We are flooded with information and misinformati0n. What we need is not always more facts. We need wisdom to learn how to live life well and to interpret what we experience. Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord, who is the source of wisdom. Brian Watson preached this message on May 10, 2020.
Jesus’ path to the cross is marked by ironies. The one who is blasphemed is charged with blasphemy. The one who is Judge is judged. Jesus endured this to save to his people from their sins. Find out what happens when Jesus is put on trial, and God is in the dock. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 1, 2020.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.” 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:
5 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. 6 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. 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.”
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.
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.
- 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. ↑
- 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). ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 71. ↑
- 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. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Miracles, rev. ed. (1960; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 21. ↑
- Lewis, Miracles, 260–61. ↑
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.
I have a question for the Patriots fans here: How many of you want the Patriots to lose today? Anyone? Do you think any of the Patriots woke this morning in Atlanta hoping that they would lose? Of course not! We want our team to win. Why? Because that will satisfy us. That will make us happy.
About sixteen hundred years ago, the great theologian Augustine observed this in his great book, The City of God: “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all men desire to be happy.” In his Confessions, he writes, “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?” Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants the good life. But how can we be happy? How can we have the good life?
We often find happiness by getting things, whether it’s money or fame or, perhaps, by winning the big game. But experience tells us that we can’t gain happiness, or ultimate satisfaction, by winning. Fourteen years ago, Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl with the Patriots. A few months later, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. This is what Brady said:
Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? . . . I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Of course, Tom Brady now has five Super Bowl rings, and today he has an opportunity to get a sixth. Yet something tells me that six championships won’t satisfy him. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.”
After saying that in the interview, Brady was asked, “What’s the answer?” And Brady responded,
I wish I knew. I wish I knew. . . . I love playing football, and I love being a quarterback for this team, but, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find. I know what ultimately makes me happy are family and friends, and positive relationships with great people. I think I get more out of that than anything.
I think that’s admirable of Tom Brady to say. Relationships certainly last longer than Super Bowl victories. But even those relationships, like all things in this life, come to an end.
So, the experiences of the rich, the famous, the accomplished tell us that happiness, that real life, doesn’t come through the greatest accomplishments.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible tells us the same thing. For example, read the book of Ecclesiastes. Most of the book consists of the words of the Preacher, a wise and wealthy king. He finds that life “under the sun”—in this world, from our perspective—is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). In other words, things don’t last. Even if we should have great pleasure, wisdom, and accomplishments (Eccl. 2), we will find those things empty. They won’t satisfy. And they don’t last. We could gain the whole world and lose it to decay and death.
According to Jesus, there is only one way to true happiness—to an abundant life that will ever end. Those things come not from winning, but from losing, which is contrary to what we would expect, and yet, it rings true with experience. If we first lose, we will gain, but if we strive to gain, we will lose.
Today, we will see that, and we will see once again who Jesus is and why he alone is the key to happiness and real life.
We’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in chapter 9, which we started last week. So far, Luke has told us about Jesus’ birth and then the beginning of his ministry as an adult. He has been teaching people about the kingdom of God and performing miracles, and he has called twelve disciples—twelve special followers who are learning from him. As Jesus does amazing things, the question of his identity keeps coming up. When he healed a paralyzed man, he also said the man’s sins were forgiven, which led people to ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). Later, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Herod, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus and asked, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9). Now, this question will be answered.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:
18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Jesus was praying alone. Luke frequently mentions prayer, and I think it’s important that what happens is a response to Jesus praying. After praying, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. Jesus isn’t trying to get polling data. He’s not worried insecure about whether his message is coming across or not, as if he were a politician. What he’s doing is making sure that the disciples know who he is. The crowds say the same things that we heard last week, several verses earlier, when Luke told us about what Herod heard (Luke 9:7–9). But when Jesus asks the disciples who he is, Peter answers for the group: “The Christ of God.”
“Christ” is based on the Greek word that means “anointed one.” Another word for this is “Messiah,” which is based on a Hebrew word. It was used of priests (Lev. 4:5, 16; 6:15), the king (1 Sam. 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14, 16; 19:22; 22:51; 23:1), and to a special Anointed one (Ps. 2:2) who is also called God’s Son in Psalm 2:7. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of a coming King, a son of David, who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–5; Jer. 23:5–6). It might be that Peter had this kind of king in mind, a powerful political ruler who would be just and righteous.
In Matthew’s Gospel, he records a fuller answer given by Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). (I suppose Luke has his reasons for only recording part of the answer.) When Simon Peter says this (in Matthew), Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Peter has come to realize something true about Jesus, and this can only be known because it was revealed to him by God. Jesus’ true identity is not some bit of guesswork on our part. We don’t say he’s the Christ, the Son of God, because we’re speculating. We say that because God has revealed it to us through his written word, the Bible.
Even though the disciples were coming to realize who Jesus was, they still didn’t fully understand his identity. They didn’t fully understand why he came. So, Jesus starts to tell them more. Let’s read verses 21–22:
21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
This is the first time that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in clear terms. He refers to himself as the Son of Man, which is a name that comes from Daniel, who sees a vision of a figure “one like a son of man,” who comes to God and receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13–14). But before Jesus assumes that position of glory, he must first be rejected the Jewish religious leaders, suffer, and die. This must have been quite a shock to the disciples. Luke doesn’t record what happens next, but Matthew does. We’re told that Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter couldn’t imagine that the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would die. It’s like he’s saying, “They can’t do that to you, Jesus. We’ll protect you. We’ll make sure they don’t harm you.” But Jesus’ response is harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Remember that Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer.” That means it is part of God’s plan. To try stop Jesus’ suffering and death is to do the work of Satan, the devil, the one who is opposed to God.
If Jesus does not suffer and die, then God cannot save his people from their sin. He is not only the anointed one, the King of kings, but he’s also the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 52:13–53:12), the one who would take the penalty of his people’s sin, be punished in their place, so that they could go free. God takes our sin very seriously because it is a rebellion against him. It’s a personal affront to him. But it’s also corruptive. It poisons his creation and destroys everything. The reason we can’t be completely happy and satisfied in this world, even under the best circumstances, is because of sin, which leads to our separation from God. We have a broken relationship that can only be healed if someone takes our punishment and unites us to God. That’s exactly what Jesus came to do.
The kingdom of God cannot come without the cross. You can’t know who Jesus and have a right relationship with him if you don’t acknowledge both his status as King and his suffering on the cross for our sin. You can’t know Jesus unless you realize that it was God’s plan to have him die in our place, to pay for our sin. And this was Jesus’ plan, too, as he knew full well. There are people today who say they are Christians who don’t seem to realize that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. They reduce him to a symbol of “love,” an example of how to be nice. In their view, it’s not clear that Jesus is God, and it’s not clear why he had to die. They call themselves “progressive Christians,” but their views have been around for a long time. About eighty years ago, Richard Niebuhr said this about this view: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” That kind of Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. It’s useless. We need God to have wrath over injustice, because he cares about right and wrong, and sin corrupts his creation. We need a Christ with a cross or else we would die in our own sins.
But Jesus didn’t come just to teach us to be nice, to be kind to one another. He came to rescue us from condemnation and to transform us. And if you want to be united to Jesus, which is the only way to have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, you have to be changed at the very core. Jesus starts to teach his disciples this in verses 23–27:
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus says that his followers need to follow in his footsteps. They must be willing to suffer as well. First, he says that his followers must deny themselves. They’re something within us that must be denied. He does not say, “I love you just the way you are.” He says, “There’s something wrong within you. You must change. You must deny your wrong desires, some of your natural inclinations.”
Second, he says that his followers must take up their crosses daily. Now, the cross for us has become a nice symbol. People wear it on necklaces. We see it in all kinds of designs. And we trivialize the saying, “We all have our cross to bear.” “Your husband snores? Well, we all have our cross to bear.” In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death, reserved for slaves, for enemies of the state. It was reserved for terrorists. They were made to carry the crossbeam to the site of their death, the same beam upon which they would be impaled and hanged for hours or even days until they died, bearing that shameful death in public view. Perhaps we could recover a bit of the original shock of Jesus’ words if we imagined him saying something like, “You must be guillotined daily.” Though that was a quick death and crucifixion was not. C. S. Lewis once said, “He says, ‘Take up your Cross’—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp.”
What Jesus is saying is that we must be willing to suffer. We must also put to death those wrong desires, and we must do that daily. We don’t enter into a relationship with Jesus because we’re good. We are saved by grace, which means it’s a gift from God, not something we have earned. So, when we become Christians, it’s because we realize how messed up we are. We are not what we should be, and we realize that only Jesus can help us. As we follow him, we are a work in progress. Our old desires haven’t magically disappeared. Even when we feel like we’ve controlled them, they can still pop their ugly heads up. And when they do, we must cut those heads off again. We have to crucify the old desires—if they’re contrary to God’s ways. Not all desires are wrong. But there are some that are wrong and destructive, and they must die.
We also must be willing to suffer as Christians. Life as a Christian isn’t easy. It requires discipline, effort, work. We don’t work to earn God’s favor, but once we’ve received salvation, we’re supposed to “work it out,” or put it to use. The good news is that God gives us the strength to do that (see Phil. 2:12–13). He works in us through the Holy Spirit. But change comes slowly through effort, through practice. So, we have that internal battle. But there’s also an external battle. People will hate Christians. Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). The world killed the most loving, perfect man who ever walked the face of this planet. It will not treat Christians differently. We must be willing to bear whatever hatred the world throws our way, including name-calling, being excluded, and even being persecuted.
Third, Jesus tells his disciples to follow him. We follow his example, but we must also obey his commands. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Hearing and following means obeying what Jesus commands.
Now, if this all sounds too difficult, there is great news. Those who trust Jesus, take up their cross, and follow him will gain the whole world. They will be acceptable to God. They will experience God’s love and favor forever. But those who reject Jesus and try to gain the world on their own will lose it. This seems like a paradox.
There is something paradoxical about seeking meaning and happiness in this life. If you seek primarily after happiness, you likely won’t find it. That’s because we seek happiness in money and the things it can buy, often stuff, whether that’s clothing and jewelry or houses, cars, and gadgets. We think we’ll be happy when we’re more comfortable, or better entertained. But happiness often comes through focusing on others. When we help other people, when we live for something beyond ourselves, we find happiness. Seek after happiness, and you will likely lose it. Seek after something greater than happiness, and you’ll get happiness thrown in.
That same principle could be applied to so much in life. Want a good marriage? Don’t focus on trying to get your spouse to please you, or to create a romantic environment. Focus instead of loving your spouse. Want a good worship experience? You can try to manufacture a good experience of worship, by having the right physical environment and the right songs, but you can’t guarantee it will come. My best experiences in worship come at really odd times, like hearing someone sing a song about Jesus a cappella, or without accompaniment. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said this about trying to create an experience of the Holy Spirit: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove, and it flew away.” The point is that if you want a great religious experience, focus on Jesus and you’ll get it. But if you focus on a great religious experience, you won’t get it.
If we try to find ultimate meaning or happiness in the things of this world, or in ourselves, we won’t find it. But if we seek those things in God, we will. Augustine knew this well, which is why he writes things like these statements in his Confessions: “When I seek for you, my God, my quest is for the happy life.” “That is the authentic happy life, to set one’s joy on you, grounded in you and caused by you.” Christianity isn’t a joyless march to suffering and death. Christianity is actually about finding the greatest joy. But we find that joy in the very source of our lives, in God. If we seek for true life in anything less than God, we will only find death. We can gain the whole world and lose it, or we can give up control over our lives to God and find, in the end, that we haven’t lost anything, but we’ve gained everything
And after the suffering of this life comes glory. Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and die, but he also said they would see the kingdom of God. We’ll look at this more next week, but after this passage, Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray. And as he prays, his appearance changes. His face starts gleaming. His clothes become a dazzling white. And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (See Luke 9:28–36.) This is a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity and a glimpse of what he is like after he dies and rises from the grave. Though he died, he rose in a body that is indestructible, a glorified body that can never die again. And all his followers will experience the same. Though we suffer and die in this life, one day we will be raised again in indestructible bodies and we will live with God forever in a perfect world. We will experience perfect, unending happiness, infinite joy. But that only comes after we first are willing to put our old selves to death.
So, what does this mean for us? The only way to be right with God, to have true peace, happiness, and to live forever in a perfect world, is to be united to Jesus. To be united to Jesus means being willing to come after him, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. We have to put the old self to death and put on the new self.
Here’s what this doesn’t mean. Dying to self isn’t becoming a Buddhist and eliminating all desire and attachment. It doesn’t mean being stripped of all your personality and becoming a mindless slave or a robot. Christianity teaches us that we can enjoy God’s creation, when we use it rightly, according to his design. We can have fun. We have personalities. Not all desires are bad. Not every single aspect of us must change completely when we become Christians, though we the overall trajectory of our lives will change, our motives and purpose for living will change, and we will come under the rule of Jesus, not ourselves and our desires.
But Christianity does teach that things do have to change. And we need to use Scripture to know which things must change and how we must change. I think one passage of Scripture teaches us quite clearly.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he indicates what the life of a Christian should look like. At the beginning of chapter 3, he says that Christians should seek Jesus and have their minds fixed on him, not primarily on all the things of this world. He says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). He also says that Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). In his letter to the Galatians, he says something similar. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus now owns us and lives in us. Our old identity, our old selves must die so that we can truly live.
Then, Paul writes the following, which is worth reading. This is Colossians 3:5–17:
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
So, what do we put to death? “Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” “Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” Lying, a feeling of being superior to people who are different from us. In short, we have to stop being greedy, stop grabbing every kind of pleasure, stop making something other than God the ultimate reason why we live. Whatever we love most, whatever we trust in most, whatever dictates the course of our life—that is our God, that is what we’re truly worshiping. If any of the things we do causes us to worship a false god and reject God’s design for our lives, we need to kill it.
But it’s not enough to kill something bad. We must replace the bad with the good. So, what do we do? We become compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We love—not some generic love, but the way God instructs us to love. We thank God. And we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” Notice that you can’t have a new self without God’s word, the Bible. And we can’t do it alone. We must meet together regularly and teach and admonish one another and sing together. And “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
That’s what it looks like to deny our selves and follow Jesus. And that can only come if we give ourselves—our whole selves—to Jesus.
Jesus never said, “Invite me into your heart.” That silly saying isn’t in the Bible. I hate some of the clichés we have because they give the wrong impression. That sounds like you can give Jesus a tiny portion of your life. Jesus doesn’t just want a little place in your heart. He wants your whole heart, you whole body, your whole mind, and your whole soul. When we invite Jesus into our lives, he takes them over. And that’s how things should be. If we try to retain control of our lives, we will drive them into a ditch. Controlling our lives leads to disaster. But if we let Jesus take over, he will bring us home, to God and all that comes with a right relationship with him: peace, meaning, happiness, security, and true, unending life.
C. S. Lewis had so much to say about this. I encourage you to read his Mere Christianity, one of the great books on Christianity. I’m tempted to give you a whole heaping of Lewis quotes on killing the old self, but I’ll end with just a short one: “The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”
- Augustine, City of God 10.1, trans. Marcus Dods (1950; New York: Modern Library, 2000), 303. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196. ↑
- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 94–95. ↑
- This interview was conducted in June 2005. The relevant part of the transcript is available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-tom-brady-part-3/ (accessed February 5, 2016). ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 193. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 197. ↑
- Quoted in Vaughan Roberts, True Worship (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), 91. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xxii, 198. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 213. ↑
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is the heart of true Christianity. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 9:18-27, on February 3, 2019.
What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?
What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?
How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?
There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.
There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.
I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.
We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.
So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:
1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3 And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. 4 And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. 5 And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.
Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.
So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.
So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.
As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.
Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.
But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.
Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.
Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).
Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.
The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.
Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.
I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.
I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.
In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:
26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.
How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.
This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.
But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.
And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?
God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.
And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.
Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.
The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.
Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December. As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.
Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:
Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.
Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?
If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.
Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.
Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.
If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222. ↑
Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible, and both Jesus and his followers faced (and still face) opposition. Yet the good news it that Jesus makes the impossible possible. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 9:1-17 on January 27, 2019.
Jesus teaches us to do something unnatural: we are supposed to love our enemies and to give to those who cannot pay us back. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:27-36, recorded on October 7, 2018.
The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
What standard do we use to determine what is right and wrong? How do we know who God is, how we can be right in his eyes, and how we can live a life pleasing to him? We will either depend on God’s Word or tradition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Mark 7:1-23).
We live in a divided age, an age of controversy. I suppose that is nothing new. Human begins have always divided over what is true and what is right. In this country, we have people who believe there is a God and a fixed moral law, and we have people who disagree. And the big question that we should ask, but seldom do, is, how do we know? What standard do we use to measure truth? What standard do we use to determine what is right and what is wrong?
This past week, people remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King (on April 4, 1968). Five years before he was killed, King wrote his famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He had been arrested for taking part in a protest, and he indeed wrote the letter from a jail cell. In the letter, King wrote,
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
What he was claiming was that laws were only just if they harmonized with God’s law. If a law was out of step with God’s law, then it was unjust.
If God’s law is right, and anything that is contrary to God’s law is unjust, the question we should ask is, how do we know what is God’s law? There’s a lot of debate about this. Some people believe that we can discover a so-called natural law simply through reason. That may be true. After all, it seems rather obvious that killing innocent people and taking someone else’s property are wrong acts.
But some things are a lot less obvious, and I don’t think we can reason our way to these truths. How do we know what God is like? Could human reason ever discover that God is one Being in three Persons? And how can we have a right relationship with God? How can we be acceptable to God? And once we have a right relationship with God, how do we know how to live in ways that are pleasing to him?
To know these things, we need God to speak to us. We need him to reveal these truths to us. We have to be careful to distinguish between God’s revelation and man-made rules that don’t harmonize with God’s law. This is true today and it was true in Jesus’ day, too.
Since I’m going to be talking quite a bit about this over the next few months as we look at how the church should be run, I want us to see what Jesus says about this matter. So, today we’re going to look at a passage in the Gospel of Mark.
We’re going to be in chapter 7 of Mark. At this time, Jesus has a dispute with Pharisees, who were Jewish lay leaders who were particularly interested in the law that God gave to Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai, over a thousand years earlier. Not only did they study that law, which we can find written in some books of the Old Testament, but they also upheld oral traditions. These were laws added to the written law. Later, they were written down in something called the Mishnah. Some Jews believed that some of this oral law went back to the time of Moses and was passed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. These traditions supposedly explained how the written laws of the Bible could be worked out in practical areas of life. I’ll explain more as we read this passage.
First, let’s read verses 1–5:
1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
A group of Pharisees and Scribes, who were experts in the Jewish law, came from Jerusalem to Galilee. And when they arrive, they see that Jesus’ disciples ate without first washing their hands. In the eyes of these Jewish leaders, the disciples were unclean, or defiled. The Pharisees and other Jews who followed the oral traditions, on the other hand, washed their hands and when they had been in the marketplace, they washed afterwards. The idea was that marketplace might somehow defiled them. They also washed various things they used when they ate, such as cups and vessels and the couches on which they sat while eating.
Now, you may think, “Those Pharisees were really into hygiene!” I suppose they were. But to understand why, you have to have some concept of cleanliness in the Jewish religion. If you read through the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, you see how God gave instructions for the Jewish people to worship him. They could only approach God if they were clean. This was particularly true for the priests, the Israelites who mediated between God and the other Israelites. These were the ones who offered sacrifices for sins. They had to wash their hands and feet before offering sacrifices and before entering into the tabernacle, the dwelling place of God (Exod. 30:20–21; 40:12, 30–32).
All of this may seem very foreign to us, but here is the important idea. God wanted to teach the Israelites that sin had made them unclean, and that to approach him, they had to be cleaned up. Sin is both a power at work within us, something that distorts us and makes us spiritually unclean, and sin also refers to our actions. When the first human beings failed to love, trust, and obey God the way that God had intended them to, the power of sin entered into the world. When that happened, a separation between God and human beings occurred. And this is the big problem we all have. All our other problems, such as divisions, fighting, diseases, and even death, can be traced back to the fundamental problem of being separated from God. Our sin—the desires within that lead us to turn away from God and the actions that we perform that are not in step with God’s designs—causes us to be unclean, to be impure. But to approach God, we need to be clean. How does this happen?
Well, I’ll get to the right answer in the end. But the Jewish people thought that they had to perform certain rituals to make them clean. Their thought was that if priests had to wash up before approaching God, everyone should do that. I suppose the idea of washing before one eats comes from Leviticus. In that book, which is mostly a book of laws, the Israelites were told that certain animals were clean and certain were unclean. Eating the wrong type of food would make Israelites unclean. Jews who added to these biblical laws took this idea to another level. If eating the wrong thing could make you unclean, shouldn’t you wash your hands before eating? That’s what “tradition of the elders” told Jews to do.
So, these Pharisees ask Jesus about this: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Let’s see part of Jesus’ answer by reading verses 6–8:
6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Jesus doesn’t say what they want to hear. He says that the prophet Isaiah, who lived over seven hundred years earlier, had written about this type of person. Jesus calls them hypocrites, people who wear a mask, people who act in a way that doesn’t line up with what is inside of them. He then quotes Isaiah 29:13, in which God said that the rebellious people of Israel honored him with what they said, but their hearts were in a different place. They worshiped God, but not rightly, because they taught man-made commandments as if they were the commandments of God.
Then Jesus gets right to the point: by insisting on man-made rules, these Jewish leaders have left the commandment of God. And he gives them a specific example of how their man-made traditions cause them to violate the commandment of God. Let’s read verses 9–13:
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
How do the Pharisees reject the commandment of God in order to establish their tradition? They ignore the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12). This commandment was so serious that failure to obey it could result in the death penalty (Jesus quotes Exod. 21:17). How did the Pharisees ignore the commandment to honor parents?
To answer that question, we have to understand how the fifth commandment was understood. Honoring your parents can mean different things depending upon your age. When you’re a child, it means obeying parents. But when you’re an adult, and your parents are old, it means taking care of your parents. There wasn’t such a thing as Social Security at this time and there were no nursing homes. It was understood that older people would be taken care of by their parents. Yet the Pharisees observed something called Corban. Corban is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that means “offering” or “vow.” The idea is that a person made a vow to present an offering to God at the temple. The Pharisees taught that if someone made such a vow, he could not break it even if the grain (Lev. 2:1) or animal (Lev. 3:1) offered at the temple could help that person’s poor parents. Apparently, the Pharisees said that someone who made such a vow could not break it. This was a man-made rule placed on top of the law that God gave the Israelites.
This would be like if you had elderly parents who desperately needed money for medications or food and you said, “Sorry, Mom and Dad, I can’t help you out, because I already committed to giving my money to the church, because I’m a really generous person. You see, I already made a vow to God. And you know I can’t break that vow. My pastor told me I couldn’t do that.”
Jesus says that doing such a thing is really a way of breaking one of the Ten Commandments. Yes, people were supposed to make offerings to God, but not at the expense of taking care of parents. If your religious duty causes you to dishonor your parents, something has gone wrong. It was right to make offerings to God, because that’s what God’s law said. But the man-made tradition, that someone must make such an offering even if it meant not taking care of parents, actually caused people to ignore something of great importance. That’s just one example of how a tradition could cause people to ignore God’s commandments. I’m sure there were many others.
Why is this wrong? Well, the obvious reason is that it dishonors God’s revelation. It was a failure to understand God’s word. The Pharisees had added rules on top of God’s word, and these traditions overshadowed God’s word. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees. He says,
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:23–24)
Another reason that the Pharisees’ man-made traditions were wrong is simply because they didn’t work. Take a look at what Jesus says in verses 14–23:
14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
What the Pharisees didn’t understand was that the law that God gave to Israel was given only for a period of time. All the washings described in the Old Testament didn’t actually make the Israelites spiritually clean. They were intended to teach a spiritual reality, but they didn’t actually work. Jesus makes it clear that it’s not what one eats that makes a person unclean. No, it’s what is in a person’s heart. We are unclean because we have distorted desires. We’re proud, we lust, we get angry, we covet, and this leads to all kinds of bad behaviors. These are the things that defile us, not certain foods or whether we have performed ceremonial washings.
Traditions aren’t necessarily bad. Traditions simply are things that have been passed down from one generation to another. But traditions that compete with God’s word, or even conflict with God’s word, are wrong. These traditions often obscure the main points of God’s word. At best, they major on minors. At worst, they contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.
There are different ways of doing what Jesus condemned. One example is the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s word came to us through two streams: Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is what is written in the Bible. According to Catholic teaching, “both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God.”
The problem here is that doctrines taught as part of Catholic Tradition contradict what we find in the Bible. There are many examples, such as purgatory, priests not marrying, and praying to saints, just to name a few. We don’t find anything like this in the Bible. In fact, the Bible teaches that after death, those who are united to Jesus have their souls in heaven (Luke 16:19–31; 23:42–43). There is no such thing as purgatory. The Bible also presupposes that church leaders will be married. First Timothy 3 says that an “overseer,” which is another word for pastors or elders, should be the husband of one wife (1 Tim. 3:1) and should manage his children well (1 Tim. 3:4). The word “overseer” is sometimes translated as “bishop” (as in the King James Version). Yet the Catholic Church teaches that the Pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests should be unmarried and celibate. This is strange, since Peter and the other apostles were married (1 Cor. 9:5). Also, nowhere in the Bible is it taught that there is a special category of saints and that we should pray to them. Instead, we’re taught to pray directly to God the Father (Matt 6:9). Because Jesus is our High Priest, we can present our petitions directly to God’s “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:14–16).
So, in effect, Catholic Tradition overrides God’s word. This reminds me that of something that C. S. Lewis wrote about marriage. He talked about the need for there to be a head in marriage, and the Bible teaches that the husband is the head (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23). Knowing that a lot of people are against this idea, Lewis wrote,
“[A]s long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise . . . . But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? . . . They cannot decide by a majority vote, for in a council of two there can be no majority. Surely, only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote.”
In the Catholic Church’s marriage of Scripture and Tradition, it’s Tradition that gets the deciding vote. Tradition is the head, and Scripture is often disregarded.
But Jesus was against such views. He recognized that Scripture is God’s word and that tradition is man-made. The earliest Christian theologians, often known as the Church Fathers, recognized that there was a difference between Scripture and other teachings. Only Scripture, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Bible, was recognized as God’s word. To confuse man-made teachings with God’s revealed word is to fall back into the same mistake that the Pharisees made.
But Catholics aren’t the only ones who make these mistakes. There are other Christians who disregard God’s word in favor of man-made traditions. One group of Christians who do this like to think of themselves as “progressives.” For them, progress seems to be moving away from the clear meaning of Scripture and what the church has taught for years, particularly with respect to important matters like the deity of Christ, the necessity of believing in him for salvation, and matters of marriage and sex.
The problem with moving away from orthodox beliefs about such things comes back to that idea of standards. To make progress, you must have a standard, or a goal. When you watch football on television, you see a digital line that marks the line of scrimmage. You also see another line that marks where the ball needs to be carried or caught in order to make a first down. And, of course, you can also see the end zone. Progress is moving beyond the line of scrimmage, towards a first down, and ultimately towards the end zone. But so-called progressives keep moving the lines.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” Sometimes you have to go backward to move forward. G. K. Chesterton said we shouldn’t be concerned with progress as much as reform. According to him, “Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road—very likely the wrong road. But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.”
The Bible teaches us about the right road. It gives us a sense of how things are out of shape and what it would look like for things to be put back into shape. The passing trends of today’s culture are just that: passing. They will change with the times. But God’s word doesn’t change. It is a standard that doesn’t move. We need to move toward it, and not the other way around.
It’s not just Catholics and so-called “Progressive Christians” that tend to ignore God’s word in favor of following man-made doctrine or rules. Evangelical Christians do this, too. Newer evangelical churches pride themselves on abandoning stale traditions in favor of being more modern or current. So, they reject what they think are unhelpful traditions like pastors wearing robes or suits, and instruments like organs. That’s fine. But what’s ironic is that they establish their own traditions and there’s great pressure to conform to those traditions. Many of these churches do the exact same things. The pastors have to wear untucked and, often, plaid shirts. They have the same kind of praise bands. They have to project the words they sing on screens. None of these things are wrong, but it’s important to see that we all have traditions. And these traditions often overshadow why churches exist, which is to exalt Jesus, share the gospel, and make disciples.
It’s easy to talk about other kinds of Christians or churches. But the fact is that churches like ours let traditions overshadow the gospel and our clutching to traditions often hinders the health of the church. And, frankly, that’s why I’m preaching this message.
We need to continue to examine how our church is run, how it is structured, and what we do in order to see if it lines up with Scripture or not. When I look at the church’s by-laws, I can see some very obvious ways that our church does not line up with Scripture. Those issues will be addressed this year. As I preach through 1 Timothy and take some detours through other passages of the Bible along the way, I’ll talk very specifically about changes that we need to make.
Our problem, however, is that we often don’t want to make those reforms. We want what we grew up with, what we’re comfortable with. We want the old ways. But the old ways, like the traditions of the Pharisees, simply didn’t work. They led to a church that was dying. They hindered evangelism. They hindered making a new generation of disciples. And since they were doing that and they’re not biblical, they have to go. Otherwise, Jesus will tell our church, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your by-laws!” Or, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to maintain your cherished traditions.” The old saying, “We’ve always done it that way,” doesn’t matter. What matters is if we’re doing things God’s way.
The great problem with traditions is that they have a way of overshadowing Jesus. In the end, it’s not our traditions that save us. They don’t make us acceptable to God. Only Jesus makes us clean. If we have a right relationship with him, one that is marked by love, trust, and obedience, then his death pays for our sin. If we have a right relationship with him, his perfect life is credited to our account. One way to think about Jesus’ work on our behalf is to imagine that we have a huge debt that we could never repay God. Let’s say the debt is enormous, like the $20 trillion debt of our federal government. We could never repay that. But Jesus comes along and not only pays that debt for us, but also gives us his infinite riches. Jesus took our defiling sins upon himself and died on the cross so that God could crush our sins without crushing us. It is Jesus’ sacrifice that makes us clean.
If we truly know Jesus, we’ll have the same view of the Bible that Jesus did. Jesus said that the Old Testament is “God’s word” (John 10:35). He told the apostles, his specially-commissioned disciples, that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Spirit would continue to speak Jesus’ words to the apostles (John 16:13). And the apostles and those who associated with the apostles wrote the New Testament, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If God has transformed us and given us the Holy Spirit, we will follow God’s word, not man-made traditions. If those traditions contradict what the Bible says or if those traditions overshadow the major principles of the Bible, then we must reject them. That is why we carefully teach the Bible here. That is why I stress the importance of reading the Bible. We need to know what God has revealed. Anything that hinders us from hearing and obeying God’s word should be set aside, even our precious traditions. I would rather hear Jesus say, “You have a fine way of rejecting traditions in order to obey the commandment of God!”
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- In the ESV, it is translated as “offering.” See Leviticus 2:1, 4, 12; 3:1; etc. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church §76, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 24. ↑
- Ibid. §80, 26. This is a quotation of Dei Verbum (9), the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 18, 1965. ↑
- Ibid. §97, 29. This is a quotation of Dei Verbum 10. ↑
- Ibid. §1579, 395. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 113. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 28. ↑
- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 98. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message answering the question, “Is the devil real?” He provides an overview of what the Bible says about Satan, focusing on who he is and what he does. He also tells us the good news of how Jesus conquers Satan and evil and how Christians can guard themselves against the devil.
Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.
As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.
But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?
I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.
Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.
Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.
“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.
Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.
Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.
Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.
Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.
The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.
Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.
Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.” Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.
That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger. Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses. You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious. Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.
Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.)
John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.
Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”
When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.
Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).
Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.
The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.
Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.
It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.
If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.
If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.
If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.
So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.
God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.
We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.
If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.
To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.
In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).
But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons. Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.
That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus. If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed. So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.
And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.
We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).
Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.
Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Χριστός. ↑
- ἐμβριμάομαι. ↑
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415. ↑
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442. ↑
- See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus. ↑
- Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17). ↑
- See https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9. ↑
- In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born. ↑
- See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.
I wrote this article over five years ago. If I were to write it anew today, I would probably change the argument slightly so that it would read as follows:
1. If God doesn’t exist, there are no objective moral facts or duties.
2. Yet there are objective moral facts and duties.
3. Therefore, God exists.
Still, the argument below is compelling in its own right. Since it’s long, you may wish to save and/or print out the PDF version: The Moral Argument.
Two other arguments for the existence of God—the cosmological argument and the design (or teleological) argument—are powerful ways of demonstrating the existence of God. For those who are scientifically minded or for those who demand scientific evidence, they may be quite effective. However, they do require some knowledge of science or, at the very least, the ability to learn scientific concepts. For that reason, these arguments can be difficult to master. A third argument, one that has greater emotional resonance, is the moral argument. The basic argument states that if “objective moral values exist, then God exists; objective moral values do exist; therefore, God exists.”
The experience of moral obligations is universal, because each one of us has a conscience. The fact that we make certain choices but know that we should have made other choices seems to haunt us. We cannot shake this sense of moral duty, even if we try. Not only does this sense of morality haunt us, but it also creates a sense of mystery. What could account for this sense of morality?
Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher of the eighteenth century, once claimed, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Interestingly, Kant compared creation (“the starry heavens above me”) with his conscience (“the moral law within me”). Both point to a Creator and Lawgiver. Everyone has this experience, though many people choose to suppress this knowledge of God (see Rom. 1:18–25). To reawaken this knowledge of God, we must show people that there are moral standards, a moral “law,” and that this law was given to us by God.
A more formal expression of the moral argument can be presented in this way:
1. Every law has a law giver.
2. There is a Moral Law.
3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver.
To which we should add:
4. And that Moral Law Giver is God.
As with the other arguments, we will have to spend much of our time and energy proving the second premise. However, if we are ready and willing, we can awaken within people their inherent sense of this moral law. From there, we must show that only God could implant this sense of morality within us.
Every Law Has a Law Giver
This first premise is a tautology, a necessarily true statement. Of course, every law has a law giver. Laws do not exist on their own, as if they were brute facts of nature. (Some may state that laws of nature are brute facts; however, I would challenge such an assertion. Why do laws remain the same, and universally so? It seems to me the best explanation for such law-like regularities in nature is the existence of God, who has ordered and arranged the universe and who continually sustains it.) If there is such a thing as a law, it must come from somewhere. It must have an intelligent origin. Because the moral law is immaterial (it’s not based on physical properties of the universe, and there is no gene for morality, despite what evolutionary psychologists wish to believe), it must have an intelligent and immaterial origin. We will come back to this idea later.
There Is a Moral Law
This second premise seems obvious to most people, or so it would seem. According to John Frame, “Moral values, after all, are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt that they exist.” Yet many people in our society would ascribe the existence of moral values not to God, but to our culture. They believe moral values are manmade. Therefore, they do not accept the idea of an objective moral standard. People who hold such beliefs are called moral relativists.
Though moral relativism is prominent among younger generations, I doubt that many people who hold this view have thought about the implications of such a moral philosophy. They simply accept the idea without challenging it. Our job is to get people to think about morality, to awaken the conscience that God gave them.
Before we think of ways of awakening the moral conscience, it would benefit us to think about different moral philosophies.
This moral philosophy should be very familiar to us. It is derived from the Christian worldview, which holds that God is the prime reality and that an absolute, objective moral standard comes from God. This objective moral standard is based on the character of God. It is not some arbitrary standard adopted by God, or some eternal moral standard that exists outside of God.
Plato, in his dialogue called Euthyphro, raised a supposed dilemma. This dilemma held that either something is good because God (or the gods, as he would have it) wills it, or God wills something because it is good. William Lane Craig explains:
If it is good just because God wills it, then what is good becomes arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred and jealousy be good, and then we should have been obligated to hate and envy one another. But that seems implausible; at least some moral goods seem to be necessary. But if we say instead that God wills something because it is good, then whether something is good or bad is independent of God. In that case, it seems that moral value exists independently of God.
Of course, if moral values existed independently of God, that would undermine our argument. However, Plato failed to recognize the possibility that God wills a command because it reflects his character. We must remember that God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).
This type of morality is the kind that deists possess. They believe that we can determine right and wrong through reason and intuition. However, what is our basis for morality when we reason? In other words, how do we reason our way to an objective moral standard? This task is impossible if there is not an actual objective moral standard. And if an actual objective moral standard, a moral law, exists, then we must ask what the source of this standard is. Alternatively, if we rely on intuition to determine what is right and wrong, we must ask how we can sense morality. An intuitive sense of morality would require an actual moral standard. God is the one who gives this moral standard, and he is the one who put a moral conscience within us (Rom. 2:14–16).
“Might makes right”
If we abandon any sense of a divinely given, objective moral standard, then we would be left with some rather unattractive alternatives. The morality of power, or “might makes right,” is something quite scary. Some philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche, realized that if God does not exist, then the powerful decide what is “right.”
Of course, we have seen this played out in world history, particularly in Nazi Germany. The Nazis came to power and decided that it was “right” to kill Jews and others. No sane person finds such “morality” acceptable. Just because certain people (governing authorities, the rich, media moguls) are in power does not give them the right to decide what is right and what is wrong.
Ethics of the polls
This moral philosophy is closely related to the previous one. It says that the majority determines what is right. But who would approve of the majority oppressing the minority? If that were right, we would believe that genocide or the violation of human rights is morally acceptable.
The Christian worldview holds that all human beings have value, because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, all people, whether they belong to the majority or the minority, should be treated with respect. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” If the laws of the land do not square with the law of God, they are unjust. King knew that racist laws created by the white majority were unjust, and he fought against them by appealing to the moral law of God.
“Whatever feels right”
The ethics of pleasure says, “If it feels good, do it!” This is otherwise known as Epicureanism (named after Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who lived 341–270 BC), hedonistic ethics, or the ethics of pleasure. The original form of this moral philosophy was not hedonism in the sense that we might think of it (pursuing greater and greater amounts of pleasure at all costs), but rather it sought an absence of pain. However, when pleasure (or the avoidance of pain) is the ultimate good, there can be problems. What if what is right is painful? What happens when someone else’s pleasure gets in the way of your pleasure? We cannot simply both be right. This moral philosophy is built on the shifting sands of our feelings, is therefore not reliable, and cannot be used to judge or to mediate disputes.
This moral philosophy maintains that what is right is what benefits the most people. In other words, whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is right. But this, like the ethics of the polls, has the potential to oppress the minority. It is also contingent upon the definition of happiness. What is happiness? And should happiness be the ultimate good and the ultimate goal?
According to this philosophy, all morals are relative. Generally, it states that all moral standards are manmade, the products of societies and cultures. The relativist’s argument is that people disagree on morality, evidenced by the fact that different cultures have had different morals. We can look at, for instance, the morals of today’s Western culture and compare them with the Western culture of two or three hundred years ago, or compare them with ancient societies or third-world countries. Surely, we will see different moral standards. Therefore, morality is relative to each culture.
This type of morality is typical of the postmodern worldview. Postmodernism rejects absolute truth and absolute morality. Instead, postmodernists believe that truth and morality are the products of stories or language, which themselves are the product of cultures. Postmodernism is a philosophical dead-end, because it defeats itself. If there is no absolute truth, the claim that there is no absolute truth isn’t absolutely true. If this is true, how we can make absolute, universal claims about morality?
While it is true that different societies have disagreed about morality, it does not mean that there is no absolute and objective moral standard. Imagine a remote tribe in which the culture indeed creates a morality, one that is offensive to us. Perhaps this tribe practices human sacrifice. If morality is simply relative, we should have no problem with their behavior. After all, they live in a society where that is simply the norm. If you say there is no absolute and objective moral law, then what this tribe does is simply what they do. It is neither moral nor immoral. Of course, we know better than this. We recognize that their practices are immoral. The fact that we recognize this as immoral, and not just part of their culture, shows us that an objective moral standard exists. People may disagree about the solution to a math problem, but that doesn’t mean there are several right answers.
Similarly, it would be unthinkable for people to say that genocide in a foreign country is simply the morality of another culture. If a person were presented with news that such a genocide took place and said, “Well, that’s morally acceptable in their culture,” he or she would be considered crazy.
Talk about vastly different moral standards in different cultures has been exaggerated. This is what Dinesh D’Souza writes:
Over the last several decades anthropologists have been comparing the norms and practices of the various cultures of the world. Two of their findings are relevant for our purpose. First, morality is universal. Scholars know of no culture, past or present, that does not have a system of morality. Even though moral standards may vary from one culture to another, or even within a particular culture, every culture distinguishes “what is” from “what ought to be.” It is impossible for a culture either to rise above morality or to get out from under it.
Second, the moral diversity we have all heard so much about is in fact vastly exaggerated. In particular, the major religions of the world, which represent the vast majority of humans on the planet, disagree quite a bit about God but agree quite a bit about morality. All the major religions have some form of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.
Cultures often agree on more than the Golden Rule. C. S. Lewis famously compiled a list of ethical commands from various religions and compared them in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man. Usually, cultures that do go astray from the moral law are ones that are actively rebelling against God, or ones where Christianity is simply not influential.
No one is truly a moral relativist. When we react to true evil—Hitler and the holocaust or 9/11—it shows that we know a true moral law has been violated. This reaction has been called the “argument from damnation,” because people say of villains such as Hitler, “Damn them!” But if there is no absolute and objective morality—no God, no heaven, and no hell—then such a sentiment is meaningless. Perhaps that is why one writer, reacting to the evil of 9/11, said, “This destruction seems to cry out for a transcendent ethical perspective.”
We all go around saying, “He should do this,” or, “She shouldn’t do that.” Every time a should, ought, or must (or their negations, such as should not) is uttered, the moral law is proved.
The fact that no one is truly a moral relativist will be seen clearly should you ever transgress another person’s sense of what is right and wrong. D’Souza offers some advice for revealing the moral law to relativists:
If you are confronted by a relativist who insists that all morality is relative, go ahead and punch him in the face. If he does not respond, punch him again. At some point he will protest, “That’s not right. You shouldn’t have done that.” Then you can explain to him that your actions were purely educational. You were simply demonstrating to him that even he does not believe his relativist doctrine. His objection was not “I don’t like being punched” but rather “you should not have done it.” He was appealing to an unwavering standard, which he expected you to share, that what you did was wrong.
I’m quite sure that he doesn’t actually advise that course of action, but it’s funny to imagine. He offers another way to reach a relativist. “So the way to call their bluff and expose their relativism as purely tactical is to insult the moral values they cherish. For example, you could say, ‘I don’t know why we have laws outlawing racial discrimination and gay-bashing. How can people presume to legislate morality?’” Of course, he doesn’t mean that Christians believe it is morally acceptable to be racist or to hate gay people or to punch others in the face. He is proving a point: everyone has moral standards and everyone assumes, even if they don’t realize it, that these standards should not be violated. The only reason they shouldn’t be violated is because they are absolute and objective, not relative.
Moral relativism is an impossible philosophy to maintain with any integrity. It is like the postmodern view of truth: it destroys itself. Whenever a relativist makes any absolute comment on morality—“No one should impose their religious morals on me”—they are assuming that it would be immoral to do so. This double standard reveals that everyone has a sense of morality.
We could not escape this sense of moral obligation or duty even if we tried. God made us to know that certain things are right and other things are wrong. Regardless of what we believe, our conscience will not go away. Tim Keller observes this fact. “Why is it impossible (in practice) for anyone to be a consistent moral relativist even when they claim that they are? The answer is that we all have a pervasive, powerful, and unavoidable belief not only in moral values but also in moral obligation.” He then defines moral obligation. “Moral obligation is a belief that some things ought not to be done regardless of how a person feels about them within herself, regardless of what the rest of her community and culture says, and regardless of whether it is in her self-interest or not.” Everyone, with the possible exception of the insane, knows there are oughts and shoulds and should nots.
Not only can we not escape an absolute and objective morality, but if we looked at the issue more carefully, we would soon realize that we would not want to escape such a thing.
Without the moral law, there can be no moral progress or reform
One of the great problems of moral relativism—or the lack of an absolute and objective morality—is that it makes the idea of moral progress impossible. Think about it: if there is no objective measure of moral goodness or wickedness, then everything is morally equal. If we accept that moral relativity is true, then right and wrong are nothing but cultural constructs, things that people decide for a time and a place. If a society decides that slavery or racism is moral, then it is. Douglas Groothuis writes, “According to cultural relativism, [Martin Luther] King and all other laudatory moral reformers should be condemned as cultural and moral deviants who must be deemed immoral when judged by the extant standards of their societies.” The idea of moral progress implies an objective moral standard. If a society is progressing morally, it is approaching that moral standard. But without an objective moral standard, a moral yardstick, so to speak, then there is nothing by which to measure “reform.” It is simply change.
Without the moral law, there would be no human rights
People of varying convictions often appeal to the idea of human rights. The appeal to human rights has brought us real moral progress. It helped end slavery and racist laws. People often appeal to human rights to advocate immorality, such as the current LGBTQ rights movement. When people demand certain liberties or privileges because of human rights, we should ask, “Why do we have human rights?” This question may get people to think about the ultimate standard of morality.
When people appeal to human rights, they are essentially claiming that it is morally right to treat each individual human being with respect and dignity. Furthermore, it is morally right to grant each person certain liberties. This is a moral philosophy, not one derived from science. Therefore, it does not belong to naturalism, but to the Christian worldview. The Founding Fathers claimed that human rights were self-evident, but they also acknowledged a Creator who endowed people with certain rights. Apart from an objective moral standard that says it is immoral to deny human rights—and, ultimately, apart from the existence of God—there is no reason to have human rights.
Furthermore, the concept of human rights is best explained by the Christian worldview, which states that God made us in his image. This means that we are inherently valuable, and that we should treat each other with dignity.
Without the moral law, it is impossible to have ultimate justice
If all morals are relative, there is no real sense of justice. Any justice we would have is the punishment of someone who transgressed manmade ethical norms. However, we all know that there are people who do evil things and seem to “escape” without facing justice. One example is Hitler, who was responsible for the deaths of millions and who committed suicide, thereby escaping justice in this life. If you are a moral relativist, you cannot claim that Hitler was terribly evil. He just did what was permissible in his society. And when he committed suicide, there was no judgment awaiting him. Not only is such a thought foreign to the Christian worldview, but is unsatisfying, because we know that justice should be done.
Without the moral law, we cannot judge between conflicting moralities
The only way moral relativism could ever work is if countries or cultures with different moral rules never encountered each other. In this age of global travel and communications, however, we no longer have isolated societies. In fact, we could argue that we have never had completely isolated societies. Wars have been waged from the beginning of humanity.
When two countries are at war, it is because of some moral issue. If all morals are manmade and relative, there is no way of determining which country is right and which one is wrong. They are both right, in a sense, because they are both acting according to their own morals.
Similarly, if all morals are manmade and relative, who are we to declare another government’s actions immoral? Who are we to say a society halfway across the world is wicked? We could not say such things. To declare one society or government morally inferior (or superior), we would have to appeal to some objective standard.
It seems that moral relativism is impossible. Furthermore, it is undesirable. There must be an objective moral standard. The second premise of our argument, there is a moral law, must be true.
There Is a Moral Law Giver
The first two premises would seem to be true. However, some people acknowledge an objective moral standard but still reject a giver of that law. Two things challenge the idea of a moral law giver: atheistic moral realism and evolution.
Atheistic moral realism
This moral philosophy maintains that there is no God, yet there are objective moral facts that exist necessarily. The idea is parallel to the atheist’s view of the laws of nature: they simply exist, there is no law giver. There are morally despicable actions like rape or child abuse, and there are morally admirable things like love, yet there is no accounting for these things are so.
There are many problems with this theory. One problem is that moral facts are immaterial. They cannot be reduced to part of the material world. Morals cannot be measured, in the way that the force of gravity can. So, moral facts (objective morals, or the moral law) are immaterial. They must exist as propositions, true statements. A proposition requires one who proposes; a statement requires one who speaks. A stated moral fact requires an intelligent agent who can speak it into existence.
The truth is that you cannot have both an objective moral standard and no God. Yet people try. They want to have human rights and the freedom to live as if there is no God.
Arthur Allen Leff wrote an interesting article in the Duke Law Journal nearly four decades ago. He begins the article with the following paragraph:
I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.
Notice what he is saying: we all want transcendent and authoritative rules, yet we want to be free to choose how we ought to live. This is quite a conundrum. We want there to be a God and we also want to be free to live as if he didn’t exist.
Leff acknowledges that if God establishes those authoritative moral propositions, then they cannot be challenged, because there is no one greater than God. “Either God exists or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one else can take His place.” However if God exists, we cannot have the individual freedom that we desire. We cannot choose our own moral standard, and so be free to do whatever we want. Yet, if God does not exist, we have problems:
We are never going to get anywhere (assuming for the moment that there is somewhere to get) in ethical or legal theory unless we finally face the fact that, in the Psalmist’s words, there is no one like unto the Lord. If He does not exist, there is no metaphoric equivalent. No person, no combination of people, no document however hallowed by time, no process, no premise, nothing is equivalent to an actual God in this central function as the unexaminable examiner of good and evil. The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises.
If God doesn’t exist, there is no coherent and authoritative ethical or legal system. Such a system may be proposed, but if God is not behind this system, we can always ask, “Says who?” (Or, as Leff writes, “Sez who?”) For instance, we may be told that something is ethically wrong. We can then respond with the question, “Says who?” If there is a God, we can say, “God,” and there is no more debate, because there is no greater authority. But if there isn’t a God, then we can always challenge any moral claim.
Leff explores this idea for about twenty pages. Obviously, he does not believe in God, yet he realizes this creates great problems. He ends the article with these words:
All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.
If there is no God, everything is up for grabs. Yet we know things aren’t up for grabs. There are moral evils (such as napalming babies) and certain people deserve damnation. Sez who? God.
Evolutionists believe that we can ascribe morality to the genetic desire to survive. In other words, our sense of morality is not real, aligning with a transcendent objective moral standard. Rather, our sense of morality helps us to survive. Darwinists (or, perhaps to be more precise, neo-Darwinists) believe in kin selection, the idea that we desire to have our descendants survive and would therefore act in altruistic, noble, self-sacrificing ways in order for our genes to be passed on. Accordingly, if you saw your children in a burning building, you would rush in to save them, even though it could possibly spell your doom. Putting oneself into a dangerous situation would seem to be contrary to the survival of the fittest, but the desire to have your genes survive another generation would override your desire for safety.
It is an interesting idea, though I doubt that this could ever be proven scientifically. For this to be true, one’s DNA would have to possess intelligence. One’s DNA would have to know that it is desirable for one’s descendants to survive, and would have to know that one’s descendants were imperiled. That is a lot to ask of our DNA. Of course, the Darwinist could claim that having one’s children survive helps a parent survive because children bring a sense of emotional welfare that positively affects our physical welfare.
However, altruistic behavior is not limited towards one’s family. Why do people risk their lives to help strangers? Darwinists explain such sacrifice by talking about reciprocal altruism, the idea that we do good things for strangers because we expect them to act that way toward us. Again, there is no evidence for such a theory, and it seems far-fetched to think that our genes act in such a manner.
In fact, some scientists are willing to admit that there is no evidence for this concept. Ernst Mayr, an evolutionary biologist, admits that “altruism toward strangers is a behavior not supported by natural selection.” Of course, this doesn’t prevent scientists from claiming that there is such a thing as an altruism gene.
However, let’s think about that for a moment. If altruism, the unselfish concern for the welfare of others, is simply the result of having an altruism gene, then why do we praise altruistic behavior? You don’t necessarily praise someone who is tall (or has blue eyes) and condemn someone who is short (or has brown eyes). Those traits are the products of our genes. But moral behavior is a choice, not something that that is predetermined by our DNA.
Darwinists confuse what is with what ought to be. According to evolutionary theory, everything is the result of natural selection. We simply are the way we are, according to Darwin and his disciples, because of time, chance, and natural selection. Morality, however, is not simply the way things are. It concerns the way things should be.
Perhaps no one wrote more powerfully in favor of the moral argument than C. S. Lewis. He realized that the moral law is different from the natural law. “Each man is at every moment subjected to several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to disobey.” We are not free to disobey the law of gravity, but we are free to disobey the moral law. He realized that morality cannot be explained by evolution. This passage shows why:
Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
Each of us have two instincts (which could be possibly be explained by evolution): the desire to help the group and the desire to save ourselves. Those instincts are like two different keys on the piano—we could play either of them. But there is something else, a third thing, which tells us what we ought to do. It tells us which key we should play. This ought, something immaterial, which cannot be reduced to brain chemistry or DNA, must come from somewhere. Actually, it must come from Someone who gave us a conscience, a sense of what is right and what is wrong.
The Moral Law Giver Is God
The moral law is immaterial, like the physical laws that govern our universe and the laws of logic that govern reason. Immaterial laws must be the product of an intelligent mind. They do not come from the physical universe itself. In the cosmological argument, we showed that the universe must have been created by God, for he alone exists outside of space and time.
Moral absolutes also imply that they are created by a person. All our moral obligations are interpersonal. For example, I know that it is wrong to hit someone else in the face because it hurts another person. I know it is wrong not to pay someone for services that I have contracted, because it hurts that other person. Yet there are immoral things that we do (such as have lustful, greedy, or angry thoughts) that seem to harm no other person. Yet they do harm a person. They harm us and harm our relationships with others. But they also offend God. (Once again, we must clarify that God is a person, or, actually, three persons in one God. The word “person” does not mean human being.)
If we have a sense of moral obligation that we cannot shake (as Keller says), then that sense of moral obligation must come from a person. And if there is an absolute moral obligation, there must be an absolute person behind it. According to John Frame, “If obligations arise from personal relationships, then absolute obligations must raise from our relationship with an absolute person.”
Before we conclude, one final point must be made. People do not have to believe in God to be moral. That is not the argument we are making. Many agnostics and atheists are very moral people, sometimes more moral than those who claim to be Christians. You don’t have to be aware of absolute morality, much less the God who created that absolute morality, to be moral. After all, you don’t have to be aware of a Creator to be part of the creation, and you don’t have to be aware of a Designer to have incredible design in your body. Christianity is not a tool to become a moral person. (I’m amazed by how often people argue that they don’t need religion to be moral, as if that were the point of Christianity.)
No, the point is not that you need to be a Christian to be moral. The point is that without God, there is no objective morality. Without God, there would be no universe, no design or goal to life, and no standard of morality to judge what is good and what is evil.
- Paul Copan, “The Moral Argument,” in Evidence for God ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010), 20. There are other ways of framing this argument. A similar argument is: 1. If God doesn’t exist, there are no objective moral values and duties. 2. But there are objective moral values and duties; 3. Therefore, God exists. ↑
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason; quoted in C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 39. ↑
- Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 171. As stated above (in note 1), there are other ways of framing this argument. If I were to rewrite this article (which would take time and energy that I do not currently have), I would begin with the idea that only God can account for moral values and obligations. An objective moral law to which we are all accountable requires a grounding that is eternal, unchanging, and good. All moral obligations are personal in nature, and therefore there must be a personal agent behind this law. Who or what else besides God can account for such a law and for such moral obligations? ↑
- John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 93. ↑
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 181. ↑
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in The Book of Virtues, ed. William Bennett (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 260, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 337. ↑
- Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2007), 234. ↑
- Edward Rothstein, “Attacks on U.S. Challenge Postmodern True Believers,” New York Times, September 22, 2001. ↑
- D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, 235. ↑
- Ibid., 236. ↑
- Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 151. ↑
- Ibid., 152. ↑
- Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 337. ↑
- For more on this concept, see https://wbcommunity.org/the-image-of-god. ↑
- Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6 (1979):1229–1249. This article was brought to my attention by Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 350–56. ↑
- Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics,” 1229. ↑
- Ibid., 1231. ↑
- Ibid., 1232. ↑
- Ibid., 1249. ↑
- Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 259, quoted in D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, 239. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 18. ↑
- Ibid., 22-23. ↑
- Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 99. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 2 John, showing that Christians and the church need both truth and love. Truth requires and fosters love, and love motivates a desire to know the truth and live according to it.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:28-3:3. Those who are united to Jesus will strive to live righteous lives because Jesus is righteous. But we won’t be the people we ought to be until we see Jesus face to face. The great promise for Christians is that we will be like Jesus because we will see him.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on a key portion of the book of Job. What happens when God speaks to Job? Listen to learn about the greatness, wisdom, authority, and grace of God. This is the true God, not a “god” of our imagination or desires.