can share with him our joys and sorrows. We can ask God for things. But whatever we say, he already knows it.

So, the real value of prayer is that it helps us focus on God. It’s a means of grace, something that keeps us in the faith and helps us grow in our faith. It’s a reminder of who is on the throne. God is all-powerful; we are not. God is in control; we are not. God is a perfect judge who will determine what is right and what is wrong; we lack the wisdom, the knowledge of all evidence, and the moral character to perfectly judge situations.

Our problem is that we want to be the judge. We want to be the decider, the one in control. To see this, all you need to do is think about how people react to the idea that God is judge. A lot of people are turned off by that idea. I have actually heard some people who claim to be Christians say that God wouldn’t judge anyone. Obviously, they haven’t read the Bible. God is repeatedly called a judge. He’s also a king. And, you might say, he’s the legislative branch, too. He makes the rules, which are a reflection of his moral perfection, his righteousness. He commands us to follow his rules. And he will judge us for how we have done.

And this, believe it or not, is a good thing. One reason it’s good that God is a judge is that it’s a guarantee that all wrongs will be righted. All crimes will be punished. If we didn’t have the assurance that God would do this some day, we would despair. We would look at this world, which has so much injustice, and think that justice is impossible. We would give up. We would become cynical and jaded. Or, we would try to bring about justice ourselves. How often do we see someone get away with a crime? Perhaps we don’t see this in our own lives, but we see it in the news. There are many times where a man rapes or sexually abuses a woman and he gets away with it, or he gets some ridiculously light sentencing. There are times when evil people don’t seem to be punished for their crimes. Hitler is a great example. He committed all kinds of atrocities and the committed suicide, never facing a judge and jury for what he did. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, is responsible for the deaths of millions of people who starved or who were sent to the Gulag. He died of a brain hemorrhage at age 74. He doesn’t seem to have paid for his abuses. The list could go on and on. If there is no God who judges, these men will never be punished appropriately for what they’ve done. If there’s no God, we may be tempted to seek our own “street justice,” to become vigilantes who take the law into our own hands. And that would go very badly.

But because God is a judge who will punish every crime, we can rest assured that though evil people seem to get away with crimes, no evil will go unpunished by God. He will deal with everyone’s sin. In the end, God will punish every sin, every evil. Nothing escapes his knowledge, and no one will escape his judgment. So, we have the promise that all injustices will be addressed. And that is a good thing.

There’s another good thing about God being a judge. Everything will be evaluated. That means that everything has meaning. This past week, I happened to listen to a few sermons online. That’s not something I actually do very frequently. But I happened to listen to a sermon by Tim Keller, who pastored a church in Manhattan for over twenty-five years. In the sermon, he referenced something he wrote about in his great book, The Reason for God. Keller mentions a play written by Arthur Miller called After the Fall. In that play, there’s a character named Quentin, who looks back over his life. He says that when he was younger, he thought of life as a series of proofs. You try to prove that you’re brave and smart, that you’re a good lover and father, that you’re wise, that your life has meaning. He said he expected that his life would receive some kind of judgment, some kind of verdict. He would be justified or condemned. But then he says this: “I think now my disaster really began when I looked up one day . . . and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. . . . Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.”[3] What is he saying? This character apparently is an atheist. He doesn’t believe there’s a cosmic judge. And what he realizes is that if there’s no God, no great judge who gives a verdict, then there’s no evaluation of one’s life. And that means that everything is ultimately meaningless.

Imagine you are in school, and you work very hard to get good grades. You want some validation for the work you’re doing. You want not only to be rewarded with a good grade, but you also want to know that you’re right. You want your work to be recognized. But then, at the end of the semester, the teacher says, “I decided not to give grades.” You would be upset if you worked hard. Now, if you didn’t work at all, you might think you’re getting a good deal. But most people want their work to have meaning. They want their lives to have meaning. That means we need to have our lives evaluated, to be judged. And we certainly want other people to be judged. All of us make moral judgments: “He should have done this; she shouldn’t have done that.” Where do you think that comes from? We’re judgmental because God is a judge. And we need God to be a judge, or else there’s no moral evaluation, and there’s no justice.

We all want God to be a judge—at least a judge of other people’s sins. But God will judge us for our sins, too. Earlier, I said that no one will escape God’s judgment. That’s not correct. There are some who will escape God’s judgment. The only way to escape is to come to Jesus. The fact is that all of us have done wrong. All of us have failed to love God and to love other people. We certainly have failed God’s standards. If we’re honest, we’ve failed to meet our own standards. We know in our hearts that we have done wrong. If we were to stand before God, we would be condemned. He would find us guilty and our crimes would be punished accordingly. And it wouldn’t be pretty. Because we have a tendency to be selfish, we would always live as if we were king. We would always sin. And God can’t have that. He can’t have people in his world destroying everything that he had made good. God will remove sinners from his creation so that he can perfect it. If God didn’t intervene, that means that each of us would be cast into hell.

But there is hope. We can escape condemnation if we find refuge in Jesus. If we turn to him, we will not be condemned. That is because he has already taken the judgment for the sins of his people. He has already paid the penalty for their crimes. Though he lived a perfect life—and he was the only one to do that—he died as a sinner. He bore not only terrible physical pain and suffering, but the wrath of God, something that goes beyond physical pain. This wasn’t an accident. It didn’t happen just because sinful people put Jesus to death, perhaps the greatest act of injustice ever committed. It was because it was God’s plan. It was the Father’s plan. It was the Son’s plan. It was the Spirit’s plan. From before the foundation of the world, the Son of God was destined to become man and die so he could save the elect from sin.

The question for us is, when Jesus comes again, will he find us faithful? Do we truly have faith in Jesus? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus now. A day of justice is coming. It will be a day of reckoning. If you haven’t put your faith in Jesus, whether you die or he returns in your lifetime, you will stand before him and you will be judged for everything you’ve ever thought, desired, and done. Jesus knows all the evidence. He knows all the ways you have failed. If you are not “in Christ,” you will be condemned. The good news is that Jesus has done everything you need to be rescued from judgment. But you must trust him. I would love to talk with you personally about what this would look like for you.

One mark of faithfulness is prayer. But we don’t pray to manipulate God. The point of this parable is not that if we badger God with personal requests, he’ll give in. It’s not that if I pray every day for money and good health, God will get tired of hearing me, and he’ll say, “Fine, I’ll give you whatever you want, just stop bothering me!” God isn’t like that. Jesus’ point is that if we cry out to our Father for justice, he will answer us positively.

Jesus told us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). We should pray that we would act as if God is our King. We should pray that others would do that also. We should pray continually for God to right wrongs, to fix the injustice that we see around us. God may lead people to do what is just in this life. Injustices like slavery have been addressed, often by Christians. I pray that injustices like abortion, racism, sexual abuse, and other evil practices will come to an end. But all evil will only be ended on that great day when Jesus appears. The apostle Paul has said, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). So, with Paul, let us pray, “Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22).

Notes

  1. 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: Zondervan, 2012), 709.
  3. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 163. The quote originally appears in Arthur Miller, After the Fall (New York: Penguin, 1964, 1992), 3.

 

Cry to Him Day and Night (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus tells his followers to cry out to God day and night for justice, and God will faithfully grant that justice, at least on the last day. But on that day, will Jesus find that his followers have been faithful? Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 18:1-8 on September 1, 2019.

Kingdom Come

This sermon was preached on August 25, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below). 

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are really good at remembering things, and those who . . . wait a minute . . . I can’t remember who the other people are.

To be serious, when it comes to matters of faith, it does seem like there are two types of people in the world. There are people who want to know facts before they believe. They want to know what Scripture says. They want to think through good arguments for why they should believe. These want a faith that makes good intellectual sense. They want a religious faith that isn’t contradictory, one that makes sense of the basic facts of life. They don’t believe based on feelings, but on whether something is true.

Then, there are people who won’t believe it unless they see it or feel it themselves. We might say these people want evidence, but not evidence that can be read in a book. They want to see miracles personally or have certain positive feelings. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, couldn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, though that is what the other disciples told him. No, Thomas had to see the risen Jesus for himself in order to believe. When Thomas finally did see Jesus, he fell down at his feet and famously said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28–29).[1]

I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently, because some churches rely on producing feelings. Recently, I saw that another church baptized a large number of people, and they posted a testimony from someone who supposedly came to faith. Maybe this person really does believe. I don’t know. But the testimony was all about her feelings. She felt happy. She felt excited. She felt love. But nowhere in her words was there a mention of basic facts of the gospel message. There was no mention of sin, of who Jesus is, what he did to save her, and no mention of trusting Jesus and repentance. There was talk about being devoted to Jesus, but it was more about him helping her than her rather taking up her cross and following him.

I mention this because as we will see in today’s passage, Luke 17:20–37, Jesus makes a bold claim about the kingdom of God. He says it has come upon the Earth, but “in ways that can be observed.” Jesus’ own coming to Earth was rather quiet. Yes, it came through a miracle: the Son of God took on human form. But most of his life was lived quietly. He was a carpenter’s son. He didn’t draw attention to himself. When the time was right, he did have a public ministry. And he did perform some amazing miracles. But he didn’t produce what everyone was expecting. And Jesus never said that life in the kingdom of God, at least in this age, will always feel good. He never promised it would be easy. The word “fun” doesn’t appear in the Bible, and generally what we often think of as “happiness” or “self-fulfillment” doesn’t appear in the Bible either. That’s not to say that God doesn’t give us pleasures. He does, and I trust that he will do more of that in the future. It’s to say that we follow Jesus because of truth, not feelings. And we need to know what Jesus himself taught in order to follow him.

So, with all that being said, we’re going to start to read today’s passage. I’ll begin by reading Luke 17:20–21:

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

Jesus is once again being questioned by the Pharisees, one group of Jewish men who were influential religious leaders at this time.[2] They ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. The idea of the kingdom of God could mean many things, depending on the person. What they probably had in mind were prophecies in the Old Testament that a descendant of David would come and rule God’s people. This anointed king, the Messiah, would crush the enemies of God’s people, Israel, and establish a reign that would never end (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:2–7; 11:1–5). The Pharisees probably wanted to know when this king could come and defeat the Roman Empire, the occupying force in Palestine at that time. The Jewish people wanted the freedom, the power, and the land that was theirs during the time of King David and his son, Solomon.

Jesus knew they were expecting this display of power when the Messiah comes. But Jesus, who is the Messiah, the King of kings, says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.” He means that it wouldn’t come in the way they expected it, with huge demonstrations of national strength, with military victories. Then he says, more or less, “Don’t listen to people when they say that it’s here or there. The truth is that the kingdom of God is right in your midst.”

Now, Jesus does not mean something that I’ve heard from others. There are some translations, like the earlier version of the NIV, that says, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Some people take that to mean that God is already in you, or that you have some divine spark within you. I actually heard this from a man who claimed to be a Christian, yet who also believed in a lot of New Age or eastern religious concepts like reincarnation or the idea that we’re all divine in some way. This man appealed to this verse, in that translation—“the kingdom of God is within you”—to prove that Jesus taught this.

In any of you watched the first two debates featuring the approximately 300 Democrats currently running for president, you might know who Marianne Williamson is. She has long been a kind of New Age spiritual teacher. In an interview, she said this about Jesus:

Jesus was a human being who while on earth completely self-actualized and fulfilled in all ways the potential glory that lies within us all. He became one with the Essence and Christ Spirit that is in all of us. In that sense, he is our evolutionary elder brother. He demonstrated our destiny. He displayed for all to see the destination of this journey that we are on. The only thing lacking in any situation is our own awareness of love, and Jesus realized and taught that.

Jesus is a personal symbol of the Holy Spirit. Having been totally healed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus became one with him. Every thought, action, and deed of Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit instead of ego. He’s not the only face the Holy Spirit takes on—he is a face. To think about Jesus is to think about and bring forth the perfect love inside us. Jesus actualized the Christ mind, and was then given the power to help the rest of us reach that place within ourselves.

He was sent down by God—as we all are. We are all extensions of the mind of God. We all contain nuggets of glory.[3]

If you have read the Gospels, you know that this is not what Jesus taught. If you’ve read any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, you can’t believe this. Jesus would never say to the Pharisees, who thought they knew God but really didn’t, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus didn’t say the kingdom of God is in us. He said that we must be born again to enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Jesus was that the kingdom of God is right in front of you. It’s here. The king is in your midst. If they only had the eyes of faith to see the truth, they would know that Jesus is the Messiah. He didn’t come the first time to overthrow the Roman Empire, to take political office, to make a lot money. He came to teach people about God, to show that he is the Son of God, the true King, and to save people from their sins, which is their greatest problem.

Our greatest problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money, or enough political power. Our greatest problem isn’t that we feel bad. We feel bad because we are bad. We are all affected by the power of sin, the power of rebellion against God that entered into the world when the first humans turned away from God. Because of this power of sin, we commit sins. We don’t love God as we ought. We don’t obey him. We don’t love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus came to fix that problem, not to make us feel better.

In the rest of the chapter, Jesus turns to his disciples and warns them not to think like the Pharisees. The kingdom of God will come in its fullest in the future, but they won’t see it. Before that time, Jesus will have to suffer. And I think he implies that they will suffer, too. But he encourages them, and us, to follow him. There will be a day when Jesus comes a second time. That time, he won’t come quietly and humbly. He will come in glory and power. He will reign on Earth, but not before he judges everyone who has ever lived. Jesus wants us to be on the right side of that judgment.

Let’s now read the rest of the passage. Here is Luke 17:22–37:

22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

I want to explain what Jesus says here by highlighting four truths. The first truth of his message to his disciples is that they will not see the day when Jesus returns in glory. At least, they won’t see it before they die. These disciples had the privilege of witnessing Jesus teach and perform miracles for two or three years. There will be a time when Jesus will leave them, and he will not return in their lives on Earth. There will be times in their lives when they will long for the days of the Son of Man—that’s a reference to Jesus. They will wish Jesus is with them. They will wish it was already the time when the whole world would know who Jesus really is, when he comes to judge the living and the dead and to establish fully his kingdom. (Theologians say the kingdom is already here, but not fully consummated.) The Old Testament often spoke of “the days are coming” in terms of God’s judgment upon his enemies (Isa. 39:6; Jer. 7:32; 16:14; Amos 4:2). The disciples will long to see that. If you’re a Christian, you surely have days when you want to see that. So many people don’t believe in the true Jesus. They don’t live as if he is their King. We want to see everyone recognize who Jesus is. We want people to turn away from living for themselves, to turn away from their sin, and to turn to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and restoration.

The second promise of Jesus’ message that I want us to see is this: Jesus says that before that time of judgment, before he overthrows all the powers that are hostile to God, he must suffer. Jesus has already predicted his death several times (Luke 9:22, 44; 12:50; 13:22–33). He alludes to it again here. He says he will be rejected by “this generation” and that he will suffer. The Jewish people expected a Messianic king who would conquer, not one who would suffer. They didn’t connect promises of David’s offspring who would reign forever to prophecies about a suffering servant who would die for the sins of his people (Isa. 52:13–53:12).

I think Jesus highlights his upcoming death to indicate that the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness can’t happen without him first dying on the cross. He will die not because he did anything wrong. He is the only person who never sinned. No, he will die to pay the death penalty that all sinners deserve. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Our sin corrupts, distorts, and ruins God’s creation. God, who is a righteous judge, can’t have that. All crime must be punished. But God graciously sent his Son to die in our place. And Jesus volunteered to do that. It was his will just as much as it was the Father’s. Jesus wants his disciples to know that what he is about to do is a key part of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth.

I also think that Jesus is teaching us that before glory comes suffering. That’s certainly true of his ministry. Before he died on the cross, Jesus lived a humble life. His miracles got the attention of many, but he had no money, no political office. At the end of his life he was betrayed, abandoned, rejected, tortured, and killed. He died naked, in shame, nailed to a cross and hung there until he could no longer breathe. In the world’s eyes, that’s not glory. But Jesus rose from the grave, showing that he paid the penalty for sin and that he has power over sin and death. He is now exalted in heaven, and he will return in glory.

Jesus probably wanted his disciples to know that the pattern of suffering now and being raised to glory later is the pattern that Christians will experience. Jesus never promised us we would feel a lot of positive feelings. He did promise great things for those who turn to him in faith: forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, a new family of Christians, a place in God’s kingdom, peace with God. But those benefits are not something we always feel. We must trust that they are true. And Jesus also promised his followers that they would experience persecution and hate. They would suffer. The apostle Paul said the same thing. In Romans 8:16–17, he writes,

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Christians suffer because there are times when the world hates them. So, Christians suffer because of what others do. Christians also suffer because they still live in a world that is stained by sin. All that bad things we experience, such as fighting, diseases, and death, are a result of sin in the world. Christians also suffer because they must wrestle with their own sin. They must put their old patterns of sin to death, and this doesn’t come quickly or easily. It can be painful. Yet Jesus promises, as we see in verse 33, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

The third truth that Jesus teaches in this passage is that his second coming will be obvious, public, universal, and unmistakable. He knows there will be people who claim that Jesus has secretly returned. People will say, “Look here” or “Look there.” Jesus tells us not to bother with people who make those false claims. When Jesus returns, everyone will know. There will be flashes of lightning, which are often associated with an appearance of God (Exod. 19:16; Ps. 77:18; Rev. 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). Somehow, everyone on Earth will know that Jesus has returned. It will be as clear as lightning in the sky.

Some people have taught that there is a secret return of Jesus, a secret “rapture.” I have tried in the past to teach against this is subtle ways, but I won’t do that this morning. Let me be clear. The Bible does not teach that Jesus will come quietly or secretly. Every passage dealing with his return talks about either visual signs or a great noise. Now, the Bible has one passage that teaches a rapture. First Thessalonians 4:17 says that when Jesus returns, Christians will be “caught up” with Christ in the air. But that passage says nothing about what happens next. The most popular end-times theology taught today isn’t what the church has believed for almost two thousand years. It was developed around 1830 by a man named John Nelson Darby, who believed that the church was a failure. Of course, he established his own church, which he believed was the only true church. But he also devised a very fanciful end times theology that teaches things that the Bible really doesn’t teach. We see in this passage that Jesus combines his public glorious return with salvation and judgment and the consummation of his kingdom on Earth. Most passages in the New Testament that talk about his return describe those events as happening at the same time.

And that leads me to something else that is very clear in this passage. The fourth truth is that when Jesus returns, there will be a division among all people. Some will be spared God’s condemnation. They will be saved. Others will be condemned. Jesus gives us two examples from the book of Genesis. In the days of Noah, people were wicked. God sent a flood upon the Earth to judge everyone. The only people who were spared were Noah and his family. Noah was instructed to build a large ship, an ark, to save his family and various species of animals. Now, Noah was prepared for the flood. But everyone outside his family wasn’t. They went on living as if their lives would never end. But when the flooding started, it was too late. Noah and his family were safe on the ark, and everyone else would perish. (See Genesis 6–9 for the story about Noah and the flood.)

The other example is of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and what happened to the city of Sodom. We are told that Lot and daughters were spared a judgment that came upon Sodom for their sexual immorality and their pride (Gen. 19:1–29; Ezek. 16:49; Jude 7). Lot, like Noah, responded to God’s word about a coming judgement. Noah found safety in the ark, while Lot was told to flee the city. Everyone else went on living in the city as if nothing was going to happen. Even Lot’s sons-in-law didn’t believe that judgment would come. But then judgment came, and it was too late for them to repent.

Those two events in Genesis foreshadow a final judgment, when Jesus returns. All who have failed to trust in Jesus will be condemned. Those who don’t believe that he is the Son of God, those who don’t repent, those who don’t live as if he is King, those who don’t trust that he has done everything to make us right with God—those people will face something worse than death. They will experience eternity apart from God and from any scrap of goodness. And that is just, because they didn’t want God in this life.

Jesus says the division of all people will occur within families. He says there will be two people in a bed. One will be taken, the other left behind. In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems that the one taken is taken in judgment, just as the people in Noah’s day were swept away by the flood (see Matt. 24:37–41). Here, it seems that the one taken is brought to safety, and the one left behind is judged. I don’t think the details matter. What matters is that the division will cut right through families. Families in those days all lived in close quarters. The people in bed could be a husband and wife, or a father and his son. Families often worked together. The who women grinding grain at the mill could be a mother and her daughter, or two sisters. Just because one person in a family is a Christian doesn’t mean the others are. Each person must personally trust Jesus to be spared condemnation.

I also think those examples—people sleeping in bed, people at work—show us that we don’t know when Jesus will return. It could be at night or it could be in the day. It could be while we’re sleeping or it could be while we’re working. We don’t know when Jesus will return. The way to be ready is to put your faith in him now, to admit your sins, confess them to God, repent of your sin, and actively follow Jesus. That is the only way to be prepared.

How do we apply the great truths of this passage to our lives? One way is to know that God’s kingdom is already here. Yes, many people don’t live as if God is King. They don’t live as if Jesus is their King. But he is. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are living under his rule and experiencing his blessings. God’s kingdom right now doesn’t always look very impressive. It looks a lot like what you see right now: some very ordinary people gathering to hear God’s word, to sing together, to pray together, to encourage one another and correct each other if necessary. God’s kingdom may look like a married couple faithfully loving each other. It may look like a single person living a quiet life of devotion to his or her true spouse, Jesus. It may be parents teaching their children, or someone at work working hard as if they are working directly for Jesus. It may look like someone quietly and humbly loving other people by doing something kind. It may look like someone having the courage to speak the truth to people who don’t want to hear it but who really need to hear it.

The kingdom of God is here now. It’s not announced with signs and wonders. It doesn’t look impressive. Entering into it may not always feel dramatic. But Jesus and his followers urged people to enter the kingdom. And that is still true today. I urge anyone here who is not truly a Christian to turn to Jesus, to bow before him, to confess all sins, to seek the forgiveness that only he provides. You may not feel like doing this. If you do it, I can’t guarantee what you’ll feel. The only reason to be a Christian is that this message is true. And it takes the eyes of faith to see that. Jesus promises us a return that we haven’t seen. He warns of a coming judgment that many people think will never happen. None of us have seen Jesus in the flesh. But we have his words. We have testimony about him that has been given to us by people who saw him, who knew him. And we believe this testimony comes ultimately from God himself. I encourage anyone who may have doubts about Jesus to learn more about him. Understand what the Bible teaches. If you have doubts, I would love to talk personally with you. I can give you many reasons why this message is true, why it makes sense of all of life. But know that the only reason to believe is because it’s true and it’s right to live for Jesus.

If you went to your doctor and were told you have cancer, and if you believed your doctor, and if you didn’t want to die an early death, you would begin treatment. If you’re here and you believe this message that you have the wound of sin, a wound that we cannot cure, if you believe that Jesus can alone can cure that wound, and if you believe that unless that wound is cured, you will be condemned, you will turn to Jesus now. Do so before it’s too late.

For those of us who have turned to Jesus, I want to point out what Jesus has said here. Don’t believe people who say they know when Jesus is returning. Don’t listen to the end-times madness that is out there. Follow Jesus now and you don’t have to worry about when he comes. What does following Jesus look like? Jesus tells us. He says, “Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” In the story of Lot, when he and his family left Sodom, they were told not to look back. But his wife looked back at the city. She probably wanted to go back. Perhaps she didn’t want to leave her old way of life. Whatever she was thinking, she didn’t trust God’s message. So, she was turned into a pillar of salt. She was made into a statue. She is a warning that when we follow Jesus, we cannot turn back. We must make a commitment to him.

Our old lives can seem very alluring. When we were living for ourselves, we might have had a lot of fun, a lot of pleasure. It’s tempting to go back and do the things that we used to do. It’s tempting to do what other people in the world are doing now. But we can’t. There are certain actions and attitudes that simply are not compatible with Christianity. We are told to flee these things. We must lose our old lives in order to be saved. Those who refuse to do so, those who seek to preserve their old lives, will lose their lives in the end.

This doesn’t mean that there is no joy in following Jesus. There are joys in following him. God has given us many good things that we can experience by living according to his design. Christians can have fun. They can be happy. But we must learn to find our joy in Christ, to make him our greatest treasure. When we do that, we are willing to follow him, no matter what. When we see that Jesus is a greater treasure than anything in the world, we can endure suffering for his sake. When we see that eternity hangs in the balance, that this life is brief, but that where we spend eternity will last forever, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. Whatever suffering we experience now will be brief, but eternity with Jesus will be more pleasurable than anything we can imagine. As David once wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Glory will come to all who enter into God’s kingdom, but not after some measure of suffering.

Jesus’ kingdom is here, right now. Let us live like he is our King. When the King returns in glory, it will be too late to turn to him in faith.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The Pharisees often question Jesus or complain about him, usually to trap in saying something they think will get him in trouble. See Luke 5:21, 30; 6:2, 7; 7:39; 11:38, 45; 13:31; 14:15; 15:2; 16:14; 18:18.
  3. William J. Elliott, A Place at the Table: A Journey to Rediscover the Real Jesus with the Guidance of Various Teachers, from Billy Graham to Deepak Chopra (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 238.

 

Kingdom Come (Luke 17:20-37)

When is the kingdom of God coming? It’s already here (at least in part). Where is the kingdom? Wherever God’s people are. When will Jesus come again, and how? We don’t know when, but when he comes, there will be no missing it. When he comes, there will be a great division between those who have trusted Jesus and those who have not. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 17:20-37 on August 25, 2019.

Giving Him Thanks

This sermon was preached on August 18, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What is most lacking in this country of ours? What does our society need? If you ask ten different people, you will probably get ten different answers. Depending on who you ask, the answers might be love, tolerance, civility, diversity, equality, education, science, faith, peace, or security. I think some of those are good answers. Some of those answers are better than others. But this country would be better off immediately if we had something else: gratitude. We would be better off if more people were truly thankful.

Think about this: how often do we get messages about being thankful? It seems like all the messages that come at us are designed to make us feel anything but grateful. Think about the news stories we hear. They are often about bad things happening. The news makes us feel fearful or outraged. And this is by design. News is a business, and tragic stories sell. We seem to have a whole industry built on grievances, on who is more oppressed. This is true on both sides of the political aisle.

Think about the commercials that we see: they are designed to make us feel that something is lacking in our lives, and if we only had that product, things would be better. A lot of commercials show a common problem that could be solved with a great product. Think about how many detergent commercials you’ve seen where the kids are getting their clothes dirty. The mother is frustrated that the kids aren’t more careful and that she can’t get those grass stains out. I’m sure the father is frustrated that the family has to keep buying clothes. The kids probably don’t care, but they’re not going to buy the detergent, so who cares about them? But now, if you get this detergent, all those frustrations are gone. Grass stains wash out easily. The kids can play outside without care. Moms and dads can relax. Just about every infomercial and “As-Seen-on-TV” product has that formula: it identifies a problem and offers a solution.

A lot of commercials are far more subtle. They don’t identify a problem, but they get you to covet something you don’t have. They show a beautiful car navigating winding roads along the coast as well as crowded streets through concrete canyons. You may have a car that works perfectly well, but in watching those commercials, you’re led to believe that if you only had a new car, your life would be more adventurous and exciting. You may have a phone that works perfectly well, but you see commercials that show the latest technology, and you imagine that your life would somehow be better if your phone’s camera had more megapixels or more storage, or whatever. You have clothes that don’t have holes in them, that look fine, but you see ads on the glossy pages of a magazine or a catalog that show people wearing stylish clothing, and you’re led to think, in subtle ways, “My life would be better if I looked like that.”

Notice that cable news doesn’t make you feel more thankful. Commercials don’t make you feel content. Talk radio doesn’t make you feel more peaceful. Social media doesn’t make you feel grateful for what you have; instead, it tends to make us feel envious or outraged. Imagine what the world would be like if we could turn these messages off and find reasons to be grateful.

Today, we’re going to look at the importance of being thankful. We’re going to consider a passage in the Gospel of Luke that shows how true faith in Jesus results in thanks. We’ll also consider how one of the biggest problems of humanity is not being thankful. And we’ll consider ways that we can thank God more for all the good things he’s given to us.

Today, we’re looking at Luke 17:11–19. I’m going to read the whole passage, explain what’s going on in it, and then think about those issues.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”[1]

Luke has already made it clear that Jesus is bound to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He doesn’t mean that Jesus was going on a straight line from Galilee to Jerusalem, in Judea. He means that the time was approaching for Jesus to go to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. But he does some very important things before he gets there, and Luke saw fit to include this passage.

As Jesus was walking between two regions, Samaria and Galilee, he entered a village. There were ten people there who had a terrible skin condition. This is referred to as leprosy in the Bible, though it’s not exactly the equivalent of what is known as leprosy today. Leprosy could refer to any type of ongoing skin condition. What’s important is that in the eyes of Jewish people, skin conditions made people “unclean.”

To understand what’s going on here, we have to know something about what the Bible says about diseases and being clean. And to understand this, we have to understand something about the nature of sin. Last week, I said that sin was not just a way to describe wrong things we do. It’s a toxic, destructive power that causes to want to do wrong things. Sin is rebellion against God, a turning away from our Creator and turning to value the creation instead. We were made to know, love, and worship God but we have turned away from him. We don’t seek a relationship with him—at least not a right relationship with him. We don’t love him the way we ought to. We don’t worship him all the time. We don’t do what he wants us to do. In other words, we don’t live according to his design. And because of that turning away from God, we have a broken world. When we turn away from the God who ordered and arranged the world, we find disorder and chaos. When we turn away from the God who is love, we find hate and war. When we turn away from the giver of life, we find death. Part of the penalty of sin is a world full of disease and ultimately death.

So, the ultimate reason there are diseases like leprosy in the world is because of sin. That doesn’t mean there’s a direct connection between a person’s sin and an illness they have. It’s not that all people who have diseases have done some particularly awful sin. Some very healthy people are great sinners, and some very godly people have a lot of ailments. So, there’s no one-to-one connection between the amount of sin in a person’s life and their bodily health. But the reason anyone has a disease is because of the presence of sin in the world. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. There’s only person who never did, and that’s Jesus.

Now, in the Old Testament, we find that God calls a people, the Israelites, to himself. He rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and then he gave them his law, which taught them how to live. And when you read through that law, particularly the book of Leviticus, you find a lot of information about skin diseases (Leviticus 13 and 14). Sometimes it’s all a bit baffling to us. But the idea is that in order to be part of God’s people, you had to be clean. Now, on one level, this makes perfect sense. The Israelites didn’t have modern medicine and diseases are contagious. In order to protect the health of the people, those who had diseases had to be removed. They often were placed outside the camp until they became clean, or healthy. So, the idea of keeping the unclean people on the edge of the community made perfect sense.

But the law also addresses issues in a symbolic way. The idea that you get when you read the book of Leviticus is that in order for the Israelites to approach God in worship, they needed to be pure. They needed to be cleansed of their sin. Anything that made the Israelites impure made them unfit to be in the presence of God. And since diseases are ultimately the result of sin, those who were diseased couldn’t be part of the community. They were ostracized. That was a visual picture of the contagious nature of sin. Sin needed to be removed from God’s people. Sin corrupts. Sin has a way of being contagious, spreading throughout one body and on to others.

Because these people had leprosy, they would have been shunned by others. They would have been considered untouchable, for to touch someone with leprosy would make that person unclean. A leper was treated like someone who was less than human. Just listen to these words, found in Leviticus 13:45–46:

45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (See also Num. 5:1–4.)

So, these lepers were outcasts, people who couldn’t live like everyone else. They couldn’t go to the temple to worship. They couldn’t be touched. That’s why they stood at a distance.

Yet these people cry out to Jesus. They call him “Master,” recognizing that he has authority to heal them. They ask for mercy, to be delivered from something terrible even though they are not worthy.

What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t heal them there. He doesn’t touch them. He doesn’t pray. What he does is tell them to go to the priests. This is something the law of the Old Testament required. (See Leviticus 14.) The priests were the ones who would make sure a person had been healed of a skin disease, and the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of that person. After that, the person was ceremonially clean and able to rejoin society. These people who had leprosy apparently left Jesus to go to their priests, and as they did so, they found that they were cleansed. Not only were they healed physically, but they were made clean. The power of sin had been removed. This was a miracle that Jesus performed at a distance. It shows his power: he only has to think the thought to heal people of conditions brought on by sin.

This happened to all ten of these people. Yet only one of them, when he sees that he was healed, goes back to Jesus in awe and wonder and thanksgiving. One man did this. He praised God loudly. He fell down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan.

In the eyes of Jewish people, Samaritans were unclean. They were the distant relatives of the Jews, people who could trace their lineage back to the ancient Israelites. But those Israelites had married Gentiles and had children with them. Therefore, Jews thought of Samaritans as not pure, as half-breeds. They also didn’t worship in Jerusalem. They had their own place of worship in Samaria, and they didn’t accept all of the Old Testament as the word of God. Jews looked down upon Samaritans and tried to avoid them.

We’re probably safe to assume that the other nine people who were cleansed were Jews and, possibly, Samaritans. It is ironic that the Samaritan is the one who recognizes that what Jesus has done is from God. The Jewish people who were healed didn’t stop to praise God. Yes, they probably went to the priests and did as Jesus told them to do. But they didn’t seem to have the same faith that this one Samaritan man had.

That’s why Jesus asks some rhetorical questions. He asks, “Were not ten cleansed?” Yes, of course. “Where are the other nine?” They’re long gone. “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Apparently not. In Jesus’ view, the only one who truly praised God was this one man, the Samaritan. And Jesus commends this man. He tells him that his faith has made him well.

Now, the others who were healed did cry out to Jesus. But apparently they lacked faith. This shows that people will sometimes call upon God when they’re in trouble. People who are sick sometimes ask for prayer, and they often won’t mind if you pray for them. But God isn’t just some cosmic butler who stands waiting at our beck and call when we feel like we need him. He’s not a genie that grants us our wishes. God is King. He is Lord. He is Master. He made us to serve him and worship him and obey him. Yes, he graciously answers prayer. But he should also be praised and thanked. People who truly have faith in God are people who are thankful. The mark of God’s children should be praise and thanksgiving.

We see examples of thanks throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, people who lacked faith grumbled, even after God gave them good things. That’s often the story of the Israelites—many of them were a bunch of stiff-necked ingrates.

But certainly not all. David, the great King of Israel, though certainly not a perfect man, thanked God. When he conquered the city of Jerusalem and made it the center of Israelite’s worship, the ark of the covenant was brought into the city and into the tabernacle. And then David praised God. This is from 1 Chronicles 16:

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!
10  Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
11  Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
12  Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles and the judgments he uttered,
13  O offspring of Israel his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones! (1 Chron. 16:8–13)

35 Say also:
“Save us, O God of our salvation,
and gather and deliver us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
36  Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!”

Then all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the Lord. (1 Chron. 16:35–36)

Before David died and left the kingdom to his son, Solomon, he arranged for materials to be gathered to build the temple in Jerusalem. When people freely gave massive amounts of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, as well as precious stones, he praised God. He said:

Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. 11 Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. 12 Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. 13 And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:10–13)

This is how we should respond to anything that happens in our lives. When we experience any measure of goodness, we should thank God. We can thank God for answered prayers, but also a meal. We can thank God for a new job or a raise or when someone we loved is healed. But we can and should also thank God for a sunrise, for another day to be alive, for clothing and shelter and the bare necessities of life. We should be thankful for all things.

Yet our problem is that we often aren’t thankful. In the book of Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul, he says that the great problem of humanity is our failure to worship God as we ought. And this is true of everyone, whether they are familiar with the Bible or not. He says that everyone stands under God’s wrath because though we are aware of God’s existence, we ignore him. We go our own way. We worship someone or something other than God. There’s one line in Paul’s description of the plight of humanity that stands out. He says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). If one important mark of God’s children is that they’re thankful, one of the most important marks of sinners is that they’re not thankful.

Yet Paul goes on to say that though all have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and have deserved death, God has given an amazing gift to all who have the faith to receive it. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to the world to save people from sin (Matt. 1:21). He is the only one who never sinned, the perfectly righteous man (who also happens to be God). Though he’s the only who has not earned God’s punishment for sin, being cast out of the camp forever, so to speak, he died a sinner’s death, bearing God’s wrath on the cross. All who trust Jesus have had their sins paid for in full, and they are credited with his perfect standing. They are given the priceless gift of eternal life.

Salvation from sin and eternal death is a gift. It is something we have not deserved or earned. We’re not entitled to it. Paul knew this. That’s why he thanks God in the book of Romans for salvation. After describing how we don’t have the power within us to live godly lives, he writes this, in Romans 7:24–25:

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul talks at length about the reality that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the grave. His resurrection demonstrated that his sacrifice for sin was acceptable, that he is the Son of God, and that he has power of sin and death. After boldly stating that death has no victory over Christians, Paul writes, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he often writes about his own personal suffering. Paul forfeited a comfortable place within Jewish society to be Jesus’ messenger, someone who went to others to tell them about what God has done in and through Jesus. Paul often endured rejection, beatings, difficult travels, and imprisonment in order to tell others about Jesus. Yet even in the midst of suffering, Paul was thankful. He wrote this to those Christians in Corinth: “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Paul knew that as more people came to Jesus, it would lead to more thankful people, and this would glorify, or praise, God. Why does God graciously save people from sin? So they would be thankful. But not only that. So that they would praise him. Elsewhere, Paul says that God saves us “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6) and “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12, 14).

God wants us to thank him. He wants our thanks to be a large part of our worship of him. He delivers us from bad things not so that we would have easier lives, but so that we would thank him and praise him. Yet so much of our society pushes us in the other direction. We’re not taught to be thankful. We’re not led to think about all the good things we have. Paul says, in another letter, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Commercials, news, and social media don’t lead us to think about the things we’re thankful for.

Remember, our problem is our lack of gratitude to God. Just the other day, I was listening to a new album by a man named Drew Holcomb. I’m pretty sure he’s a Christian, because his wife, Ellie Holcomb, is a singer who has made explicitly Christian albums. In one of his new songs, he sings:

You want what you can’t have.
Since the Garden of Eden it’s been like that.
You can’t tear down the tree, or pull all the weeds,
Spend your life looking for the greener grass.[2]

Of course, people do spend their whole lives looking for greener grass. But they end up feeling like they’re missing out, like the good things are “over there” somewhere. The pursuit of something better is endless. It causes us not to dwell on all the good things we already have, but to focus on that which we don’t have. It doesn’t lead us to be thankful, but to feel empty. In the very next song on that same album, Drew Holcomb sings,

Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything.
Maybe we’re lost in what we want, not what we need.
Everything is never enough, takes you away from what you love.
Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything.[3]

So, how should we respond to this message? With faith. Jesus can cleanse us of our uncleanness, which comes through sin. Sin taints everything in our lives. We can’t defeat it or root it out of ourselves. Only Jesus can remove our sin. But he does this only for those who turn to him in faith. If you’re not a Christian, cry out to God for mercy. Acknowledge that you have not been thankful. You haven’t wanted God and his glory. You’ve wanted what you can’t have. You have turned away from God and made other things more important in your life. You’ve not lived life on God’s terms. Tell God that you don’t have an excuse, that you’re sorry for your sin, and that you realize that the only way to be acceptable in his eyes is to turn to his Son, Jesus.

If you are a Christian, be thankful. That’s something that Paul tells Christians repeatedly. In the book of Colossians, he tells us to walk in the ways of Jesus, and to be “abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7). He tells us to live as people who love, people who forgive others because we have been forgiven, people who let “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts.” And then he adds, quite simply, “And be thankful” (Col. 3:15). Then, he says, “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” (Col. 3:17). In 1 Thessalonians, he says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–17). God wants us to be thankful.

Here are some things we can thank God for:

Thank God for simply existing. Thank God for the gift of life.

Thank God for your parents and your upbringing. Thank God for the people who gave you life and who helped shape your life. God saw fit to have you be born and raised in a certain time and place. Stop and think about all the good things that came from that, and thank God.

Thank God for whatever natural abilities and gifts you have. If you have a body that’s healthy and strong, thank him for that. If you have a good mind, thank him for that. If you have a mind for music, or the ability to work hard, or the ability to be cheerful even in difficult circumstances, thank God for that.

If you’ve had education, thank God for that. If you can read and write, thank him for that.

If you have clean water, thank God. Not everyone in the world has that. If you have enough food to eat, thank God. Not everyone in the world has access to healthy food, and enough of it.

Thank God for a place to live, clothes to wear, for transportation.

Thank God for medical care.

Thank God even for difficult things in your life. If you look back over your life and consider times that were painful, what we would often call trials, you can see that in those times, God was doing something. He was teaching you something. Perhaps he was orchestrating something in your life and in the lives of others that wouldn’t have happened without that pain. We should be thankful even for trials, even for sufferings. God uses those things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). Perhaps one of the marks of a Christian is thanking God even when things don’t seem to go our way.

Above all, thank God for salvation, for adopting you into his family. Thank him for the gift of eternal life. Thank him now, because that’s what Christians will be doing throughout eternity. The book of Revelation gives us various images of what people will do in heaven and in the new creation, the perfect world that God will create when heaven and Earth become one. We find this image in Revelation 7:9–12:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Notes

  1. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, “You Want What You Can’t Have,” from the 2019 album, Dragons (Magnolia Music).
  3. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, “Maybe,” from the 2019 album, Dragons (Magnolia Music).

 

Giving Him Thanks (Luke 17:11-19)

In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus commends a man who gave thanks for healing him. Our problem is that we’re not thankful to God. What Jesus has done for us is a great reason to thank God. Brian Watson preached this message on August 18, 2019.

Increase Our Faith

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 11, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

I saw an interesting video clip this week.[1] It was of some moments from the national convention held by the Democratic Socialists of America.[2] The video clip was edited to show a few of the more, well, interesting moments of their meeting in Atlanta. At the meeting, a man in attendance raised his hand, was acknowledged by the moderator, and then approached an open microphone to address the crowd. He began, “Uh, guys, first of all, James Jackson, Sacramento, he/him. I just want to say, can we please keep the chatter to a minimum. I’m one of the people who’s very prone to sensory overload. There’s a lot of whispering and chatter going on. It’s making it very difficult for me to focus. . . . Can we please just keep the chatter to a minimum? It’s affecting my ability to focus. Thank you.” Right when James said, “Guys,” a man in a red dress started to get agitated. He got up to the microphone next and said, with no little amount of passion, “Please do not use gendered language to address everyone.” He obviously was offended that the previous speaker would address everyone as a “guy.” The next scene in this clip was once again of James Jackson, who addressed the crowd a second time, with quite a bit of annoyance audible in the tone of his voice. “I have already asked people to be mindful of the chatter of their comrades who are sensitive to sensory overload, and that goes double for the heckling and hissing. It is also triggering to my anxiety. . . . Your need to express yourself is important but your need to express yourself should not trump . . .” That moment got cut off, but he was apparently trying to say that the need for someone people to make noise shouldn’t trump his need not to hear such noises, which were triggering his anxiety.

The next moment in the video clip featured a speaker from the podium, who encouraged people not to clap but to raise their ends and wiggle their fingers. Because, you know, all that noise was triggering the people who have sensory overload. This leader acknowledged that there were many “disabled comrades” at the convention, and that many of these comrades had “invisible” disabilities, which make it hard for them to “navigate” the space they were in. For example, those people given to sensory overload. To accommodate such disabled comrades, this speaker let the audience know that there were quiet rooms available. He also urged people not to go into those spaces with “anything that’s like an aggressive scent.” After all, he said, “we don’t want to put people in stressful situations that they don’t consent to.”

Now, it would be easy to laugh at these people and call them crazy. Yet I think that video clip reflects something very serious in our society. It seems that the worst thing we can imagine is that we would be offended. Apparently, that is one of the worst crimes—to offend someone without their consent. (I’m not sure how you could offend someone consensually, but perhaps that’s what we pay comedians to do.) Heaven forbid that we be offended.

It also seems that the greatest thing that we could achieve is to realize our dreams, whatever those may be. The greatest thing, it seems, is to satisfy our emotions and desires. Another great good is getting everyone else to accommodate our wishes, to have everyone affirm our project of self-actualization. If I have certain desires, you must affirm them as good and right for me to have, and to act upon. If I want to quit my job and leave my family, who are you to tell me that’s wrong? No, you should cheer me on and tell me to follow my dream.

Yet Jesus says things that contradict the idols of our age. He says that the greatest crime is not to be offended, but rather to offend. The greatest crime is to offend God, to rebel against him, to disregard him, to disobey his commands. And the greatest achievement is not to fulfill our dreams and have everyone else cheer us on as we pursue them. No, the greatest thing is to serve the King of kings, God himself.

We’ve been studying the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Today, we see another passage that features the teachings of Jesus. He warns his followers about sin and tempting others to sin. They, realizing that the Christian life is difficult, ask Jesus to increase their faith. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, I’ll do that very thing. I’ll give you more faith.” No, he tells them that even a little faith can do great things. But he warns them that they shouldn’t do great things for themselves, or to manipulate God. They should serve God because it is their duty; it is what God expects of all of us.

Today, we’re going to read Luke 17:1–10. We’ll read it in three parts. I’ll start with the first four verses.

1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”[3]

Here, Jesus warns against tempting others to sin. Why? Because sin a most dangerous, toxic thing. Imagine warning people at a convention not to offend others. Now, amplify that by the order of a million. That’s the danger of sin. Sin is truly the root of all evil. It’s that evil power that’s inside of us, that causes us to do what is wrong. One not-so-orthodox Christian author has called it the “human propensity to f*** things up.”[4] This author writes this about sin: “It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”[5]

Now, you may think, “What’s the big deal? So what? We all screw things up? Who hasn’t?” Well, the reason why this is all a big deal is because the “things” that we foul up are not our own. They are God’s. God is the very center of the universe. He is the goal of the universe. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, and all things are made through him, to him, and for him. So, he has made everything, and therefore everything belongs to him. And that includes human beings. Our propensity to foul things up doesn’t end up in just scratches to cars, cabinets, and computers. We have a tendency to hurt each other. But what is most offensive to God about all of this is that our sin is rebellion against him. We ignore that he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We ignore that everything was made by him and for him. We ignore the fact that he is perfectly good, wise, and powerful. We think we can do without him, at least on our good days. Sin is a failure to acknowledge God as God. It’s an attempt to de-god God, usually to put ourselves on his throne.

Sin is corrosive, toxic, and destructive. It’s like a cancer that metastasizes until the whole organism is diseased and beyond hope. Don’t believe me? Look at the news. See stories of mass shootings and sexual abuse. Look at a divided nation, full of people who spew hate and are selfish. Of course, sin isn’t always spectacular. It often takes the more mundane form of thinking solely of oneself, of breaking promises and failing to live up to our own moral codes. Sin can take the subtle form of a bad thought or an impure desire. We don’t have to look farther than the mirror or our own souls to know that sin is real. G. K. Chesterton wrote, over a century ago, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”[6]

Sin is so serious that Jesus says three important things about it here. One, he says that in this fallen world full of sin, temptations to sin are inevitable. Until the day when Jesus comes to Earth a second time to bring human history as we know it to an end, there will be sin, and there will be temptations to sin. But that doesn’t mean we should just give in and sin with abandon. So, two, Jesus says that those who tempt others to sin are cursed. It would be better to have a millstone, a giant stone used to grind grain, tied to oneself and then be thrown into the sea than to cause others to sin. Jesus refers to Christians as “little ones.” In other Gospels, it seems he says something like this when referring to children, but here it seems he’s referring more broadly to Christians. At any rate, he’s saying there are worse things than death. Leading others to sin is likely to incur condemnation.

The third thing Jesus says about sin is that we should keep an eye on ourselves and also on our brothers and sisters. Not tempting others to sin isn’t enough. We need to avoid sin ourselves and if we see others sinning, we should warn them and even rebuke them. And if they turn from sinning and seek forgiveness, we must forgive them. The true mark of a Christian is repentance—turning away from sin and back to God—and seeking and giving forgiveness when repentance is present.

The seriousness of sin is at the heart of Christianity and it’s at the heart of the Bible. Just read through any section of the Old Testament and that becomes clear. Read any one of the Gospels, and you can see that. This message must have struck the disciples as quite serious, because when they hear it, they ask Jesus for help. Let’s look at the next couple of verses, verses 5 and 6:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

The disciples hear what Jesus has to say about the seriousness of sin, and they must be thinking, “We can’t do this without your help. Increase our faith!” That sounds like a good request. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve prayed something like that in the past. But what’s surprising is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure, I’ll do that. Thanks for asking.” Jesus’ response is something we wouldn’t expect. He doesn’t say that they need more faith. Instead, he says that if they had even a small amount of faith, say, the size of a tiny bit of mustard seed, the kind that might be produced by the grinding of a millstone, they would be able to command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Now, I don’t think anyone would want to plant a tree in the sea, but what’s impressive about that feat is the uprooting of a mulberry tree. The black mulberry tree has a very deep and complex root system, one that allows the tree to live up to six hundred years. So, the idea of uprooting it entirely through a command seems impossible.

The idea of planting it into the sea is strange. I wonder if Jesus has something from the Old Testament in mind. At the end of Micah, there’s a beautiful passage about God’s mercy, grace, and love. This is Micah 7:18–19:

18  Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19  He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.

If we turn from our sin to Jesus and seek forgiveness, he will uproot our sin—which, like that mulberry tree, is something we couldn’t dig up—and cast our seas into the sea. Even a little bit of real faith in Jesus will move our sins into the sea. I don’t think Jesus means that if we have faith, we’ll have all kinds of superpowers. A careful reading of the Bible never leads to that idea. Jesus’ point is not that we’ll be superheroes if we have faith. His point is that God does amazing things with a little faith. And, truly, to be forgiven of sin is an amazing thing. So is avoiding sin and helping others to turn from sin back to God.

Perhaps Jesus anticipated that the disciples might take this bit of teaching the wrong way. They might have thought, “Well, we have more than a little faith, so we must be able to do great things!” And the disciples do great things in time. If you read the book of Acts, you see that some of them performed miracles. But Jesus wants them to know that we don’t do great things to make ourselves great, or to manipulate God to do our bidding, or to put God in our debt. No, we do things for God because it is our duty. We see that in the next few verses, which form a short parable. Let’s read verses 7–10:

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

Jesus is picturing a situation in which there is a master who has a servant, really a slave. In ancient Judaism, Jewish people sometimes sold themselves into slavery when they couldn’t pay a debt. They became indentured servants—servants who were to be treated well and who could be freed in time. Still, they were servants. Jesus asks his disciples to imagine that they are masters. If they have a servant who does outside work, such as plowing and keeping sheep, when that servant comes inside, does the master serve the servant? No. Instead, the servant keeps on serving the master. Jesus asks the disciples, “Does the master thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” No. The servant was doing his job. It’s like what Bill Belichick told the Patriots: “Do your job.”

Jesus then flips the script. He had told the parable from the perspective of the master. But now Jesus tells his disciples that they aren’t masters. No, they are the servants. He says, “When you’ve done your job, don’t look for rewards. Don’t think God owes you anything. No, just humbly tell God, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to get big heads. He doesn’t want Christians to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14, the one who goes to the temple and, while praying, basically brags about all the good works he does. No, Christians have work to do, and they should do their jobs without expecting much in return.

The reason why that is so is because Christians have already been given their reward. If you become a Christian, you have already received so much: forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family, a place in the body of Christ, the great gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within you, and the promise of eternal life. If you’re a Christian, you have already received a priceless gift, a treasure that cannot possibly be valued. But God doesn’t save us so we can sit around doing nothing. He has planned good works for us to do in advance.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that Christians receive a right standing with God as a gift. Salvation—including our faith—is a gift from God. That means that we can’t possibly boast about any of it. We can’t say to God, “Look how much I’ve done. Now you owe me.” We have nothing to boast about. But Paul also says that we have work to do. This is what he writes in Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Many people quote verses 8 and 9 and leave off verse 10. But that’s wrong. We are saved by grace through faith. Yes. We can’t boast about any of that. Absolutely true. We are not saved by good works. We are saved by the work of Jesus. But we are saved for good works. And we should do them humbly, not seeking rewards or applause. We do them for God and for the sake of others, not for ourselves.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, what do we do with it? How do we apply these verses to our lives?

First, we should consider the seriousness of sin. Jesus warned his disciples not to tempt others to sin. And he told them to keep an eye not only on themselves, but also on their brothers and sisters in the faith. What that presupposes is that Christianity is lived out in community. We can only come to Christ alone. My faith won’t save you. Your parents’ faith won’t save you. You must have faith in Jesus. You must repent of your sins. But once you become a Christian, you enter into a new family. You are a member of the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). You’re a living stone that is part of the temple that is the church (1 Pet. 2:5). You’re part of something larger than yourself. You are not alone. You become your brother’s keeper and your sister’s keeper.

If we take this seriously, we realize that we can’t treat Christianity as some kind of product that we buy for ourselves. So many people seem to treat Christianity that way, as if it’s some kind of personal, private thing. So many people treat the church that way. They come and go as they please. They don’t actually join a church. They don’t think about their experience of church through the eyes of other people of the church.

Part of joining a church is realizing that you need accountability. You consent to come under the authority of the leaders of the church, realizing that you are a sheep who needs a shepherd. You’re a Christian who needs an overseer. You’re part of a family and you need an elder. But you also come under the authority of the congregation. They can discipline you. They can correct and rebuke you. But they can also serve you and encourage you and comfort you. And not only that, you realize that the people of the church need all those things from you. You realize that they need your correction. They need your service. They need your encouragement, your love, your presence in their lives. Every local church would be far better off if all Christians realized this. Christianity isn’t just you and your private relationship with Jesus, your personal Savior. Jesus isn’t a personal Savior. He is the world’s only Savior. And he is Lord. He’s also the head of the church, and he wants his people to enter into a real community.

So, if you’re a Christian, officially join a church and start living in community. I would say this: The more you put into church, the more you’ll get out of it. And the more other people will get out of it. If you just show up here for about 70 minutes each week, you’ll get a little. Showing up is important. It’s no small thing to attend regularly. But if you really want to be part of the life of the church, you’ll show up for our other meeting times. You’ll come early for our Bible study. You’ll hang around after the service and talk. You’ll come back Sunday evening, or join us on Wednesday nights for more Bible study and prayer. Or you’ll get together with other Christians during the week. Be part of this church in a meaningful way. If you don’t know how to do that, talk to me.

Joining a church is one thing we can do to apply this passage to our lives. But we should also note the seriousness of sin. Now, if you’re here today and you don’t happen to be a Christian, you may wonder what all of this has to do with you. Well, consider the Christian message. Sin is so toxic, so destructive, that we should do everything we can to avoid it. But that’s not the whole of the Christian message. If I told you just that, you’d think that Christianity is about trying to be good, about avoiding bad things. That might give you the impression that we get into God’s good graces through avoiding sin. But that wouldn’t be an accurate impression of Christianity.

The message of Christianity is that sin is so powerful that we cannot clean ourselves up. We can’t make ourselves good. We can’t heal ourselves of the cancer that is sin. From our perspective, it’s an incurable wound. Yet God can heal that wound. God can take that sin from us and cast it into the sea. And he does that through Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. He’s not just a man. He has always existed as the Son of God, yet over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature to himself. He became a human being. He lived a real life on Earth. He was conceived—though in a miraculous way. He was born. He grew up and learned. He ate and drank and slept. And when he was an adult, he performed miracles to demonstrate who he was and what he came to do. He taught amazing things. He lived a perfect life. Yet though he is the only human being who lived a perfect life, who never fouled things up or had the human propensity do so, he was treated like the worst of criminals. We might say he had a millstone tied around his neck and was tossed into the depths of the sea. But he was tossed into something worse. He was thrown into the heart of darkness that is God’s judgment against sin. He experienced God’s wrath while on the cross. Literally, he experienced hell on Earth. He did that so that all who turn to him in faith could have their sin cast away forever. All who turn from sin and turn in faith to Jesus have their sins removed and receive his righteous standing before God. All of that is a gift. That is what we call grace.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus today. I would love to talk to you personally about what it would look like for you to become a Christian. And if you are a Christian, consider how serious sin is. It is so bad that nothing less than the Son of God had to become a man and die for it. Don’t treat sin lightly. Run from it. Don’t tempt others. And if you see others sinning, help them. Correct them. Don’t be silent. There are several passages in the New Testament that talk about correcting others (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:14–15; James 5:19–20). Yes, you may offend someone if you correct them. But there are worse things than offending someone else. Their offending God is far worse. And the penalty for offending God without repentance is eternal.

Here’s another thing to consider: We don’t need to ask Jesus to increase our faith. Instead, we need to obey. What matters isn’t the strength of our faith. What matters is the object of our faith. You can’t get a more solid, more powerful, more trustworthy and loving and gracious and wise object of faith than Jesus. He will not fail us. Your faith may waver. It may be mixed with doubt and even selfish motives. But Jesus will not fail. If you have even a little bit of real faith, that will lead to obedience. We don’t need to keep saying, “God, increase our faith.” Instead, we need to act on what we know to be true.

Let me put this another way. Instead of waiting for God to increase our feeling of faith before we obey, we need to obey in order to have an increased feeling of faith. If you’re married, you know how fickle emotions can be over the life of a long relationship. If you’re doing marriage well, you don’t wait around saying, “When my feeling of love for my spouse increases, then I’ll treat him or her well.” No, if you want to have a greater feeling of love, you treat your spouse in a loving way. You do something kind for your spouse, something you know your spouse will appreciate. When you do that, the feelings of love will follow.

In a similar way, if we want to have a greater experience of faith, we must obey Jesus. Do what he teaches, whether it’s the commands he gave us directly or the commands that come through the apostles. When you obey Jesus, you will find that your feeling of faith increases. When you do what he says, you will start to see how right his commands are. You will see that what seemed impossible actually turns out for your good and for the good of others. And your faith will increase. If you want a greater experience of the Christian life, don’t keep shopping around for what you think is a better church. Don’t think, “If only my church were better, I’d have more faith.” Don’t wait for God to give you riches or health or a better job or new friends. Don’t sit around and wait for feelings. Follow Jesus. And then you will find your experience of faith will be better.

But when you obey Jesus, don’t start to think that you’re great. Don’t boast. Don’t brag about your good works. And don’t think God owes you, as if you’re entitled to an easy life, a smooth ride without pain and suffering. Being faithful may mean that your life becomes harder. We don’t do good works for our own glory. We do good works for God’s glory, and for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we do good works, we can humbly say, “We are unworthy servants, saved only by God’s grace. We have done our job for the King, for the Master, and that is a reward in itself.”

Notes

  1. You can see the video for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPLQNUVmq3o.
  2. For one take on the convention, see Elliott Kaufman, “Democratic Socialists Sound Like Democrats,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/democratic-socialists-sound-like-democrats-11565214408.
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 24.

 

Increase Our Faith! (Luke 17:1-10)

When Jesus tells his disciples about the seriousness of avoiding sin, they ask him to increase their faith. Jesus says that we don’t need more faith, but even a little faith will enable us to do great things. Yet we should never imagine that when we do great things, God owes us, or we’re entitled to an easy life. We’re simply to do our job. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 17:1-10 on August 11, 2019.

A Great Chasm

This sermon was preached on August 4, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

One of the great questions that people have is, “What happens after I die?” At least, that should be a question that we ask ourselves. Yet many people avoid talk of death and the afterlife, and that’s unfortunate. There was a comedian who was interviewed by Time magazine a few years ago. He was asked why he spoke so often about death in his stand-up acts. He said it’s because we’re all going to die. He made this analogy: it’s like we’re all getting on a bus that’s headed to Pittsburgh. The bus says “Pittsburgh” on the front, but when we get on the bus, no one is talking about Pittsburgh. Then, when someone starts to talk about that city and what they’re going to do there, people get uncomfortable and they ask, “Why are you talking about Pittsburgh.” And you say, “Because that’s where the bus is going. It says it right on the tickets!”[1]

This morning we’re going to talk about Pittsburgh, metaphorically speaking. Actually, we’re going to talk about what is beyond death. We’re going to hear from Jesus about two eternal destinations, what we would call heaven and hell. We’ll do this by considering a story that Jesus told, found in Luke 16. The story is something like a parable. The actual events are somewhat fictitious, like the events in his other parables. But this story teaches some very true things, things that Jesus wanted his original hearers to know, and things that God saw fit to record in the Bible.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. This is one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. At this point in Jesus’ life, he is teaching about the proper use of wealth. God has given us everything to be used wisely, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the sake of God’s kingdom. In this story that we’re looking at today, Luke 16:19–31, we see how a rich man failed to do that.

So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 16:19–31. I’m going to read the whole passage, and then I’m going to go back and make four points about the text, and then some comments about what this has to do with the work of Jesus.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”[2]

As I said earlier, I want to make four points about this passage. The first is that we see two very different men. First, there is a rich man, who isn’t named. We’re told that he wore purple clothing, which might not seem like an important feature, but purple dye was very rare. So were linen undergarments. In short, this man was clothed in very expensive clothing. He also “feasted sumptuously every day.” In the ancient world, this simply wasn’t possible. Most people ate a simple diet. But this man lived it up every day. The second man is Lazarus, a very poor man. This isn’t the Lazarus found in John 11, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is, after all, a fictional character. But perhaps it’s not surprising that they bear the same name. Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God has helped,” or “God is my help.” God helps this Lazarus, but not before he has a miserable life. He was covered with sores, and his lot was so bad that wild dogs came to lick his sores. David Garland, in his commentary on Luke, says, “Dogs [from a Jewish perspective] are regarded as unclean animals and are often mentioned as eating the bodies of the dead (1 Kgs 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23, 24; 22:38).”[3] In a way, this man was left for dead. Lazarus was brought to the gate of the rich man, with the hopes that he could eat some scraps from this man’s table. We’re led to believe that he never got those scraps.

Now, we’re not told a lot about these men other than these bare facts. But from what we see here, the rich man knew who Lazarus was. He even calls him by name. So, he was aware of this man’s plight, and it seems that he repeatedly saw Lazarus lying in terrible condition outside his gate, but he did nothing to help the man. We don’t know anything about Lazarus other than his poverty and terrible physical condition. He never speaks in this story. But he must have been a man of faith, a man who trusted in the God of Israel. The story doesn’t tell us everything about why people go to either one of two destinations in the afterlife; we have to draw some inferences based on our knowledge of the rest of the Bible. For now, it’s important to pay attention to what this story says about these two men.

We see that both men die, but they go to two different places. The poor man dies and is taken to “Abraham’s side.” This is what we would call heaven. There are times in the Old Testament when we’re told that someone who died was “gathered to their fathers” (Gen. 15:15; 47:30; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:10; 1 Kgs. 1:21). Abraham was the forefather of all of Israel, a man of faith, someone who trusted in God’s great promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring. So, Abraham here is a representative of people of faith. But, more than that, in this story he’s also representative of God.

By contrast, when the rich man dies, he goes to Hades. (We’re told that the rich man was buried, but we’re not told that about Lazarus, which suggests that he didn’t have a proper burial because he was so poor.) In the Old Testament, Hades is called Sheol. It’s the realm of the dead. But while in the Old Testament, Sheol is a rather neutral place for all the dead, Hades is known as a place of torment. The rich man says that he is “in anguish in this flame.” We might call this hell.

It’s probably best to think of both places as provisional stations of the afterlife. At the end of the Bible, we’re told that the final destinations of all who live are either the new creation, a renewed and perfected physical world in which God’s people dwell with God forever, or the “lake of fire,” best thought of as a place of torment that exists beyond the world. But the Bible teaches that before the new creation and that final lake of fire, there is an intermediate state. For those who die trusting in Jesus, their spirits are in heaven. We’re not given as much information about those die not trusting in Jesus, but it seems there is some kind of provisional place of torment, Hades. And that’s what is being pictured here. Sometimes, this place is pictured as being one of fire. Other times, it’s a place of darkness and isolation and pain. It’s best to think of it as a removal from anything good, apart from any of God’s blessings.

What’s interesting is that the rich man, though he’s suffering in Hades, does not seem to show any sign of change. Yes, he does say, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.” That’s because he’s suffering. But he never suggests that he was selfish and greedy, that he lived a life of comfort and ease while he ignored the plight of a suffering man who was right outside his gate. In fact, the rich man still treats Lazarus poorly. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him even a drop of water to cool his tongue. He’s treating Lazarus like a lackey, and not like a person made in the image of God. The rich man shows no sign of true remorse, no sign of repentance. He’s trying to control the situation in the afterlife.

As for Lazarus, we’re not told about his devotion to God and his faith in God. But we are given a picture of the rich man’s poor character. Everything seems to be about him. Yes, he later shows concern for his five brothers who are still alive. But earlier in Luke, Jesus said this:

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same (Luke 6:32–33).

The rich man should have realized that Lazarus was his brother. In the Old Testament, fellow Israelites were regarded as “brothers and sisters,” and there were commands to help the poor. Here is just one example, from Deuteronomy 15:

7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:7–8).

And beyond commandments of the law, we find other statements in the Old Testament that show that a failure to help those in need is ultimately an insult to God. Here is Proverbs 14:3:

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

When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus, Abraham responds tenderly, by calling him “child.” But he reminds the rich man that he had a life of ease and failed to help Lazarus, and now he is in anguish. Lazarus had a life of poverty and pain, not to mention the same of being licked by dogs, but now he is comforted. There is a great reversal. This is what Mary sang about in chapter 1:

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:51–53).

It is also what Jesus said would happen: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).

The rich man’s problem is that all this thoughts and cares are about himself. Theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther have noted that this is what sin does. The power of sin curves us in upon ourselves, so that we don’t look to God, who made us to live for his sake, and we don’t truly look to the welfare of others. We are selfish and proud, arrogant and greedy. At this point, I’m reminded of some lines from C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce. It’s an interesting book, one that imagines a busload of condemned people given a chance to visit heaven. They are offered another chance to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in the God of the Bible. But they don’t. The book is a fantasy, not a work of systematic theology, so it’s not the place to go for clear answers on heaven and hell. But like all of Lewis’s writings, it has some powerful insights. At one point, a character says, “a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself.”[4] The unredeemed soul shrinks, curved in on itself, shut up in itself. By contrast, the redeemed soul loves God and loves God’s creatures. At another point in The Great Divorce, it is said, “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”[5]

So, these two different men end up in two very different places, one of torment and one we must assume is a place of rest. The third thing we see is that there is a chasm fixed between these two places, and this chasm cannot be crossed. Abraham says, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” C. S. Lewis imagined the possibility of that chasm being bridged, but the fact is that the Bible is consistent in its teaching: once someone has died, it is too late to repent, too late to turn to God in faith. The book of Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no passage in Scripture that suggests that the citizens of hell want to be in heaven, nor does any passage suggest there is a way to get out of hell into heaven. Upon death, one’s eternal destiny is sealed with an utter finality, and this should be sobering to us.

There are many people who claim to be Christians who think that there is some way for people who haven’t turned to God in this life to be saved in the next. Universalists believe that everyone will be saved. Others believe that, somehow, God will save more people, who will ultimately be won over by God’s great love. Yet there really is nothing in the Bible to suggest that this is possible. In fact, given what we see in the Bible, those who are condemned don’t want God. They don’t want to repent, just like the rich man. They don’t see the error of their ways. The book of Revelation says that even while God is pouring out his righteous wrath against sin, people still refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20–21; 16:9–11). The greatest passage in Lewis’s The Great Divorce captures this reality:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock, it is opened.

The Bible says that God gives people over to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Basically, God says, “You don’t want to live life on my terms? You don’t want to love me and live for me? You don’t really want me in your life? Fine, go your own way.”

Now, the very notion of hell and judgment is off-putting to some people. But I don’t think those people are considering things carefully. Imagine that the world that God created is like one big house. It’s God’s house, and he made the rules. And his rules are good, because God not only created the house, but he designed all of life. Now, there are some people in God’s house who decide to break the rules. This isn’t just an insult to God. It’s also dangerous. It’s harmful to the other people who live in the house. The rule-breakers are messing up God’s house and hurting other people. And the fact is, they don’t even want to be in God’s house. So, at the end of the day, God will say to them, “Get out. You don’t want to be in my house. You don’t want to obey my rules. You don’t truly love me or the people I have made. You must go.” God is right to do such a thing. He’s protective of his creation. And he’s protective of his own glory. We exchange the glory of God for the lesser glory of created things. We don’t worship the Creator. Instead, we make other people or things in this life more important to us. All of this is wrong, and God is perfectly right to kick us out of his house. Yes, there’s anguish and torment outside of God’s house. But the fact is that though people experience that torment, they won’t want to live by God’s rules. It seems like the torment of hell goes on forever because the people there keep sinning forever.

Now, to get back to the story, we see something very interesting at the end. As I said, the rich man shows some concern for his five living brothers. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to warn them to change their ways, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” At least the rich man has some awareness that how he lived led to his current state. But notice that he’s still treating Lazarus like an errand-boy at best. Nevertheless, Abraham, who is representing God in this story, tells the rich man something interesting. He says of the man’s brothers: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” He means that these brothers have the Old Testament, which should be sufficient to warn them against living like their dead brother.

The rich man protests. He says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham knows better. He says, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Think about that for a moment. Imagine that someone you know to have died appears to you, telling you, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll end up like me, condemned and in anguish.” If you’ve seen any of the many iterations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, you know that this is basically what Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge. Imagine how powerful that would be. Of course, this isn’t going to happen. God could make it happen if he wanted; he is the God who made the whole universe out of nothing. He can cause the dead to come back to life. But God knows that sinful hearts are so hard that not even a messenger from the grave would turn people away from sin and back to him.

But what’s stunning is that Jesus says God’s word is sufficient. Abraham tells the rich man that if his brothers will not pay attention to the Old Testament, they wouldn’t listen to a resurrected Lazarus. The Old Testament has plenty of warnings about misusing wealth and treating the poor poorly. The Old Testament has many calls to repent, to turn back to God and seek him with your whole heart. If people won’t listen to that, they won’t pay attention to a miraculous messenger, whether that’s a dead person risen back to life, an angel, or a vision of Jesus himself.

This should tell us a lot about the importance of God’s word. The Bible is enough to tell us everything we need to know about God to be reconciled to him and to live a life that is pleasing to him. Yet many people don’t realize this. At this church, we try to conform our practices to that idea. That’s why we don’t have gimmicks here. Many churches rely on entertainment. They try to make a big splash with events that have nothing to do with Jesus. But here, we make much of the Bible, because we try to make much of God. We spend time reading the Bible and talking about it because we want to hear from God. I preach messages that explain the Bible because I realize that the Bible is God’s word to us. It’s a message from him. Why spend time on cute stories, or funny anecdotes, when they don’t have the power to save us from condemnation? They don’t have the power to transform us. Yet when God’s word is applied by the Holy Spirit to hard hearts, God can change a person. He can warn a person to repent. He can show a person the errors of his or her ways. He can comfort a person with the promise that all who come to Jesus can rest from striving to be their own gods and saviors. God makes wonderful promises in his word that all who come to Jesus in faith can be forgiven of sins, can be adopted into God’s family, and can come back into God’s house. In Jesus, we can come back home, to a place of comfort and rest. We wouldn’t know that apart from the Bible.

Before I close, I want to show how this passage connects to Jesus. In this story, we see the reason why the rich man went to Hades. He didn’t love his fellow man, a man whom he knew by name, who was laid outside his gate in the worst of conditions. The reason he was selfish and didn’t care for Lazarus is because he didn’t truly love God. We may not all be rich, but all of us have been selfish, fixed upon ourselves. We have all failed to love God and other people as we should. This passage doesn’t teach that every rich person is bound for hell. What matters is not how much money we have, yet how we use our money is a reflection of where we stand with God.

In a similar way, it would be wrong to conclude that every poor person goes to heaven. We don’t have any reason to believe that Lazarus went to heaven simply because he suffered in this life. What I mean is, if we read this passage in light of the whole Bible, we shouldn’t come to that conclusion. The Bible makes it clear that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), and that includes both rich and poor. I think that we’re supposed to conclude that Lazarus was like Abraham, the man of faith. If you read about Abraham in the Old Testament, you realize that he was a pagan for much of his life. He probably worshiped false gods, just like his forefathers did. But the true God called him, and Abraham believed in God’s great promises. Abraham wasn’t perfectly obedient. He could be afraid. And his trust in God’s promises wasn’t perfect. His fear was a reflection of some doubt. And yet, in Genesis, we’re told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was not righteous, yet he believed God’s word. As a result, God gave Abraham the gift of righteousness, of a right standing before him.

This is the way that sinful people are reconciled to God. None of us are righteous (Rom. 3:10). All of us have rejected God and rebelled against him. Just think of how often you ignore God. Think of how often we haven’t sought him out. Think of how often we haven’t looked to God for direction in our lives. Many of us don’t wake up every day thinking, “God, how can I obey you today? How can I serve you? How can I bring you honor and praise today?” We often do what we know is the wrong thing to do, or we fail to do what we know is the right thing. God would be just to condemn us all. But the amazing thing is that God loves us so much that he gave us a way to be regarded as righteous in his sight. God didn’t say, “Clean yourselves up and you’ll become acceptable to me.” God knows we could never do that. And God knows that if we did do that, we would become even more proud—“Look what I did!” So, God sent his beloved Son into the world.

Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who every lived a perfect life. He was never selfish and greedy. He always loved God the Father perfectly. He loved people so much he cared for their physical needs and he told them the truth about their condition. He warns us today not to be like the rich man, but to turn to him in faith. If you trust Jesus, if you realize that he is the Son of God, that he is the King of kings, that he alone can make you right in God’s eyes, that he alone is the gate of heaven, then you are credited with his righteousness. You are regarded as being perfect in God’s sight. But God is a perfect judge. He must punish all wrongdoing. He must punish sin. God punishes the sins of his people through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus was treated like a criminal, rejected, mocked, tortured, and crucified, not because he had done anything wrong, but because we have. On the cross, he descended into Hades. He endured the hell of God’s righteous wrath as darkness covered the earth. He did this so all who turn to him in faith have their sins forgiven. Jesus’ sacrificial death paid for all the sins committed by Christians. If you don’t know Jesus, you can turn to him today and be forgiven of all your sins, even the worst things you’ve ever done, not to mention the worst thoughts and desires you’ve ever secretly harbored.

None of us deserve heaven, yet God opened up a way to that place of rest, beauty, and comfort. That way is Jesus. If you haven’t put your life in his hands, do so now. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.

If you do know Jesus, consider what it would look like to show more concern for those who are in anguish in this life. We may not have a dying man lying outside our house, hoping for a few scraps of food. But we are aware of needs throughout the world, and there are ways that we can help the poor, by giving to agencies dedicated to helping them. There are many Christian organizations that help the poor.

But let us not forget that the greatest need everyone has is to be reconciled to God, to have their sins forgiven. We can feed, clothe, and house the poor in this life, but if they don’t know Jesus, then they will be poor, naked, and in a place of anguish for eternity. If we truly love God, we’ll truly care about where others are going to spend eternity. Heaven and hell are real, more real than this life, and we should see that every soul is bound for one place or the other. The chasm between those two places is one that cannot be crossed. Let us tell others to cross over to Jesus in this life while there is still time.

Notes

  1. James Poniewozik, “Louis CK Interview, Part 2: Money and Mortality,” Time, June 23, 2011, http://entertainment.time.com/2011/06/23/louis-ck-interview-part-2-money-and-mortality.
  2. All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 670.
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (originally published in 1946; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 139.
  5. Ibid., 100.

 

A Great Chasm (Luke 16:19-31)

What happens after death? Jesus teaches some important facts about the afterlife in a famous passage, Luke 16:19-31. This passage doesn’t tell us everything about heaven and hell, but it tells us enough to warn us about how we live our days. To understand this passage in light of the whole Bible, listen to this message given by Brian Watson on August 4, 2019.

Divorces and Marries Another

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 28, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Do any of you have one of those page-a-day calendars? You know the kind: each day, there’s a page with today’s date and some kind of fact, an inspirational quote, or a different picture. Each day, you tear off a new page and see something new. I once saw one of these calendars that had a different Bible verse for each day of the year. Each day, you tear off another page and read another Bible verse. On one day, July 3 to be exact, this calendar had the following Scripture passage, quoted from the King James Version: “If you therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” That sounds good. If you worship God, you’ll have everything! But there’s a problem. That verse isn’t quoting God. It’s Luke 4:7, where Satan is tempting Jesus to worship him in the wilderness. Satan lies to Jesus and says, “If you worship me, I’ll give you everything.” Context matters.

While that may be an obvious example of ripping a verse out of context, the fact is that many people do that, though often in more subtle ways. Various people do that with controversial issues. For example, take the issue of immigration and our nation’s southern border. Some people will quote a passage from Leviticus, where God tells the Israelites to love the sojourners and to treat them as natives (Lev. 19:33–34). I guess they mean that we should accept every immigrant who comes to our country. Others may appeal to Nehemiah, in which the wall around Jerusalem is rebuilt, or Ezra, in which the Israelite men were told to “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:11).[1] Their point is that there is nothing wrong with walls and drawing boundaries. People once did this with the issue of slavery: they quoted verses from the Bible against slavery and to support slavery.

The fact that people have used the Bible to support opposing views raises some important questions. Is the Bible really so confused that it teaches contradictory messages? Then it can’t possibly be the word of God. Or perhaps the problem isn’t with the Bible, but with its interpreters. Perhaps the Bible is consistent, but we tend to interpret it wrongly.

At this church, we believe firmly that the Bible is God’s word, and that because God is true and doesn’t lie, and because he doesn’t change, the overall message of the Bible is consistent. However, the Bible is a collection of books written over many centuries. It’s a long book. And it takes a lot of time, effort, and study to understand its message. Taking one verse out of context can actually lead to a misunderstanding of God’s word. If we take one verse out of context, we may walk away thinking we’re understanding God’s will for us when we’re actually siding with the devil. That’s why I take time to explain the Bible, and to explain context. I want to make sure that we understand what God is actually saying to us.

Lately, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke to understand Jesus, the Son of God. And today, we come to a short passage that is a bit hard to understand. If we read one of these verses out of context, we might walk away with a very wrong view of one controversial issue. So, I’m going to give us a whole-Bible context for that one issue.

Today, we’re in Luke 16. Two weeks ago, I preached on the first fifteen verses of the chapter, which seem to belong together. In those verses, Jesus teaches that we should use the resources that God gives to us wisely. Specifically, he teaches that we should use our money for God’s purposes. Luke tells us that when the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders, heard this teaching from Jesus, they ridiculed him because they were secretly “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). They didn’t want to be told that they had to be generous, that all the wealth they had was from God. And Jesus said that God knows their hearts and that what is exalted among men is an abomination to God (Luke 16:15).

Later in this chapter, Jesus will teach a famous parable about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man ignored the plight of Lazarus. When both men die, they end up in different places: Lazarus is with God in heaven and the rich man suffers condemnation in what we could call hell. Here is an example of a man who didn’t use his wealth to honor God, because he trusted in his money and not in God. And Jesus suggests that this wealthy man didn’t understand the Old Testament, what he calls “Moses and the prophets.” If this man knew the Hebrew Bible and believed its message, he would have lived differently.

Between those two passages are the following verses. At first, it’s hard to understand why they’re here. But I think if we read them in context, we see that Jesus is teaching that God’s word is consistent, and that if we take the whole of God’s word together, we should see that what Jesus teaches is consistent with the Old Testament. The Jews of his day should have realized that he was the Christ, the anointed King that the Old Testament promised would come.

Without further ado, let’s read Luke 16:16–18:

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

Let’s break down those three verses. In verse 16, Jesus seems to contrast the period prior to his ministry with what happens in his ministry. The Law and the Prophets are two portions of the Old Testament. The third part of the Old Testament, according to the original arrangement of the books, was known as “the Writings.” Jesus is saying the era of the Old Testament extended to John the Baptist, the one who announced that the Christ was coming. John the Baptist told people to prepare for the coming of the King by turning away from their sins and turning back to God. Since then, Jesus says, the good news, or, “the gospel,” of the kingdom of God is preached. The ESV says “and everyone forces his way into it.” I think the alternate translation, which you can see in the footnote, is right: “everyone is forcefully urged into it.” Obviously, not everyone wants to be part of the God’s kingdom, at least not on God’s terms. But Jesus did tell his disciples to go throughout the world and passionately urge people to turn to the King.

So, it seems that Jesus is contrasting the Old Testament era with the New Testament era. There are some differences, to be sure. The Old Testament prepares the way for Jesus. It looks forward to him, it anticipates his coming, it foreshadows his ministry in many ways. Yet Jesus knows that people might misunderstand what he’s saying. They may think that the old era is entirely different than the new one, as if God has changed his mind. So, in verse 17, he says that it would be easier for all of creation to pass away than for the tiniest part of the Old Testament to become “void,” to be changed or to be thrown away. No, everything in the Old Testament was intentional. Everything had its purpose. The Law, another way of referring to the Old Testament, is all about Jesus in some way or another, and Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17–18). He obeyed the Law perfectly, and all the Law points to what he came to accomplish.

Now, in verse 18, Jesus very suddenly pivots to talk about marriage and divorce. And this is where we really need to pay attention to context. If we read only this one verse, we may think that everyone who has divorced and remarried has sinned and is still living in sin. But, as we’ll see, that’s not true. I think what Jesus is doing is giving us a test case for the consistency of the Bible’s teaching. What the Bible says about marriage and divorce is very consistent, just as what the Bible teaches about money, wealth, and charity is very consistent.

So, let’s take a tour of the Bible’s teaching on marriage. In the very beginning of the Bible, we see that God made men and women to be united in marriage. The first chapter of the Bible says that God made men and women in his image and likeness (see Gen. 1:26–28). Both men and women are meant to reflect God’s glory, to represent him on earth, to serve him by ruling over the world according to his terms, to love him and obey him as perfect children would love and obey a perfect father. There is a suggestion even in the first chapter of the Bible that men and women complement each other. In Genesis 1, we see other complementary pairs: heavens and earth, light and darkness, water and sky, land and sea. In the same way, men and women are meant to go together, to complement each other, to correspond to each other.

In Genesis 2, we see that God created the first man, Adam, and then created a woman, Eve, to complement him. When Adam sees Even, he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). Then, we’re told this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Adam and Eve were made for each other, and they were married in the garden of Eden. Think about this: before there is any form of human government, there is marriage. Before there is technology, there is marriage. And don’t miss the most obvious point: God created marriage. God invented this institution. This is not the product of tradition, or some primitive society. It comes from God. And that’s important to know because there are people who don’t believe marriage is good or necessary. Recently, there was an article in The Atlantic arguing that marriage isn’t necessarily good.[2] The article notes that today in America, about half of people over the age of 18 are married. In 1960, 72 percent of Americans of that age were married. When people do marry, it is often later. Of course, many couples choose not to marry at all. But we should see that marriage is God’s plan, and that it is the basic building block of society. That’s why two of the Ten Commandments deal with marriage and family. The fifth commandment instructs us to honor parents, and the seventh commandment prohibits adultery (Exod. 20: 12, 14).

I’m not going to speak about singleness today, but I feel like I need to interject a footnote here. The Bible doesn’t teach that everyone must be married. The New Testament honors the importance of those who remain single. Single Christians can be even more devoted to God in some ways. But, still, marriage is a good gift. God’s plan for sex and having children is intimately connected with marriage: People should haven’t sex and have children outside of marriage. Of course, any sin can be forgiven by God, but still, God’s plan is that sex should occur within marriage, that raising children should involve man and woman, father and mother, husband and wife.

Marriage is so important that there are other laws in the Old Testament about marriage. To understand the Jewish perspective on divorce and remarriage, however, we should look at just two of those laws. The first one is a bit surprising, but it factored into Jewish understanding of marriage and divorce. Let’s look at Exodus 21:7–11:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

This passage is strange to modern ears, because it talks about slavery and the possibility of a man marrying multiple wives. I can’t get into the issue of slavery today, except to say that the Bible regulated the institution of slavery; the Bible doesn’t command slavery. Slavery was not part of God’s initial plan for humanity. Also, the slavery of the Old Testament was very different from the slavery in America. In Israel, people who were in debt could sell themselves as slaves, slaves were supposed to be treated well, and they could be freed. Obviously, that wasn’t the case in America. And polygamy was also not part of God’s plan: we already saw that one man and one woman were meant to be united in marriage.

So, with that qualification, look at what the passage says about marriage. It says that a female servant, if she is regarded as a wife, is required to have food, clothing, and “marital rights,” which were regarded as “conjugal rights.” If a man would not give his female slave these things, she was not bound to him as a wife. She could be set free, with the understanding that she could marry another man.

While the passage is about a female slave, we shouldn’t write it off. If a female slave who was a wife of a man was to be given food, clothing, and affection, how much more should a free woman or a free man be given these things! Judaism understood that the failure to provide material support and appropriate affection was grounds for divorce.

The other law regarding marriage and divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1–4:

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

This law imagines a scenario in which a man has found something “indecent” in a woman. The Hebrew literally says that a man has found “the nakedness of a thing” in the woman, which is a way of referring to sexual immorality. The law doesn’t command that a man divorce his wife if she has committed adultery, but it says that in the case where a woman has committed some sexual sin and a man divorces her, he should do it in the following way. If she marries another man, and if that man divorces her or dies, she shouldn’t go back to her first husband. I suppose the reason is that she has made a mockery of marriage by committing adultery and having serial husbands, and that is why she is called “defiled.” The important thing to see here is that the Bible acknowledges that there is another ground for divorce: sexual immorality, namely adultery.

By the time of Jesus, many centuries later, there were two different interpretations of this passage. One rabbi, named Shammai, interpreted the passage in the way that I just did. This law only allows divorce in the case of sexual immorality, when someone has violated their marriage vows. Another rabbi, Hillel, read the law to mean that a man could divorce his wife for “any cause.” I think that’s the wrong reading of the passage, but it became the most popular way of reading it.[3] Josephus, a Jewish historian writing at the end of the first century AD, refers to this when he writes, “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more.”[4]

Jesus was asked about these different interpretations of the Deuteronomy 24. We see this in Matthew 19. I’ll read verses 1–9:

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

When the Pharisees come to Jesus, they are asking him to weigh in on the “any cause” reading of Deuteronomy 24. They are saying, more or less, “Who is right? Is Hillel right that we can divorce for any reason whatsoever? Or is Shammai right in saying that Deuteronomy 24 is only about sexual immorality?” Jesus goes back to Genesis, saying that God’s definition of marriage is found there. Notice how Jesus says that “he who created” man and woman, “said” Genesis 2:24. This is another way of seeing that Jesus regarded the Old Testament not as man’s word about God, but God’s word written through man.

Jesus says that man and woman are supposed to be united, and that their union should not be separated. However, he acknowledges that we are sinful, that we have hard hearts. Therefore, he says that divorce is legitimate in the case of sexual immorality. In other words, he says that Shammai was correct.

Now, Jesus is only looking at Deuteronomy 24 here. If he were asked specifically about Exodus 21, he probably would have said that a husband who fails to provide for his wife has failed his marriage vows, and that is another ground for divorce. The apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 7 (see in particular verses 10–16), says that if a Christian is married to a non-Christian, and that non-Christian abandons the Christian, then divorce is allowable. The person who was abandoned may be divorced and there is no reason to believe that person cannot remarry.

So, the Bible very clearly states that divorce is allowed in the cases of sexual immorality and abandonment. The Bible doesn’t command people to get divorced in those cases, but there is a recognition that if one spouse cheats on the other, it is very hard to move forward. The one who is wronged should forgive, and, if possible, should try to reconcile with the unfaithful spouse. But perhaps the unfaithful spouse doesn’t want to be reconciled. Similarly, in today’s society, with our no-fault divorce laws, it is easy for one person to want out of the marriage. If one spouse wants to abandon the other, there’s nothing that the spouse who wants to stay in the marriage can do to change the other’s heart. In these cases, God has allowed divorce. And when a person has divorced, the marriage is terminated, and the person is free to remarry.

The trickier issues of interpretation deal with such things as abuse. Can a wife who is being abused by her husband divorce him? Obviously, this is legal in America. But is this right in the eyes of God? I think there’s a great case to be made that an abusive husband violates his marriage vows, and if he is unrepentant, the wife can legitimately divorce him. Married people shouldn’t be quick to divorce. We should pray for reconciliation. We should forgive when people seek forgiveness. But we cannot change another person’s heart. And I don’t think God intends to trap people in miserable situations that are not of their own making.

If we read the Bible carefully, we see that there is a consistent message about marriage and divorce. If we read only Luke 16:18, we would be led to think that divorce is always wrong, and that remarriage is never allowed. And that is why we must read the Bible as one whole story, and we must not read passages in isolation. God didn’t only give us the Gospel of Luke. He gave us the other 65 books of the Bible, too.

Christians are not members of the old covenant, the one that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Therefore, Christians are not bound by the terms of that covenant. We are not bound by the Law. The law was given to a particular nation in a particular historical time frame. It was given to Israel, which was supposed to be a theocracy, not a democracy. Therefore, we can’t simply translate the Old Testament Law to modern governments, which is why cherry-picking a few verses from the Old Testament and applying them to America is wrong. The Law was given to Israel before the coming of Jesus. Therefore, Christians are not bound to follow all the ceremonial laws regarding sacrifices and proper worship. All those laws foreshadow the only true sacrifice for sin, Jesus, who is not only the Lamb of God, but the true High Priest and the true temple.

However, we should look to the Old Testament for ethical principles. And when we see the principles that undergird the Law, we find that these ethical principles are applied consistently in the New Testament. Making sense of the Law takes work. It takes a thorough knowledge of the Bible. It takes wisdom and knowledge. It takes the hard work of thinking carefully. Most people don’t have that kind of knowledge or wisdom, and a lot of us are very lazy intellectually. We don’t like to think long and hard about complex issues. That’s why people often adopt fundamentalistic attitudes, whether they’re Christians or atheists. There are religious fundamentalists and atheistic fundamentalists. There are right-wing and left-wing fundamentalists, conservative and liberal fundamentalists. What is common to both is a lack of thought and instead of carefully applying principles, they both want a list of right and wrong things. But that’s not what God has given us. He wants us to read the Bible, to think, to pray, and to come together to reason.

When we do these things, we see that divorce and remarriage are not always wrong. Divorce is always the result of sin, but it is not always sinful. And part of the reason why we know this is because God himself was a divorcee. In the Old Testament, God is said to be the husband of Israel (Isa. 54:5). Many theologians believe that God “married” Israel at Mount Sinai, where made a covenant with them, after redeeming them out of slavery in Egypt. But Israel cheated on God by worshiping other gods.

In Jeremiah 3, both the divided kingdoms of Israel (the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Juda) were said to have committed adultery against God. This is Jeremiah 3:6–10:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.”

God wrote Israel a “decree of divorce.” God divorced Israel because she was unfaithful. God did not sin in divorcing Israel. This metaphorical divorce was the result of Israel’s sin. Much of the material I’ve presented in today’s sermon is presented by David Instone-Brewer, who has written two books on the subject of divorce and remarriage in the Bible. He writes this:

Thus the Old Testament prophets describe God as a divorcee, and when you put together all the references, you find a clear and unanimous picture. God had married Israel at Mount Sinai in the wilderness, then brought his bride across the threshold of the Jordan into Palestine. There he gave her food (milk and honey) and wool for clothes, and of course he loved her and was faithful to her. In Palestine, however, Israel was introduced to many other gods and started to worship them, offering them sacrifices of food and ornaments. The prophets described this worship of other gods and spiritual adultery.[5]

That was what happened with Israel, but it’s really our story, too. God made us to have a special relationship with him, marked by faithfulness. And we have gone and worshiped other gods. We’ve made created things more important to us than the Creator. We’ve spent our love, time, energy, and money on many other things and not on God. We’ve cheated on him. And God has every right to divorce us forever, to consign us to condemnation and hell.

But God is amazing. He seeks after unfaithful people. He promised Israel that he would one day remarry faithless people (Isa. 54:6–8; 62:4–5). He did that by sending his Son, Jesus, into the world. Jesus is the only one who never cheated on God. He is the only one who was perfectly faithful, never failing to love, obey, and worship God the Father. And yet Jesus was cut off from the land of the living. He was treated like the worst of criminals, suffering under torture and dying on the cross. He also bore God’s holy, righteous wrath against sin. He did this so that all who trust in Jesus would be forgiven of sin, adopted into God’s family, and brought into the church, the bride of Christ.

Marriage is important because it was designed to reflect the true marriage of God and his people. The apostle Paul says that marriage “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32; see Eph. 5:22–33 for context). For that reason, we shouldn’t take marriage lightly. But marriage between humans isn’t ultimate. The true marriage, the one that will last forever, is between Jesus and Christians. If you aren’t part of that marriage, I urge you to confess your sins to God and put your trust in Jesus. I would love to talk with you more about what that would look like in your life. If you are a Christian, then do marriage on God’s terms. Wives, respect and submit to your husbands. Husbands, love and care for your wives, the way that Jesus loves his church. If you have failed in marriage, know that Jesus stands ready to forgive you. That doesn’t mean we have a license to sin, but it does mean that there is hope for sinners who have failed at marriage. It’s better to fail at human marriage and be part of the true, eternal marriage, than to have a happy marriage now and be divorced from God forever.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Mandy Len Catron, “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse: What If Marriage Is Not the Social Good That So Many Believe and Want It to Be?” The Atlantic, July 2, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/07/case-against-marriage/591973.
  3. For this sermon, I’m drawing heavily on information presented by David Instone-Brewer in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged 4.253, ed. and trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 120.
  5. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 38.

 

Divorces . . . and Marries Another (Luke 16:16-18)

Jesus teaches that the there is a consistent message across the Old and New Testaments, and he uses the issue of divorce and remarriage as a test case. See what the Bible teaches about this issue by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on July 28, 2019.

Shrewdness

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

Several months ago, as I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a meme that a friend of mine, someone I took a couple of seminary classes with, had posted. I’m sure many of us know what a “meme” is, but in case you don’t, a meme is something that is copied and shared. It’s often a picture with a quote or some caption that is funny or pointed. This meme said at the top of the picture: “A LIST OF THINGS THE CHURCH CAN LEARN FROM THE WORLD.” The picture was of a blank piece of paper. The point was that the church can learn nothing from the world. If you’re not familiar with the Bible and Christianese, the “world” is often used to describe the prevailing non-Christian culture, the culture that, as we see it, is opposed to God. So, the meme was saying that Christians can’t learn anything from non-Christians.

But that’s wrong. It’s wrong because even non-Christians know many true and valuable things. Your doctor doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn something from him or her about your health. Your mechanic doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn that something in your car needs fixing. We learn from non-Christian scholars, teachers, authors, friends, and neighbors. And the reason this is so is because of something we call “common grace,” that God gives gifts even to those who don’t seek him and love him.

But the other reason we know that the church can learn from the world is because Jesus says so. We’re going to see that today in a bit of an odd parable found in Luke 16. If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of the four Gospels found in the Bible. Each Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They’re theological biographies. And like different biographies written today, each Gospel has its own themes, its own particular perspectives on Jesus that are developed in unique ways. They all tell the same basic story, emphasizing different points. Of the four Gospels, Luke shares the most of Jesus’ parables, little stories that are designed to teach powerful truths. Luke also gives us a great deal of Jesus’ teaching son money. We’ll see all of that today in Luke 16:1–15.

So, without further ado, let’s look at Luke 16:1–9:

1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.[1]

The story itself, from verses 1–7, is pretty clear, but I’ll explain it a bit. A wealthy man had entrusted his estate to a servant, a manager who was responsible for his business affairs. In fact, the servant could be a slave. Slavery existed in Israel and the Greco-Roman world, and while slavery is never a great thing, it was very different in that ancient world than it was in America prior to the Civil War. Slaves could have professions, they could own property, and they had the ability to earn or buy their freedom. At any rate, this steward or manager was the one who took care of another person’s wealth.

The wealthy man finds out that manager was wasting his possessions. Last week, we looked at Luke 15, which includes the famous parable of the prodigal son. The verb translated here as “wasted” is the same verb used to describe how the prodigal son “squandered” his inheritance (Luke 15:13). We’re not told how this manager wasted his master’s wealth, but we can assume it was done unethically in some manner. What’s important is that the manager is about to lose his possession. The wealthy man tells the manager to turn in the financial records of his estate.

The manager knows he’s in trouble. He claims that he is not strong enough to dig. Perhaps he’s older, or perhaps he’s been so accustomed to non-physical labor that he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. And, as opposed to the Temptations and the Rolling Stones, he is too proud to beg. So, how is he going to make money? How will he survive?

The manager then has a light-bulb moment. “Aha,” he thinks, “I know what I can do to get a new position. I’ll tell the people who owe my master that they owe him less, and that way, they’ll be grateful to me and they’ll take care of me. They’ll ‘receive me into their houses.’” So, he meets with the people who owe his master.

We’re told about two representative people who owed the master olive oil and wheat. The wealthy man probably loaned them money in exchange for future goods. The person who owed the master olive oil owed him one hundred baths, or approximately 900 gallons. That’s a lot of oil. In that economy, that could be about three years’ worth of wages. It’s a significant sum. The manager asks this person how much they owed the master. He already had the financial records, so he knew, but he wants to make sure the debtor knows what the manager is doing. So, he asks, and when told the amount, he says, “Let’s change the figure. Now you owe fifty measures,” which would have been about 450 gallons of oil, a fifty percent savings. He does something similar with the person who owed the master wheat. This person owed one hundred measures, or cors, of wheat. One cor was equivalent to 10–12 bushels. One hundred measures could have been worth anywhere between one to ten years’ worth of wages. Again, it’s a large sum. This time, the manager only knocks the debt down twenty percent.

It’s debated what this manager is actually doing. Is he cheating his master? If these people owed the master a certain sum and he’s cooking the books so that they pay the master less, he’s doing the master a disservice. Of course, he’s doing that to curry favor from these debtors. If that’s the case, he’s been very dishonest, robbing money from one rich man to get into the good graces of others. But some commentators think that perhaps he’s helping his master while also helping himself. Perhaps the people owed the master what they thought they owed, but the manager is trying to make the master look gracious, forgiving part of the loan. Others think that the master had loaned money to these debtors at interest, which was against Jewish law (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35–37; Deut. 15:7–8, 23:19–20). In this case, the master had acted wrongly, and the servant was righting this wrong while also making himself look good. Finally, some other commentators believe that the manager had originally added a commission to what the debtors actually owed the master. The first debtor actually owed fifty measures of oil to the master, but he didn’t know that. The manager told him he owed one hundred, and he was planning to pocket the difference. Now, he erases his own commission so that he could have a financial security in the future.

It seems like the most likely scenario is that the manager is cheating the master, though that last option is possible. Perhaps he was adding to the figures of what people owed in order to make himself rich. Perhaps that’s part of why he was getting fired in the first place. At any rate, this manager is shrewd. He knows that if he doesn’t do something clever, he’s going to be out of luck in the future. So, he takes the opportunity to do something to secure himself a better future.

So, in verse 8, we’re told, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” This is another part of the parable that’s debated. Is the master the wealthy man of the parable? If so, and depending on what the manager was actually doing, he finds out about what has happened, and he commends the manager for his cleverness. But “the master” might refer to Jesus. The Greek word translated as “master” is usually translated as “Lord” and it usually refers to Jesus, the true Master and King. So, perhaps here Jesus is commending the manager of the story. In either event, Jesus does commend the manager, because he says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”

Now, if the manager was being dishonest, cheating the master out of the money he was owed, Jesus is not commending the man’s dishonesty. Jesus does not say that the ends justify the means, so do whatever you can to improve your life. The Bible does not teach us to be dishonest and underhanded in any kind of way. God does not want us to cheat and lie and steal to survive. There may be very exceptional cases in which telling a lie is better than telling the truth, like if you were living in Europe eighty years ago and Nazis come to your door to ask you if you’re harboring any Jews. But most of us won’t ever be in those situations. This manager wasn’t. So, Jesus is not commending the manager’s dishonesty. But he is commending his cleverness. The man was in trouble and he took the opportunity that he had to provide for his future.

Jesus says that “the sons of this world” are better at doing this thing than the “sons of light” are. As I said earlier, “the world” when used in the Bible often refers to humanity apart from God. The truth is that there is a great chasm that separates people from God. That’s how we all start out in life, as sons and daughters of the “world,” the fallen, sinful realm of humans who are rebels against God. Ever since the first humans walked the earth, people have rejected God. God made us to love him and live life on his terms, to have good lives full of responsibility and authority but also service to God. He made us to come under his authority, to obey him and his commands because he is good, because he designed life to function in a certain way, and he knows better than we do. Yet we don’t trust that God is good. We don’t seek after him. We don’t love him the way we should. We ignore him at best; at worst, we know what he wants of us and we knowingly disobey his commands. We don’t start out as children of God, children of the kingdom of light and life.

But there are people who become “sons [and daughters] of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5). God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only true Son, who has always existed with God the Father in the realm of light. He left that heavenly world of light to enter into a dark, fallen world. When the Son of God became a human being, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. And he alone lived a perfect life. He alone loved his heavenly Father as we should. He alone always worshiped God, always obeyed God, always loved other people. He wasn’t greedy, scheming, lying, selfish, or any of the other qualities that we often find in ourselves. And though he lived a perfect life, he was rejected, treated like the worst of criminals, and put to death. This wasn’t just because people are evil. Ultimately, it was God’s plan. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live so that all who come to him and trust him as God and King, as Savior, can be credited with that perfect life. When God looks at Christians, it’s as if he’s looking at Christ, regarding Jesus’ perfection instead of our mess. And Jesus came to die to bear God’s wrath. He came to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sins. If we come to trust Jesus, to put our faith in him and have a right relationship with him marked by love and obedience, then we have already had our rebellion against God forgiven. We’ve been transferred from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Col. 1:13–14).

Yet Jesus says that the children of light can learn from the children of the world. People who aren’t Christians often work harder to provide for themselves a decent future in this life. Non-Christians hustle. They use whatever opportunities they have, whatever gifts God has given to them, to secure a future that ultimately won’t last. I can think of lots of examples. There are all kinds of people who hustle online to make money. I just read a story about an 18-year-old young woman who already has eight million subscribers on YouTube. She has millions of followers on Instagram, she has a podcast that his hugely popular, and she’s making perhaps as much as two million dollars a year.[2] I watched parts of a couple of her YouTube videos and couldn’t figure out why she’s popular. But apparently people with little talent and a bit of personality can be millionaires online by hustling. She’s out there selling her product, working hard to build an audience.

We can think of many people who exploit whatever talent and resources they have to make money, so they can achieve fame and fortune in this life. And they often outwork us. I saw a video of Tom Brady running a 40 yard-dash this week. He’s never been fast, but the story was that he ran the 40 faster this year than he ran in 2000, when he was drafted by the Patriots. Not many 42 year-olds can outrun their 22-year-old selves, but Brady is still working hard, even after six Super Bowl rings. He’s working for fame and fortune that won’t last.

But what about Christians? What are we doing? We have a future that is eternal. Jesus promises us true, eternal riches. Jesus promises us the only notoriety that really matters, having a good name in God’s eyes. And yet Christians often don’t work hard. We aren’t as clever as non-Christians in leveraging what God has given to us to help the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us we should work for things that last. And we should use our financial resources to help build up God’s kingdom.

That’s why Jesus says, in verse 9, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” It’s a bit of an odd saying, for several reasons. Is Jesus telling us to buy friends? Why is wealth called “unrighteous”? Can we really use money to buy a home in “eternal dwellings,” in heaven?

Jesus isn’t saying that we can buy friends. But he is telling us to use our money wisely. The reason why wealth here is called “unrighteous” is not because money or possessions are inherently evil. The Bible does not say the money or wealth is a root of all evil. It actually says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). When we put our trust in money, it’s wrong. We often trust money because we’re led to believe that money can provide us with security and comfort. That’s even reflected in the word translated as “wealth.” If you are familiar with the old King James Version, you might know the word “mammon.” This is an Aramaic word. It’s probably related to a Hebrew word that means “to trust.” In other words, what’s unrighteous is putting so much trust in money. Because money will fail us. Money can’t buy us everything. It can extend our lives a little bit, but it can’t buy off the Grim Reaper. Money can’t erase our sins. It can’t forgive us and bring us into the kingdom of light.

And it can’t really buy us friends. But—and this is really important—we can use our money, as well as our time, our energy, and whatever resources we have, to help others. We can use what God has given to us to care for other people, to help comfort them and to help ease their suffering. And if we really care about comforting others and helping them avoid suffering, if we really love them, and if we really love bringing glory to God, we will use whatever resources we have to tell people the good news about Jesus. We will tell them there is a way to be reconciled to God, to have forgiveness of all that we’ve done wrong, to be adopted into God’s family, and to live in God’s kingdom of love, light, and life forever.

There are many ways that we can help advance the gospel. Telling others personally is the best way. But we can use our money to support the church, to support missionaries, to buy Christian books and Bibles for friends, to support translation of the Bible into languages that don’t yet have a Bible translation. We can use our time to tell people about Jesus, to offer to read the Bible with them. We can use our online platforms to tell people about God and invite them to church. I have asked people to like and share the church’s Facebook posts and only a handful of us have ever done that. Are we really using what God has given us to advance the gospel? The world outhustles us. They are more clever at using every opportunity to sell a product, to turn the conversation to something that is infinitely of less value than the message of Christianity.

I’m reminded of another example of how the world uses every opportunity to advance their goals. Years ago, I used to watch more television than I do now. Usually, I tuned into late-night talk shows. I remember watching an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was interviewing Jim Belushi, the younger brother of John Belushi. John Belushi was the one who was on Saturday Night Live, the one who starred in the movies Animal House and The Blues Brothers. John Belushi also died at the age of 33, due to a drug overdose. Jim, John’s brother, appeared in several movies and, at the time of this interview, was on his own sitcom, According to Jim. At one point in the interview, Conan O’Brien asked Jim about his friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently became governor of California. Jim and Arnold appeared in a movie together called Red Heat. Jim said he learned a lot from Arnold, including marketing. Conan was curious about this. He learned marketing from Arnold Schwarzenegger? Jim said Arnold was great at marketing movies and he taught him how to turn every question into an opportunity to sell his movie. Arnold asked Jim what question he hated the most when he was being interviewed. Jim said interviewers would often ask him if he missed his brother John. So, Arnold says, “Ask me that question and I’ll show you how to answer.” So, Jim, acting as a reporter, says, “Do you miss your brother John?” And Arnold, acting as Jim, says, “Yes, of course I miss my brother . . . but not as much as he’s going to miss my new movie, Red Heat.”[3] We Christians could learn from the world how to turn our conversations into gospel conversations. Remember what the apostle Peter says about why God makes Christians his people: “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” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Jesus’ point is that we should use what we have in this life to make sure that other people can join us in the next life. And we should use our money that way. The things that we pour our money into won’t last. Our houses, our clothes, our gadgets, the experiences that we get from vacations and going out to eat won’t last. It’s not wrong to have those things, but we should consider putting less into those things and more into supporting the church, supporting evangelism and discipleship and Bible translation and anything that helps people understand God better. If we do that, perhaps we’ll be greeted in heaven by people who will say, “Thank you for helping me get here.”

Jesus goes on to say that if we’re faithful with how we use even the little things that God has given to us, he will entrust more to us. And he warns us that our loyalties cannot be divided between our love of money and our love for God. Let’s read verses 10–13:

10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

We may wish that we would have more money, or a better job, or something else along those lines. But we should ask ourselves, “Am I faithfully using what God has already given to me to serve him?” If we’re not being faithful with a little, why would God give us more? If we’re not faithfully using whatever God has given to us, why would he give us eternal responsibilities in the new creation, in which we rule and reign with him forever? All that we have is a gift from God. Our talents, our abilities, and, yes, our money are entrusted to us by God. God has given us all of those things to manage for him. Are we going to waste these gifts or will we use them shrewdly?

What often keeps us from using our money for God’s glory is our love of money and the love of all that money gives us. Because we believe money will give us comfort, we spend it on entertainment and pleasures. Because we think money will bring us security, we surround ourselves with possessions and things we think will make us feel safer and more secure. Where we spend our money reveals where we have placed our treasure. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t treasure God and treasure our stuff. We can’t serve God and serve money. Which will you put your trust in?

When Jesus was teaching these things, he was still in front of not only his followers, but also the religious leaders of his day. When they heard what Jesus said, they didn’t follow his advice. Instead, they made fun of him because they loved money more than God. Take a look at verses 14 and 15:

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

I’ll probably read these verses again next time I preach. But I read them now because I want you to see how not to respond to Jesus’ message. It would be easy to dismiss what Jesus says here. It would be easy to say, “I’ll spend my money, my time, and my energy how I want, thank you very much.” But if we do that, we’re just showing what we truly love, what we truly trust and obey. The Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders, loved money more than God, so they rejected Jesus. The tried to justify themselves, to make themselves right, in the eyes of other people. They didn’t care what matters most, which is being right in God’s sight. They exalted themselves, and their pride and greed were an “abomination” in the sight of God.

The children of the world exalt themselves. And this is where they aren’t so clever. All the social media stars and so many of the rich and famous are trying to make themselves great. I suppose a few are Christians and use their platforms to honor God. But most are in it to make themselves great. And this is foolish. Their fame and money won’t endure. It will last for a short time, and it will then be gone. They will have to stand before God in judgment and given an account for their lives. And I’m sure God will ask why they didn’t use what he had given to them to honor him.

Today, I urge us all to think about eternity. Everything you have is from God. How will you use it for things that matter for eternity? How will you glorify God with your money? How will you help others know God with the way you use your money? How can you use what you have to make room for friends, for brothers and sisters, in the eternal dwellings?

Imagine what it will be like to go to heaven and to live in the new creation with God forever. We won’t just see Jesus face-to-face. We will also see a multitude of other children of light, people who have been redeemed. And if we are faithful with what God has given to us, imagine the reception we will have from others who might say something like this: “Thank you for giving to that church, who helped me come to know Jesus. Thank you for helping support missionaries. That missionary that your church supported told me about Jesus. Thank you for taking time to share the gospel with me. I know you thought I would never come to faith, but I did many years later. Thank you for giving to that ministry that translates the Bible; because you gave, I could finally read God’s word in my own language.” Friends, if you’re not a Christian, turn to Jesus now. Everything else will fail you. Christian friends, use your money and everything else you have so that others can know Jesus, too.

As Charles Studd wrote:

Only one life ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.[4]

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Taylor Lorenz, “Emma Chamberlain Is the Most Important YouTuber Today,” The Atlantic, July 3, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/07/emma-chamberlain-and-rise-relatable-influencer/593230.
  3. The interview can be seen here: https://youtu.be/BnLYwe_qZR8. I changed the wording of the dialogue to make the point clearer—and funnier.
  4. Studd’s poem can be found at http://cavaliersonly.com/poetry_by_christian_poets_of_the_past/only_one_life_twill_soon_be_past_-_poem_by_ct_studd.

 

Shrewdness (Luke 16:1-15)

Jesus says that Christians can learn something from the world: we can learn to be more shrewd with what God has given to us. We should use our money (and everything else) to honor God, to love others, and to point other people to Christ, so that they would enter his kingdom. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 16:1-15 on July 14, 2019.

He Was Lost, and Is Found

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

Throughout the history of religion, there have been two topics that have been disputed: who God is and how we should respond to him. In fact, if you study different religions, you will see that while religions teach similar things about ethics, they say very different things about what God is like and how we can have a right relationship with him. And throughout the history of Christianity, most heresies, or wrong teachings, have involved who God is and how we can be reconciled to him.

Today, we’re going to look at a story that gives us a glimpse of God’s character and how we should respond to him rightly. This story will also give us a picture of two wrong and very common ways to respond to God.

One of the things I do here is talk a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I teach the message of Christianity so that we understand it and can tell it to others. I encourage us all to share this news with others. And I encourage us all to live in light of the gospel. So, what I’m preaching here today isn’t going to be very new to you, unless you’re very new to church and to the Bible. But what matters most is not whether I teach something new, but whether I teach something that is true. And the fact is that whether you’re someone who is not yet a Christian, or you’re the most seasoned saint, we all need to hear the gospel, time and again, to learn it, remember it, and press it deeply into our minds and down into our hearts so that it affects the way we live. As Tim Keller has written, “The gospel is . . . not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life.”[1] The gospel isn’t something we learn once and then leave behind for more important things. The gospel is the main event, not the undercard. It’s the headliner, not the opening act.

To experience the gospel once again, today we’re going to look at Luke 15. As we do that, we’re going to see a few important things. We’re going to see that there are two wrong ways to respond to God. We’re going to see that there is a right way to respond to God. We’ll see the heart of God. And we’ll see Jesus, his mission, and our mission.

Let’s begin by reading the first two verses of Luke 15:

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”[2]

It’s important to see that Jesus is speaking to two groups of people here. The first group are the tax collectors and “sinners.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were Jews who collected taxes for the Roman Empire. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. Tax collectors also had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should (Luke 3:13). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.” In the Pharisees’ view, “sinners” were people who didn’t keep their standards of purity—standards added to God’s commandments. “Sinners” could also refer to people who rather obviously broke God’s commandments.

But these people came to hear Jesus. Jesus had a message that attracted people who had made a shipwreck of their lives. He gave them hope, and they wanted to hear more.

The other group of people Jesus is talking to are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, or the scribes. They represent the religious leaders of Judaism. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with these religious leaders. Jesus says they’re greedy hypocrites who care only about appearing religious while in reality their hearts are corrupt (Luke 11:37–52). They try to justify themselves before God by appealing to all their religious works (Luke 18:9–14). They adhere to the letter of the law while missing the heart of God’s commandments, which is simply to love God and to love other people.

We’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling. That’s a loaded word in the Bible. It’s used of the Israelites when they complained about Moses after they were delivered out of slavery in Egypt.[3] So, Luke is showing that these people are aligned with those faithless, disobedient Israelites. They complained that Jesus hung out with “sinners” (Luke 5:30–32), and they were out to get him (Luke 11:53–54).

All of this is very important to understanding what Jesus teaches in this chapter. Jesus then tells this audience a parable. Notice that chapter 15 is one parable in three parts. I’m going to spend most of my time on the third part, but let’s first read verses 3–10:

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I think the point of these stories is clear: “sinners” are worth seeking. In both stories, something precious is lost, someone goes searching for what was lost, and when the lost is found, there is great rejoicing. Jesus says that’s the way it is when sinners, people who were separated from God, are found by God, when they turn away from their sin and turn back to God.

It seems like Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they should be searching for the lost, not grumbling when they come to God.

Then Jesus tells what is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The parable might better be called, “The Parable of a Father and His Two Sons,” though that isn’t as catchy. But this parable is as much about the older son as it is the younger son. First, we’ll see what happens with the younger son. Let’s look at verses 11–16:

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

The younger son approaches his father and asks for his inheritance now. That’s shocking. What would you be doing if you asked your parents for your inheritance now? You’d be saying that you wished they were dead so you could take their money. He doesn’t want his father; he wants his father’s stuff. Amazingly, the father obliges. In Jewish law, the eldest son inherited a “double portion,” twice as much as the other sons. In this case, the younger son would have inherited one-third of all the father’s possessions.[4] The father gives this to the son, who then leaves for “a far country.” There, the son engages in “reckless living.” He lives it up and he squanders everything that his father has given him.

In this parable, the father obviously represents the Father, God. And the attitude this younger son has is one wrong response to God. We might call this licentiousness or law-breaking. If you want to know the story of the Bible and the story of humanity in a nutshell, you can find it in this story. God is a perfect Father who created the world and all that is in it. He made us in his image, to reflect his glory and to serve him, and he made us after his likeness, which he means he made us to be his children, to love him and obey him the way children should love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, people have said to God, “We don’t want a relationship with you. We want your stuff. Go away. We’ll call you if we need anything else.” The first humans didn’t trust that God was good, they wanted something other than what God had given them, and they were banished to a far country where they found famine and death. And that’s our story, too. We live in his world, we enjoy his blessings, but we don’t really want him. The heart of sin isn’t just breaking God’s commandments. The heart of sin is a rupture in our relationship with God. So, we, too, find ourselves in a distant country. We’re exiles. That’s why we often don’t feel at home in this world.

Now, back to the parable: When the son has spent everything, a famine occurs. He has no one to turn to. There’s no family around. So, he becomes a hired hand, working for a Gentile, feeding pigs. Things were so bad for him, he wished he could eat the pigs’ food. Pigs were unclean animals (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8). He was unclean, lower than the pigs. This would indicate to a Jewish audience that this son could go no lower. He had reached bottom.

But then comes a change. We see this beginning in verse 17:

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

The son comes to his senses! Before, he wasn’t thinking rightly. He decided he could have a better life apart from his family. But once he hit bottom, he woke up to the truth. So, he prepares a little speech. He will tell his father that he sinned “against heaven”—this is another way of saying he sinned against God. And he sinned against his father. He realizes that because of this, he is not worthy to be called a son. He asks merely to be a hired hand.

This is the right response to God. We must realize that because of our sin, we are not worthy to be called God’s children. We must confess our sin and turn back to God, appealing only to his grace. This is what repentance looks like: coming to our senses. We had once exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and our thinking was futile (Rom. 1:18–25). But when we come to see who God is and who we are, we come to our senses and turn back to God.

When we turn to God, he welcomes us back home. In this story, we already saw that the father let the son go his way. Now we see him welcome his son back home. This represents the loving character of God. I’ll read verses 20–24:

20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

The prodigal son returns home, and as he approaches, his father sees him. The father is filled with compassion and he can’t wait to be with his son, so he runs. He doesn’t care about how he looks or what anyone might think about him. The father embraces the son; he doesn’t wait for an apology or a confession. But the son does confess, repeating much of the speech he recited earlier.

Yet the father doesn’t say, “You’re right: you’ve sinned!” There is no penalty. There is only acceptance. The father asks his servants to put his best robe, a ring, and sandals on the son. These things illustrate that the son is received back into the family. His relationship with his father is restored. And this is celebrated. The father calls for a feast to be prepared. This would have been a very rare occasion, because a fattened calf was expensive. The whole village was probably invited to this feast. Why does the father celebrate? “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

When sinners turn from their sin and put their faith in Jesus, they become spiritually alive. We once were dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1), but now have been made alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5). We once were lost, but now we’re found. This is a great reason to celebrate.

The idea of a feast is fitting, because eternity with God is sometimes described as a feast. One day, Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all who have put their trust in Jesus will live with God forever in a new world, a world in which all evil is removed. The idea of a feast is far more than just eating a lot of good food. It’s being welcomed into God’s home, joining him at his table. It’s communing with God, sharing in his abundance. In fact, the Bible even says that when this great feast is served, it will never end. It won’t end because when the feast is served, death itself will be removed (Isa. 25:6–9).

Now, if we stopped here, it would be a nice story, but we would miss one of the major points of this parable. So, we must see how the elder son reacts. The elder brother shows us another false response to God. One way to reject God is to be like the younger brother, to break all the rules, to seek meaning in life through entertainment and pleasure, to squander everything in “reckless living.” But there’s another way to reject God, and this may come a little closer to home. Let’s look at verses 25–32:

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

When the older son hears that his brother his home, he doesn’t come running. Instead, he gets angry and he refuses to join the feast. Why is the brother angry? It’s possible that he thought he might lose part of his inheritance. Before, he was to receive two-thirds of his father’s estate. But his younger brother is now restored. That suggests that the younger son might get a third of the current estate. If that’s true, then the older brother just lost a third of his inheritance.

But perhaps the brother is simply jealous of his brother. Look at how he talks to his father. He says, “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. But you’ve never celebrated that. You’ve never even given me a little goat.” It looks like he resents the attention his brother is getting. He calls his brother “this son of your yours,” and he says his brother wasted money on prostitutes. How did he know that? Was he speculating, or did he hear it through the grapevine? At any rate, he’s angry and resentful.

Perhaps the older brother thinks his father is playing favorites. At any rate, this doesn’t appear fair to him. Sometimes, people don’t think the gospel is fair, but they don’t understand that it would be fair for God to condemn all of us for our sin. But he doesn’t. That’s mercy. Sometimes, people don’t understand the point of grace: no one deserves salvation. That’s why it’s grace—it’s a gift.

Now, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the younger brother represents the tax collectors and the sinners, and the older brother represents the Pharisees and the scribes. The first group of people had sinned, but they were coming to Jesus. They were coming home. The second group was grumbling, like the older brother. You see, there is a very religious way to reject God. We might call this legalism. You can try to earn God’s favor. You can try to obey all the rules. You may even think God owes you something for all your work. But if you are merely trying to earn something from God, you don’t really want God. You don’t really love him. But God doesn’t just want our obedience. He wants our hearts. He wants a relationship with us. This older brother looks like he didn’t care about his relationship with his father. By not coming to the feast, he was dishonoring his father. He was so consumed with working to earn his inheritance that he rejects his father and his brother.

If we fail to see that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we will become like the older brother. If we believe we are Christians because we’re good people, because we’re moral, we may be in greater danger than the “sinners” around us. Christianity is not moralism. Christianity doesn’t say, “If you’re good enough, you can get to God.” That’s what a lot of other religions say. Christianity say something more shocking. It says “You’ll never be good enough to earn God’s favor. Your best deeds are polluted by selfish motives and your sin (Isa. 64:6). In fact, you’re so bad that God had to become man and die in your place.” But that’s the great thing: Jesus did that for us. The Father loves us so much he would send his Son, and the Son loves us so much that he would leave his home and go to a distant country to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).

That’s brings me to Jesus. Of course, Jesus is telling this story. But the story hints at what Jesus himself does. You see, the first two parts of this story were about someone finding something precious. A shepherd goes to find a lost sheep. A woman searches for a lost coin. You would expect that in the third story, someone goes to find something. But that doesn’t happen.

If you think more about it, it seems that the older brother should have been the one to go find the younger brother. The father might have been too old, or too busy managing his property, to go and seek his youngest son. But the older brother knew that his brother was living a life of sin, and he didn’t seem concerned. Again, he was too busy trying to earn something from his father to leave and find his brother.

But perhaps the older brother of this story isn’t the true older brother. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t tell us about someone going to find the younger brother, because he wants us to see that he is the one who has come to find his younger brothers. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes his own mission: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

There’s another way to see that this story is about Jesus. The story doesn’t tell us the basis for salvation. But perhaps it hints at it. I said earlier that Jewish law states that the eldest brother gets a double share of the inheritance. That law is found in Deuteronomy 21:15–17. But I want us to look at what comes right after that passage. Deuteronomy 21:18–21 says a rebellious son deserves death:

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

The younger son in Jesus’ story deserved to die, according to this law. And the older son, with his own rebellious heart and his refusal to come to the feast, deserved death, too. We’re all like those sons, stubborn and rebellious children who deserve the death penalty for our sin. But if you are a Christian, you have received eternal life. How is that possible? Look at the next two verses (Deut. 21:22–23):

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Now, if you don’t see Jesus there, don’t worry. It’s not immediately obvious, by any means. But the apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:13, quotes part of that passage to show how we are reconciled to God. He writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” When Jesus died on the “tree”—the cross—he died so we don’t have to receive God’s wrath. He paid for all our sins on the cross. He sought us and bought us with his precious blood. If we have faith in Jesus, he is our true elder brother.

You’ll notice that the parable ends without a response from the older brother. Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees and scribes to come to the feast, to surrender their pride and rely only on God’s grace.

And I’ll end by pleading with you. I don’t know if we have any younger brothers here today, because I don’t know you all personally, and I can’t see your hearts. If you’re seeking meaning in life by breaking all the rules, if you’re trying to be your own god, if you think you’re the ultimate authority in your life, I promise you that path will only lead to destruction. Running away from God may feel fun for a while, but this reckless living will leave you empty, and you’ll find yourself in the muck and mire, far from home, without comfort and hope. I urge you to come to your sense, to come home to God, to turn to Jesus.

I think it’s far more likely that there are older brothers here. If you’re an older brother, you may look down at other people. You may be bothered if a messy “sinner” comes to church on Sunday. You might think God owes you something for all your years of service. You may resent it when things don’t go your way. We should rejoice when sinful people show up at the church. My hope is that you’ll see more of those people here in the future.

If you’re neither a younger brother nor an older brother, but if you’re a true child of God, then consider how you can be like Jesus. He came to seek and save the lost. What are you doing—what are we doing—to seek and save the lost around us? Jesus’ brother, James, writes this at the end of his letter: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20; see also Gal. 6:1). We should go after people who have wandered from the truth. We should go after people who have never known the truth. Start with prayer. Ask God to bring people who need Jesus into your life. Think about the people around you who aren’t yet Christians and pray for their souls. Pray for opportunities to talk to them about Jesus. And, when the opportunity is right, plead lovingly with those around you to consider Jesus.

My hope is that this church would be one that sees younger brothers coming to their senses, but this can only happen if we aren’t older brothers. Start praying that people around you would come to your senses. Seek them out, love them, tell them the good news about Jesus, and invite them to the feast.

Notes

  1. Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 119.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Exod. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Num. 14:2; 16:41.
  4. Deut. 21:15–17.

 

He Was Lost, and Is Found (Luke 15)

There are two wrong ways to respond to God: to run away from him and break all the rules, or to try to earn favor from him by obeying all the rules (and for selfish reasons). But there is a right way to respond to God, and when we turn to him, he is like a loving father who welcomes us back home. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 15 on July 7, 2019.

Count the Cost

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Think about anyone who has done something great with his or her life. Think about a great athlete, a great artist, a great leader, a great inventor, a great businessman. What made that person great? There are many things. Natural talent, intelligence, education, opportunity, and sometimes what we would call luck. But usually there’s another key ingredient, something that separates that person from others who had similar backgrounds. And that something is a singular devotion to what they’re doing. To be great athletes, people have to center their lives around their sport. They have to sleep enough, eat a certain diet, train long hours. Their lives are devoted to what they do. Similar things can be said of great musicians, painters, and writers, and certainly of people who create technologies or products.

To be great in the kingdom of God, we need to center our lives on Jesus. To be a Christian—and not just a great Christian, but an average one—we need to have a singular devotion to Jesus. We need to put him above everything else.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Jesus’ life. We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a long time now, and today we see what Jesus requires of those who would follow him. He requires that those who follow him love him more than they love anything else, even their own lives. He urges those who are considering following him to count the cost, which is being willing to suffer and renounce everything else. And he says that those who lose their distinctive Christian character are useless and will be thrown out.

The words that Jesus utters are hard words. He didn’t sugar-coat things. Neither will I this morning. But this a message that we need to hear. It’s a clarion call to greater commitment to Jesus. But the good news is that he is worth following. The athlete’s career will not save him. The artist’s great works will not pay for her sins against God and against others. The inventor’s inventions will not bring him eternal life. But Jesus can gives all these things and more to those who are his disciples.

Today, we’re reading Luke 14:25–35. We’ll start by reading verses 25 and 26:

25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.[1]

Recently in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with the religious leaders of Judaism at this time. He was eating with some of them at the beginning of this chapter (Luke 14:1–24). But now Jesus is traveling, and a great amount of people are following him. We have seen that Jesus has attracted crowds wherever he goes. There is simply no one like him. No one has ever taught as brilliantly has he has. No one has ever been able to perform all the miracles that he has. So, it makes sense that he would get a lot of attention. But he wants people who are coming to him to know that it’s not enough for them to be fans. Jesus doesn’t want fans, he wants followers. He doesn’t want people who spectate, he wants students. (That’s what the Greek word translated as “disciple” literally means.)

So, Jesus says to the crowd something that might shock us. He says that anyone who could come after him must hate his or her own family and even his or her own life. Now, Jesus doesn’t literally mean that we must hate our family members. That would contradict the call to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. If we’re supposed to love all neighbors and enemies, how much more should we love our family members? The language of “hate” is a Semitic expression, an idiom. It means that our love for Jesus should so far outweigh our love for anyone else that it looks, in comparison, as if we “hate” them. But that’s not a literal hate. It means to love less.[2] Jesus demands ultimate allegiance.

There have been many times throughout history, in various places and cultures, when and where following Jesus has meant being distanced from one’s family. In the early days of the church, to be a Christian might mean being separated from one’s non-Christian Jewish family members, or from one’s non-Christian pagan family members. To become a Protestant, trusting Jesus alone for your salvation, might mean leaving behind the Catholic faith and, in some Catholic cultures, this could mean being distanced from family. In Muslim cultures and countries, being a Christian can mean being disowned from family. In some cases, becoming a Christian means putting your own life in danger.

The point is that we have to love Jesus more than anything else, even our own safety and security. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that our hearts are given to what we treasure (Matt. 6:21). He says that we can’t serve two masters, because our hearts will be divided (Matt. 6:24). We must serve Jesus, which means that we must give him not just obedience, but our hearts.

Jesus then goes on to talk about the cost of following him. We must be willing to give up safety and comfort to follow him. Let’s read verses 27–33:

27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Jesus says that if you are not willing to bear your own cross and come after him, you cannot be his disciple. He has already said something similar in Luke. This is what he said in Luke 9:23–24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” What does it mean to bear your cross or take it up daily? The cross was an instrument of shame, torture, and death. The Roman Empire used it to kill enemies of the state in a very public way. It was reserved for those who weren’t Roman citizens, and for the worst of criminals. Death by crucifixion was slow and agonizing—that’s why we have that word “excruciating.” And it was death in public, in view of passersby. It was a way of saying, “Don’t mess with Rome or this will happen to you!”

So, when Jesus tells those who would follow him that they must take up a cross, he means they must be willing to suffer, to even die if it should come to that. Now, most Christians will not be put to death because they are Christians. But that has happened throughout history, and it still happens in certain parts of the world. For most of us, it means being willing to be called names, or to be regarded as fools. Being a Christian often means having priorities that don’t line up with the prevailing culture. It means having unpopular views. Non-Christians will sometimes resent that we don’t bow the knee and pledge allegiance to what is popular. In the early church, that meant not regarding Caesar, the Emperor, as Lord, as the ultimate King. Being a Christian means that you believe Jesus is the ultimate authority, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Romans were expected to worship the emperor, but Christianity forbids us to worship anyone but the triune God. Today, Christians often have different views on controversial topics like sexuality and abortion, but also about how to use money, caring for the poor, and many other issues. In the past, Christians have been against slavery when others wanted it, and this put them at odds with the world.

To be a Christian means being willing to follow Jesus even when it’s hard, even when it brings suffering and shame. This doesn’t mean that being a Christian always brings those things. Christians also experience many joys and comforts in this life. But we must be willing to experience those things for the sake of Jesus.

And that is one of the costs of becoming a Christian. So, Jesus tells those who would follow him to count the cost. Be like that man who was going to build a tower, which would have been a watchtower or perhaps even a barn of sorts that could store produce and tools. If someone is going to build such a structure, he has to figure out how much it will cost. If he doesn’t, he won’t finish the project and he’ll be ashamed. Likewise, a king going to battle must count the cost of war. If he goes to war without considering whether he can actually win, it could leave to great disaster and shame.

These things happen in real life, by the way. When we lived in Washington and I served a church there, there was another church that was right across the street from ours. Before we arrived at our church, that other church had plans to build a new building. They had a large parcel of land and they had recently built the outside of the new building. Eventually, they even paved a large parking lot in front of it. But the cost of the new building was greater than they had anticipated, so they couldn’t finish the new building. It was empty and unfinished inside. It was useless. Likewise, a half-Christian, not willing to go the distance for Jesus, is useless.

Countries have gone to war without carefully considering what war will cost in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of human lives. And that always brings disaster. It ends in national debt, many lives lost, and futility. One could argue that our country’s wars over the last fifty or sixty years have been like that. So it is with someone who likes Jesus, who even sees his or her need to follow him, but doesn’t carefully think about what it will mean to follow Jesus throughout life.

Those who aren’t willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads are ultimately useless. That’s the point that Jesus makes in verses 34 and 35:

34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This saying about salt might seem odd. In the ancient world, salt had many uses, just as it has many uses today. It was used not only as seasoning for foods, but also as a preservative and a fertilizer. Today, we can buy all kinds of pure salt to use for cooking or to put on ice in the winter. But in those days, salt was often mixed with impurities like gypsum. Whenever the salt was dissolved in water, the other minerals were left behind. Salt had lost its saltiness and was therefore useless. According to Darrel Bock, “Bakers covered the floor of their ovens with salt to give a catalytic effect on the burning fuel, which was usually cattle dung. After a time, the effect wore off and the salt was thrown away.”[3] Obviously, you wouldn’t use that “salt” on your food, but it also couldn’t be used for anything else. Bock says, “Salt used for fertilizer wilted weeds and improved the soil at a deeper level, but useless salt was discarded.”[4]

A person who claims to be a Christian yet who doesn’t have a distinctive Christian character is useless. He or she isn’t really a Christian at all, and never was one. And he or she will be “thrown away,” or condemned.

For those familiar with the whole of the Bible, or at least the New Testament, you know that being a Christian isn’t a matter of self-identifying as a Christian. We can self-identify as many things, but that doesn’t mean we actually are those things. If I self-identify as Superman right now, that doesn’t mean I can fly, see through walls, or deflect bullets. In a similar way, self-identifying as a Christian doesn’t mean you actually love Jesus more than anything else. It’s easy to say you’re a Christian, but it’s another thing to actually be one. To be a Christian, you must love Jesus more than anything. You must deny yourself, which often means continually repenting, turning away from sin, from the things that God has forbidden because they are destructive, and turning back to God’s ways. It means being willing to suffer for Jesus. It means being willing to move, to change jobs, to sell possessions—if that’s what he calls you to do.

Now, Jesus doesn’t always call us to do those drastic things. He did call some of his disciples to leave their professions as fishermen or as a tax collector (Luke 5:1–11, 27–28). But often, Jesus doesn’t call us to leave jobs or situations. Instead, he asks us to live as Christians within those circumstances (1 Cor. 7:17–24). Peter, one of the disciples, left his occupation of being a fisherman, but he was married and wasn’t required to leave his wife. But we must be willing to leave everything to follow Jesus if that’s what he leads us to do. Similarly, I doubt that any of us will die for our faith, but we must be willing to do so.

For most of us, being a Christian will mean being obedient to Jesus because we love him. It will mean a life of being committed to a local church, reading the Bible, praying, telling other people about Jesus, giving to the church and to the poor. If you’re married, it will either mean loving your wife as Christ loved the church or honoring your husband as you honor Christ (Eph. 5:22ff.). If you’re single, it will mean refraining from sex and living as if Christ is your ultimate spouse (see 1 Cor. 7). If you’re a parent, it will mean raising your children with discipline and teaching them about Jesus (Eph. 6:4). If you’re a child, it will mean honoring your parents and obeying them (Eph. 6:1–3). It will mean lots of things like working hard, keeping yourself from lust and coveting and all kinds of destructive behavior. If you aren’t committed to these ongoing acts of faith, you aren’t really a Christian. You’re not really salt, but worthless trace minerals that will be thrown out.

To be a Christian is not to be fan of Jesus, to like what he did, but to realize that he is our only hope, that he is our King, to live under his rule so that you can receive his blessings. Jesus says that we should “come after” him. That language is used in the Bible to describe either coming after God, walking with him, or going after false gods (Deut. 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 11:2; 14:8; 18:21; Jer. 11:10; 13:10; 16:11; Hos. 2:5, 13).[5] All of us will make something or someone the ultimate thing in life. Some people may make their careers their ultimate object of trust and worship. They will sacrifice things in order to have a career. That’s often what “great” people have done. That means their careers were their gods, their true king. Some people will make money or power their god. Others will make a relationship—a husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a child—their god. Others will make comfort, safety, entertainment their god. What we trust the most, what we focus on the most, what we love and obey the most is the object of our worship, our true God. Jesus says that we must “go after” him. He is the God-man, the only way to God the Father, the one who gives us God the Spirit. And only he can do that.

The question for us today is, Are we really going after Jesus? Are we truly following him? Or are we just paying lip-service to Jesus? Are we doing our token rituals, like coming to church on Sunday morning? Do we really love Jesus?

When thinking about all of this, I think of the beginning of the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and it’s hard to understand because it’s full of symbols and fantastical imagery. But there are some clearer parts of the book. Jesus tells the apostle John to send letters to seven representative churches, all located in the province of Asia Minor, which is part of what we now call Turkey. This is what Jesus says to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev. 2:2–5).

The church had abandoned its love for Jesus. It wasn’t doing the things that it used to do for Jesus. And Jesus says that if they don’t change their ways, he will remove that church. And that happens. Churches often lose their passion for Jesus. Worship becomes a ritual. People mumble the words of hymns and songs instead of making a joyful noise. People stop telling others about Jesus. Churches like that eventually die.

Now, I want to say something very clearly to this church: If we don’t truly love Jesus, if we don’t obey him in all that we do, if we don’t do things here with passion and excellence, and if we don’t evangelize, this local church could easily die. Frankly, I think that’s what was happening in this church for a long time. We need to consider whether we’re truly following Jesus.

I want to say something else, this time for people who may not yet be Christians. Jesus’ call to be willing to suffer, to renounce all that we have in this life, and even to die for his sake may sound cruel and abusive. It may sound sadistic, even. Why would anyone do that?

There are at least two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus doesn’t just call us to suffer and die. He also promises people that if they follow him, they will receive priceless treasures. I just quoted Revelation 2, in which Jesus chastise a church. Consider verse 7: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” What that means is that Jesus will give his followers eternal life. They will live in a paradise with him forever. One day, when Jesus returns, he will recreate the universe to be perfect. There won’t be suffering or pain, loneliness or depression, natural disasters or wars. There won’t be any death. Everything will be right. Christianity makes the bold claim that those who follow Jesus will live forever. But it also makes the bold claim that only followers of Jesus will live in that perfect world. All others who don’t follow Jesus will be condemned by God. It won’t be heaven on earth for them, but an eternity of separation from God, which we call hell.

The second reason why Jesus can demand that his followers be willing to suffer and die is because Jesus first suffered and died. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed. Yet he added a second nature, becoming a human being, more than two thousand years ago. He did that to live the life that you and I don’t live, a perfect life of loving God the Father and worshiping him, loving him and loving others. Only Jesus lived a sinless life. He did that so that all who follow him could be credited with that moral perfection. And Jesus became a man to die in place of men and women, to take the penalty that they deserve for their sin. But Jesus didn’t die for everyone. He died for those who would love, trust, and follow him. Only those who realize that he is the Son of God, who are willing to come under his rule, who trust that his works are the only way to be right with God, will live with him in that paradise. Only they will have their sins forgiven. Only they will be adopted into God’s family. Only they will receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who comes to dwell in Christians and give them the power to follow Jesus. Jesus suffered and died to save us, and all who are saved must be willing to follow Jesus, even if it means suffering and dying. It will cost us to follow Jesus, but salvation doesn’t cost us anything. It cost Jesus everything.

There’s another letter in Revelation, to a church in the city of Laodicea, which was known for its wealth. It was a center of banking. It was known for producing black wool and garments. It was also a center of medicine, known for a certain salve that was supposed to help eye diseases. This is what Jesus says to that church, in Revelation 3:15–22:

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The church apparently didn’t see their need for Jesus. They didn’t realize that, in reality, they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” They trusted in their money, their clothing industry, their ability to cure eyes. But the truth is that none of those things made them right with God. None of those things could grant them eternal life. Jesus says they had become useless. They were neither hot, like the hot springs in the city of Hierapolis, which was six miles to the north. Nor were they cold, like the cold water that came from the city of Colosse, ten miles to the east. They were a mixture that wasn’t good for anything. They were salt that lost its saltiness, and Jesus was going to spit them out if they didn’t repent. But if they turned to Jesus for salvation, they would sit on his throne with them. They would dine with him. They would be at peace.

That is true for us today. If we don’t realize our need for Jesus and live for him, we will be spit out, cast out, condemned. But if we turn to Jesus and follow him, we will live with him forever.

Before I conclude, I want to say this to Christians: There are many ways we can lose our saltiness. One is a lack of commitment. That is one of the great problems of our age. We don’t commit to much of anything, other than ourselves. If you’re committed to Christ, you will be committed to a local church. You will show up each week unless you’re really sick or out of town. You will join the church, coming under the authority of its leaders and ultimately the whole congregation. You will serve the church.

Another way to lose saltiness is through lack of love for Jesus and for others. Selfishness and a lack of care for God and others will cause us to be hypocrites.

Yet another way to lose saltiness is anti-intellectualism. We won’t use our minds to love God. We won’t read the Bible and think carefully of how it applies to all of life. We won’t train our minds to learn to think about how to share the gospel, or how to work Christianly, or how to do marriage Christianly, or raise our kids Christianly.

Another way to lose our saltiness is materialism, loving stuff more than Jesus. Or Hedonism, seeking pleasure in created things instead of finding our greatest pleasures in Christ. We are drowning in entertainment and trivial pursuits, which cause our saltiness to erode.

And there are so many other ways to lose a distinctive Christian character. What is the best way to remain “salty”? We must fix our eyes on Christ. This is what Paul commanded Christians to do, in Colossians 3:1–4:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

We must be reminded of the truth, about who Jesus is, our need for him, about how this life is fleeting, and that we are called to love God and to obey him. If we don’t fix our minds on these things, we will be useless. This reminds me of something that C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous book, Mere Christianity:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.[6]

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and you will get God and paradise, and your life will be great. If you don’t live for him, you won’t get God, paradise, or greatness.

Notes:

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See Gen. 29:30–31; Deut. 21:15–17; Judg. 14:16.
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1290.
  4. Ibid., 1292.
  5. Ibid., 1287.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 134.

 

Count the Cost (Luke 14:25-35)

What does it mean to be a Christian? Taking up your cross and following Jesus. What does it cost us to follow Jesus? Nothing and everything, depending on how you look at it. Find out what Jesus says about following him and the cost of discipleship by listening to this sermon on Luke 14:25-35, given by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.

A Great Banquet

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 16, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Recently, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, to do course work on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Southern Seminary. I started this degree last year, and I have to travel to campus twice a year. When I’m there, I usually go out to dinner with a group of other students. Since none of us live in Louisville, we’re not sure of the best places to eat. So, we get on our phones, and with apps like Yelp or TripAdvisor, we look up well-rated restaurants. We can see where the restaurant is on the map, what kind of food it serves, see pictures of the food, and even look at the menu. One of the students had a car, so we could drive to the restaurant of our choice quite easily. And there were many choices. A few times, it took us more than a few minutes to settle on one place. But it was rather easy.

This reminds me of what a young comedian once said. In describing his generation, he said that he often would spend so much time trying to figure out which restaurant to eat at (he lived in New York City), that by the time he was settling on a place, he realized he had run out of time, so had to make himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

We have so many choices today, more than ever before. And it’s so easy to get good food, if we want it. But since we’re drowning in choices, and since so many things compete for our attention, time, energy, and money, we often don’t make the right choice. Instead of choosing the best food, we settle for something quick and easy.

Though we have more choices than ever before, there have always been things that have competed for people’s attention, time, energy, love, money, and other precious resources. And people have always made bad choices.

I mention this because today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see that Jesus tells a couple of parables about meals. In one of them, he warns people about trying to exalt themselves. In the other, he says that the kingdom of God is like a great feast, and many people have been invited to it. But people offer up excuses as to why they can’t come. They have chosen lesser things instead of coming to the great banquet. Those who choose not to come to this meal will never eat the finest of foods, the food that they need.

We’re looking at Luke 14:7–24 today. As your turn there in your Bible, I want to remind us that Luke is a biography of Jesus. Luke told his readers that he had written his biography of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).[1] Luke wanted his readers to know that what they had already been taught about Jesus was true, that what he writes is real history. It is the truth.

In this section of Luke, we read about Jesus’ many conflicts with the religious leaders of the day, primarily the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders who were known for their pious adherence to the law that God had given Israel at Mount Sinai many centuries before. Jesus often criticizes these men for seeking honor instead of righteousness, for being hypocrites, and for missing the point of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. But Jesus has a lot more to say than just criticizing the religious powers that be. He teaches all of us about the kingdom of God and how to be a part of that kingdom, where God not only rules over his people, but also blesses them. And in today’s section of Luke, we see that Jesus talks about what those who are part of God’s kingdom should and should not do.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 14:7–11. There first point of this passage is to humble yourself so that you will not later be humbled.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A couple of weeks ago, we read the beginning of this chapter, when we learned that Jesus was eating in the home of a Pharisee (Luke 14:1). He’s still there, talking to those who were invited to that meal.

The Pharisees were the kind of people who liked to look good. They were concerned about their public reputation. In fact, it seems that they were more concerned about appearances than about the state of their hearts. In Luke 11:43, Jesus chastises them for seeking honor. He says, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Once again, at this meal, Jesus sees that they chose the places of honor at this meal. In the ancient world, honor was very important. Where you sat at a meal indicated your status. This is still true to some extent. If you attend a wedding and you’re seated closer to the bathroom than the wedding party, that tells you a lot about how much the bride and groom value you. But it was more important in the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Sitting next to the host indicated that you were higher up on the social ladder than those who sat farther away.

Jesus sees the Pharisees scrambling to fill the places of honor, so he tells them a parable, which, in this case, isn’t much of a story, but is really a bit of sound advice. He tells them not to sit down at a place of honor. Why? Because there may be “someone more distinguished than you” who comes along and is given your place. Then, you will have to face the shame of moving to a lower place. Jesus says that it’s better to take a lower place and then later be asked to sit in a higher place.

Now, this is sound advice. It’s actually found in Proverbs 25:6–7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great,
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

It’s better to be humble and be elevated than to be proud and face the potential embarrassment of being knocked down a rung or two on the social ladder.

But Jesus isn’t just dispensing common sense, or nice little life lessons. He’s teaching something far more important. He says, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Both James and Peter quote the Greek version of Proverbs 3:34, which says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). James continues to say, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Jesus is getting at something far more important than proper dining etiquette. Those who are concerned with honor in this life may very well not receive any honor in the life to come. Those who are proud, who strive for positions of power and prominence, may be knocked low for eternity. Those who are part of God’s kingdom have nothing to boast about, because they realize their status is a gift from God, not something they’ve earned, and certainly not something they’re entitled to.

This becomes clearer in the next paragraph in Luke 14, when Jesus tells those dining with him who they should and should not invite to a feast. Let’s read verses 12–14:

12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

In the ancient world, it was assumed that you would be kind to those who could be kind to you in return. In other words, you would give something to those who could give you something back later. If you held a feast, you wouldn’t invite people unless they could give you something back later, whether that was an invitation to their own feast, some kind of honor, money, business, or something else valuable.

But Jesus says that we shouldn’t give to expect something back in return. He says not to invite the rich and powerful, “lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.” Earlier in Luke, he said, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).

In that verse and in the verses we just read from Luke 14, Jesus mentions being rewarded, but not from others in this life. The reward doesn’t come from those we’ve flattered, buttered up, and served so that we can receive from them later. No, the reward comes from God. On that great day of resurrection, when human history as we know it is brought to an end, that day when Jesus returns to the world to settle all accounts and to make all things new, the just, those who have been declared righteous in God’s sight, will be rewarded. Jesus doesn’t mean that we earn salvation by doing a lot of good works, by inviting poor people over to our house. That would be contrary to so much that we read in the rest of the Bible. What he means is that those who have received God’s grace, those who have the gift of being declared right in God’s sight through faith in Jesus, will extend that grace to others. They will live differently. They will invite others to their homes who can’t pay them back, who aren’t in a position to do favors in return.

Speaking of grace, we all know that famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Many of us know that the words were written by John Newton, a man who once was a slave trader and who later became a pastor. Newton wrote many hymns, but also many sermons and letters. In one letter, he writes this:

Let your friends who are in good circumstances be plainly told, that, though you love them, prudence, and the necessary charge of a family, will not permit you to entertain them, no, not for a night. What! say you, shut my door against my friends? Yes, by all means, rather than against Christ. If the Lord Jesus was again upon earth, in a state of humiliation, and he, and the best friend you have, standing at your door, and your provision so strait that you could not receive both, which would you entertain? Now, he says of the poor, “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” ‘Your friends have houses of their own, and money to pay at an inn, if you do not take them in; but the poor need relief. One would almost think that passage, Luke 14:12–14, was not considered as a part of God’s word; at least I believe there is no one passage so generally neglected by his own people. I do not think it unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us, that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.[2]

That may be a bit extreme. The Bible doesn’t forbid eating with friends, and Newton recognizes that. But the point is that if we had to choose between hosting a friend or hosting a poor person, we should choose the poor. We all can and should be gracious not just to those who are like us, those who are already kind and generous towards us. That’s what the world does. Earlier in Luke, when Jesus talked about not giving in order to receive, he said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32–33).

If you’re a Christian, you should realize that everything you have is a gift from God (James 1:17). You don’t experience God’s goodness because you have earned it or because you’re entitled to it. In fact, God has told us that we don’t deserve anything from God except judgment because we have failed to love him and obey him. We fail to obey him because we fail to love him and trust that his ways are good. Instead of God being the King of our lives, we would rather live like kings and queens of our own little dominions. Our sin is a personal, relational issue—a failure to love and live for God, as well as a failure to love our neighbors—and our sin is also an authority issue—we don’t want to come under God’s authority, so we rebel against him. Because of that, we deserve to be excluded from the great feast that God has prepared for all the citizens of his kingdom.

And that brings us to the next paragraph in Luke 14. In the first paragraph, Jesus teaches that those who humble themselves will be exalted. In the second paragraph, he teaches us to invite the humble to our feasts. And in this third paragraph, he tells a parable about a great banquet. Here are verses 15–24:

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

After Jesus has taught a bit about honor and humility and whom to invite to a feast, as well as what will happen at the day of judgment, someone at this particular meal blurts out, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Perhaps he did that to break the tension, to change the subject. Or perhaps he meant it. At any rate, Jesus uses that statement to teach about the kingdom. He tells another story.

The story is quite simple. A man once held a banquet, a great feast. At the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned how easy it is to find good places to eat. Going out to eat is more expensive than cooking food at home, but it’s relatively easy for us to afford a nice meal. Compared to people of all times and places, we eat like kings and queens. In the ancient world, preparing a feast was a big deal. It’s not like people had refrigerators and freezers and supermarkets. If you slaughtered an animal, you had to cook it quickly and eat it quickly. You couldn’t save the leftovers. If you killed a fattened calf to eat, you would invite many people to come to eat. And preparing a meal would involve much more, such as making your own bread. The point is that having a great banquet was special, it required a lot of sacrifice and effort on the part of the host, and if people were invited, they were expected to come.

In this story, invitations were sent out to many people. And it seems like they at first accepted the invitation. But when the time of the banquet arrives, everyone who was invited has an excuse as to why they can’t come. One says he bought a field and now has to see it, which is rather strange. Who buys something sight unseen? And why is it such a pressing issue to see this field? Couldn’t it wait until the following day? Another person says he bought fight yoke of oxen and has to examine them. Again, who would buy expensive animals without first examining them? And even if you bought them sight unseen, it’s not like you couldn’t wait until later to get a good look at them. The third excuse comes from a man who says he has just become married. There may be a hint here that he will be too busy romancing his wife to come to this feast. Again, this is no emergency. The man could have a date night with his wife at some other time. These excuses are lame. In fact, they’re insulting. It’s like inviting someone to your wedding, only to be told they can’t come because they have to mow their lawn.

So, in this story, the servant who invited people to his master’s feast tells the master about the lame excuses he is given. The master rightly becomes angry. He tells the servant not only to invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” but also to bring them in. This suggests that they would need help getting to the party. In this society, people wouldn’t think to first invite the poor and disabled. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, but they were not regarded as honorable. According to Jewish law, those who were disabled couldn’t serve as priests in the tabernacle and temple (Lev. 21:17–23). They were regarded as unclean, as outcasts. They wouldn’t be able to repay the master of the feast by inviting him to their own feasts, because they wouldn’t ever be in a position to give a feast. You had to have wealth to do that.

When the servant brings in the poor and the disabled, he tells his master that there is still room for more guests at the great banquet. The master then tells the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel to people to come in, that my house may be filled.” Some people believe this is a reference to Gentiles. “If the Jews won’t come, then invite the Gentiles to the party!” Some people have misused this verse to try to coerce people to become Christians, to “compel” them by force to make a profession of faith. I don’t think either of those views are correct. Yes, Paul said many times that because many Jewish people wouldn’t believe his message about Jesus that he would go to the Gentiles. But Paul was a Jewish man who came to faith after first rejecting an invitation to the Lord’s table. And he always held out hope that more Jews would come to Jesus. And Christianity has never been spread through force or violence, because it can’t. We can’t force people to believe something that they don’t. We try to reason with people and persuade them to put their trust in Jesus. We invite them to taste and see that the Lord is good, but we cannot force anyone to come into God’s kingdom.

The point that Jesus is making is that there is room for all kinds of people in God’s kingdom: the misfits, the outcasts, and so forth. There may be many who make excuses as to why they don’t put their trust in Jesus, why they don’t live for him, read their Bibles, come to church, or obey God’s commands. There will always be people who make those excuses. But the ones who realize that this invitation is the best offer they will ever receive will come.

Throughout history, there have been rich Christians, people of high standing. But more often than not, the people who realize their need for Jesus are people who are, in the world’s eyes, weak and poor. The apostle Paul told Christians in the Greek city of Corinth:

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.

God often chooses to demonstrate his strength through the weak, his wisdom through the simple and uneducated, his glory through the humble. What matters is whether we realize that all of us are foolish, weak, and low, and whether we realize the invitation that Jesus gives to us is to the greatest feast ever.

What kind of feast are we invited to? The answer is given by the prophet Isaiah. He looked forward to a time when God would recreate the world to be a paradise, a new creation without sin and death (Isa. 65:17). In one of the many passages where Isaiah reveals what will happen at the end of history, he writes this:

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).

Perhaps we don’t appreciate this image of a feast because it’s so easy for us to get food. In fact, we have too much food. We’re in a strange position in America: we’re not harmed by lack but by abundance. It’s easy enough to get some pretty good food, and more than we need.

But think about all the good meals you’ve ever had. I’ve had a few experiences of eating in some expensive restaurants. Sometimes, I’ve eaten so much that I feel stuffed and bloated. When eating, I thought, “This is really good food!” But later, I thought, “I shouldn’t have eaten that much.” At other times, I’ve anticipated a meal only to think, “Is that all there is? Why did I pay that much for a meal that only satisfies me for a few hours?” That’s how it is with so much of what we choose in our lives, whether it’s a meal, a career, a relationship, entertainment, or anything else. We don’t feel satisfied. We wonder why we chose that thing that was bad for us. We’re disappointed. We realize that what we hoped would fill us has left us empty not long afterwards.

But think about the meal that Isaiah prophesied about, the great banquet he foresaw. Sure, he talks about rich food and well-aged wine. But those are just images of how God satisfies our spiritual cravings with the greatest food and the greatest pleasures. Then look what Isaiah says: at that time, God will remove the covering, the veil, that darkens our lives. He promises that God will swallow up death itself. No other feast promises us the end of death. No other invitation that we might receive makes such a grand promise. We might be invited to many things in this life: a party, a game, a rock concert, a job offer, a way to have some quick and cheap pleasure. But none of these things will ultimately satisfy us. And certainly none of those things will remove that great and ugly destroyer of pleasure and hope: death itself.

But Jesus offers us an invitation to life that never ends. He promised us food that will satisfy, that wouldn’t leave us feeling hungry or bloated or sick. And the reason that Jesus can make that invitation is because he is the one who gives us that spiritual food.

Think about eating. What do you do when you eat? You take something that was once living, and you consume it so you can live. Think about eating the choicest steak. That once was a cow. Even vegetarians eat things that once were living. To live, we need to feed on something that dies. And this is true of spiritual life. In order to live, we must have a way to evade God’s wrath against our sin. We must find a way to escape punishment on that great day of resurrection. If we were to stand on trial before God, who knows everything we’ve ever thought, every twisted desire we’ve ever had, every foolish or cruel word we’ve ever spoken, and every other action we’ve ever performed, the evidence would not be in our favor. We would be found guilty, failing to love God and other people the way we should, failing to live according to God’s rules for life. We wouldn’t be invited to God’s table.

Only Jesus lived the perfect life. And if you take time to read about him in the Gospels, you’ll see how he always honored God the Father. He was never selfish or cruel. He never compromised. He never sold out for money or anything else. Only he lived a perfect life, never sinning. Yet he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin—if we trust him, if we accept his invitation, if we recognize that we have been spiritually blind and lame, if we humble ourselves. If we trust in him, Jesus’ death gives us life. He becomes our spiritual food that sustains us. He is the only way to the greatest feast, where death is abolished and where we are satisfied.

Jesus warned that those who reject his offer will never taste his banquet. His parable reflects something else in Isaiah:

11  “But you who forsake the Lord,
who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
12  I will destine you to the sword,
and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
and chose what I did not delight in.”

13  Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
but you shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame;
14  behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
but you shall cry out for pain of heart
and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
15  You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
and the Lord God will put you to death,
but his servants he will call by another name” (Isa. 65:11–15).

If you are not yet a Christian, I urge you to humble yourself before the Lord, and to accept his gracious offer to come to his feast. Don’t make lame excuses: “I’m too busy. I’ll learn more about Jesus when I have time, but right now isn’t a good season in my life.” None of us know how much time we’ll have left to live. Take the offer now while it stands. When you’re dead, it will be too late.

If you are a Christian, invite others to come to this feast. If they make lame excuses, perhaps read Luke 14:15–24 to them. And be gracious. God has invited you, a spiritual outcast, to come to his table. He has taken you, a lowly person, and put you in an exalted position in his house. Be gracious to those who are lowly and weak, and give to those who are poor and can’t pay you back. If we have received our Lord’s invitation, let us follow our Lord’s example.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 136.

 

A Great Banquet (Luke 14:7-24)

While at a meal, Jesus talks about seats of honor and inviting people to the great banquet of the kingdom of God. Who will eat at God’s table? The one who is humble and accepts God’s invitation. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 14:7-24 on June 16, 2019.

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.

Will Those Who Are Saved Be Few? (Luke 13:22-35)

Jesus is asked about the number of people who will enter the kingdom of God. He doesn’t answer directly, but he says the door the kingdom is narrow. The truth is not everyone is included in the kingdom. Strive to enter through the narrow door.

Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on May 26, 2019.

You Are Freed (Luke 13:10-21)

Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath to show that he gives real rest. He also tells us that the kingdom of God grows slowly from humble beginnings. Find out more about the healing that Jesus can give us and the nature of growth in the kingdom. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on May 12, 2019.

Peace on Earth? (Luke 12:35-59)

Jesus didn’t promise to bring peace on earth, at least not the first time that he came. He knew that he would divide people. Division begins now as people respond differently to Jesus. When he returns, he will divide people into two camps: those who are with him and those who are against him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 12:35-59 on April 28, 2019.