The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Why does Matthew begin his story of Jesus with this family tree? We can learn a lot about who Jesus is and what he came to do by paying attention to this introduction. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 13, 2020.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” Or the song says. Are you feeling it this year? Does it feel wonderful and hap-happy?
When I was a child, I felt the thrill of “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that is. I used to love lights and music and Christmas movies and TV specials and special food and gifts. Especially the gifts. But as I get older, I find those things to feel a lot less special.
Yesterday, I saw a picture that someone posted online. It was of a dumpster that said “EMPTY WHEN FULL.” The joke, of course, was how can a dumpster simultaneously be empty and full? But perhaps that’s the way some of us feel at Christmas. We’re full of food, our lives are full of stuff, our schedules may be full, and our relatives may be full of it, but we feel empty.
For some people, the holidays remind them of what they’ve lost in the past year. The other day, I was writing Christmas cards to people. Two were to people who were now celebrating their first Christmas after the death of a spouse. Another was to someone who lost a spouse the previous year. One was to a couple that lost a child this year. The holidays can highlight what we have, but they can also highlight what we’ve lost.
Many people try to cover up that emptiness and loss. The message of secular Christmas celebrations is, “Be happy.” If you don’t feel happy, the key is to celebrate more, to buy more things, to spend more time with family. The holiday takes on this strange empty meaning. It’s not really about anything other than celebrating celebration, feasting on festiveness, an attempt to buy pieces of peace. It’s about nostalgia and sentimentality and the many dozens of ways that the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels can make Christmas romance movies out of the same basic plot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Christmas lights, and some Christmas music. I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. I love getting presents. Occasionally, I enjoy spending time with family. It’s not that these things are bad. But I need more than that. I suspect that you do, too. If that’s all there is to Christmas, then it’s just the largest Hallmark holiday, a phony reason to celebrate for celebration’s sake.
Providentially, the real meaning of Christmas is not found in all those trappings. The meaning of Christmas is that God sent his ultimate servant to rescue us. This servant didn’t come to put a feel-good band aid of tinsel over our problems. He didn’t come to fill our emptiness with more food and drink and money. He came to heal us, which required getting to the root of our problems. God loves us so much that he didn’t send us a comedian or entertainer, a politician or a general, an economist or a get-rich-quick adviser. He didn’t manipulate our emotions. Instead, he gave us a Savior, his own Son.
Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus and what he has done for us by looking at passages from the book of Isaiah. We have been studying the Gospel of Luke, which is all about Jesus in a very direct way. But this month, we’re taking a look at some passages from a book about a prophet called Isaiah. God sent a message to his people through a man named Isaiah in the eighth century BC, roughly seven hundred years before Jesus was born. He gave them a message about who he is, what their problem was, and the hope that would come through one person, a special child, a descendant of King David. Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at who God is, our problems of sin and idolatry, and prophesies about a coming king. This week, we’ll look at passages about a servant of God.
The first one is Isaiah 42:1–7:
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
God promised Israel that he would send his servant into the world. The Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) would rest upon this servant, empowering him. Though the servant has power, he would be gentle, especially with people who were “bruised reeds,” people who were beat up and knew they needed help. To those people, he would bring comfort. Though he’s gentle, he is strong, and he will work until he brings justice to the whole Earth.
Then, we’re told that the God who has made the whole universe, who gives life and breath to everyone on the Earth, says this about his servant: God will give this servant to his people as a covenant, which is kind of like a contract that establishes a relationship between two parties. The way that God and his people will be related will be through this servant. He will gather the remnant of Israel, God’s people, to himself. He will be a light to all the nations—people from across the globe will come to God through him. The people who are living in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2).
That is the first of four “servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. The next one is in the beginning of chapter 49. Let’s turn there now. Here is Isaiah 49:1–6:
1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Here, God’s servant is called from the womb of his mother. His words will be powerful: his mouth is like a sharp sword. He is called Israel. He is the one who will truly be God’s person. If you read the Old Testament, which is long and complicated, you’ll see that most of it is about a group of people, a nation, called Israel. And it doesn’t take much reading to see that these people are in many ways failures. They were supposed to live for God, worship him, represent him on Earth, and obey him. But they don’t worship God alone; they also worship false gods, which are called idols. They don’t obey God, living according to his commandments and laws. Instead, they often live like everyone else lives. They, like everyone else in the world, deserve condemnation, to be cut off from God forever.
But not this servant. He will be perfect. Yet at first his work will seem to be in vain. His work doesn’t always appear to have accomplished something great. But God said to this servant that he would bring his people back to God. He would be a light to the nations—this is the second time we’ve seen that. He would bring salvation to people throughout the world. That salvation is reconciliation with God. It’s a salvation from the condemnation that their sins have earned them. They will be saved from a broken relationship with God, from rebellion, and from all that comes with it, including death and condemnation. And this salvation will come through this servant.
The third song about this servant comes in the next chapter. Let’s look at chapter 50:4–11:
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
7 But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
9 Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11 Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:a
you shall lie down in torment.
The servant says that God has given him wisdom, a tongue that will sustain those who are weary. Again, this man has powerful words, words that not only can cut like a sharp sword, but words that can also heal.
This servant has his ear open to God. He listens to God. He does what God tells him to do. He is not rebellious. He is even obedient in the face of persecution. People will strike him, pull his beard, and spit on him. But this servant didn’t run away from such rough treatment. Because God strengthens him, he is able to face that affliction square on, setting his face like flint toward it. He knows that God will not let him be put to shame. No one will be able to say that he’s guilty. He will be vindicated.
This servant calls all who are living in darkness to come to him in the light, to fear the Lord and to obey his servant. As I said last week, the fear of the Lord isn’t necessarily being afraid of him. Though, if you’re on the wrong side of God, you should be afraid. But the fear of the Lord is having a very healthy, awestruck respect for God. If you know who God truly is, you will fear him, respect him, honor him. And if you do those things, his servant says, you will obey the voice of his servant. You will come to him, the light of the nations, instead of living in darkness. But those who remain in darkness, who think that they can light their own way with their own torches, will lie down in torment. In other words, those who trust that they can cure themselves, who can fix their greatest problem, which is a broken relationship with God and rebellion against him, will not only remain in darkness, but they will be punished.
If we can’t bring ourselves back to God, and if our efforts to do so result only in torment, how can we ever get back to God? As we’ve already seen, the key is the servant of God. But how does this servant make us in the right with God? How does he fix this problem of a broken relationship?
To answer those questions, we must look at the fourth and final song of the servant. This one begins at the end of chapter 52 and runs through all of chapter 53. Let’s first read Isaiah 52:13–15:
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
We’re told that God’s servant will be exalted. He will be high and lifted up. Yet though he’s exalted, his appearance will be marred. We must remember that this servant will be struck and beaten. He will be battered. But he will “sprinkle many nations.” That means he will cleanse many people, washing them from what defiles them, which, according to the Bible, is sin. His work will be so great that even kings will be rendered speechless by what he will do.
Let’s now look at chapter 53. We’ll read the first three verses:
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This servant will grow up like a root out of a dry ground, which means that he will be greater than his historical circumstances. His background on Earth will be humble. He won’t look majestic. He won’t look exceptionally beautiful. He will look rather ordinary.
But there’s something more. He will be despised and rejected. He will be a man who knows sorrow and grief. People will hide their faces from him. They will betray him and reject him. And we’re told even this: we esteemed him not. If we saw him on Earth, we would probably reject him.
This servant has a strange combination of qualities. He’s powerful, given strength by the Holy Spirit. He is wise and his words are powerful. They are able to condemn and save. God will be with him and he will not be put to shame. He will be vindicated and declared righteous. Yet he will also suffer and be rejected.
We’re also told that his suffering does something. He doesn’t suffer in some meaningless, pointless way. Look at verses 4–6:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
This servant will bear our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities, or sins. Though we thought he was rejected by God, condemned and afflicted, the reality was that he was being condemned in our place. His suffering—his being pierced and crushed—was for our sake. He was crushed for our sins, not for his own. The condemnation—the chastisement—that we deserve fell upon him so that we could have peace with God. His wounds heal us. We were like sheep, going astray, wandering from God. Each one of us was like that. But God does something amazing. He takes our sin and lays it on his servant, who suffers in our place.
The reason that we feel empty is that we were made to have a relationship with God. Because that relationship is broken, we have a God-shaped hole within us. We were made to love God and worship him and obey him. But instead of going to God to have that hole filled, we try to fill it up with other stuff, often with things that aren’t necessarily bad. But those things, even good things, weren’t made to fill that hole. So, we’re empty when full. We’re not full of God, but things he made, thinking that we can be satisfied by the gifts instead of the Giver. As Augustine wrote over sixteen hundred years ago: “You [God] stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” He might have said our hearts are empty until they are filled by God. Until then, we’re a bunch of dumpsters.
Yet this servant is the one who was treated like trash. Look at verses 7–9:
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;|
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
He was afflicted, beaten, led to die. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to escape this fate. He was like a sheep led to slaughter. He was cut off from the land of the living, paying for the sins of God’s people. He died among wicked people, and his body was laid in the tomb of a rich man, even though he never did anything wrong. He never did violence to other people. He never said anything deceitful. He only told the truth. He was never selfish. He only loved God and other people. Yet he still was treated like garbage.
But this wasn’t an accident, or just the result of the works of evil people. Look at verses 10–12:
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
This servant suffered because it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. His suffering was an offering for our guilt.
But there’s good news. Even though this servant is crushed and afflicted, led to slaughter, killed and laid in a grave, he will see his days prolonged. He will see his offspring. He will be satisfied. This servant, though he is killed, will live. He will make many to be accounted righteous. He will take away their sin and make them in the right with God. He will also live to intercede for sinners, to go between God and them, to lift them up in prayers to God.
Of course, these servant songs are all about Jesus. He alone is the One sent by God to be a light to the world. He alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. He alone was sent to bear the sins of his people.
Jesus is not just a servant. He is the Son of God. He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are the triune God. But he was sent by the Father to become a human being in a “dry ground,” in humble circumstances. Though he was and is all-powerful, he looked like an ordinary human being. He was conceived in a miraculous way—by a virgin—but otherwise, his background was rather ordinary. He was a carpenter’s son. He grew up in a small town, away from the capital city. He didn’t act like the rulers of the Earth, trying to appear powerful, using their power to their own advantage. He was humble.
He lived the perfect life. He was never rebellious toward God the Father. He perfectly loved, honored, and obeyed God. Yet he was rejected by the very people who should have known who he is. He was mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This was because people are evil, and they did an evil thing to him. But ultimately, it was God’s plan to have him killed. And it was Jesus’ plan; he laid down his life voluntarily. He did this to take away our sin. Strangely, his death is his victory and exaltation. How is Jesus “high and lifted up”? On the cross!
Not only did Jesus die, but he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again. His resurrection showed that he has power over sin and death, that his sacrifice paid the penalty for sin in full, and that his people, though they will die in this life, will be resurrected to eternal life. He lives to see people come to faith in him, and he intercedes for those people. He prays for them. He is their advocate.
This is the message of Christmas. God sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sin, to make atonement for their sin, to receive the penalty they deserve.
This message is hard to receive. A lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like it because it says that we are bad, that we have done wrong, that we deserve condemnation, and that we can’t fix ourselves. But that’s the truth. Evil isn’t just something that’s “out there.” It’s within us, and we can’t remove it from ourselves. As the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
But Jesus came to take away our sin and our guilt. He came to be destroyed in our place. He also came to give us new hearts, to give us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the strength to live the way that we should, to cause us to love God and obey him.
But notice that in that last song, the servant only takes away the sins of God’s people. He bore the sin of many—not all. He causes many—not all—to be accounted righteous. Not everyone benefits from the work of Jesus.
How do we have become part of God’s people, so that our sins are removed from us and we are put int the right with God? We need to see that our own torches can’t remove our darkness. Our own attempts to feel good will fail, often because they are only superficial. Only Jesus can get to the root of our problems and dig them out.
Recently, I had surgery to repair a hernia. The hernia itself wasn’t as bad as it could be. I couldn’t see a visible bulge. I wasn’t bent over in pain. But it was uncomfortable, and the fact is that once a hernia starts, it doesn’t get better on its own. If left alone, it would get worse. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening, though mine wasn’t.
I recognized that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix. So, I found a doctor who could fix me. I actually saw a couple of doctors who didn’t accurately diagnose the problem. But my surgeon did, he told me he could fix it, and I said I wanted that. So, on December 12 I went to the hospital and had the surgery.
Having surgery is a strange thing. You are yielding control of your body to others. They tell you to take off all your clothes and put them in a bag. They give you a little apron to wear and little socks. You lie on a bed, and they put an IV in you. And you wait. Then, when it’s your time, they wheel you around on that bed and bring you to the operating room.
It’s so strange to be wheeled around in a bed. Usually, when we get in bed, the bed stays where it is. So, it’s odd to lie in a bed that’s moving. And it’s odd to be pushed around, at least when you don’t normally have that done for you. I could have walked to the operating room, but I wasn’t in control. I realized I couldn’t fix myself. I had to give control over to those who could fix me.
Then, they knock you out and the surgeon does his work. I didn’t fully understand the surgery, but I didn’t need to. I only had to trust that the surgeon could fix me. I had to have faith in his understanding and skill, not in my own.
After surgery, things felt worse. I’ve improved and I will continue to heal, but the healing doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes, in order to be made well, we have to feel worse for a while.
And all of this is a lot like salvation. If we understand that we have a problem we can’t fix, and that Jesus alone is the Great Physician who can fix us, we put our trust in him. We yield control of our lives to him. And it might feel like weakness. But what it is is simply facing reality. We are not in control. We can’t fix ourselves.
We don’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be fixed. We don’t need to know everything about how that salvation works. We simply need to put our trust in Jesus. And when he fixes us, it may feel worse at first. Or, it may feel like instant relief, or perhaps a little bit of both. But Jesus promises to be with us as we heal, and he gives us the Spirit to strengthen us.
Jesus’ work isn’t finished. Justice has not been established across the whole Earth. But he makes us right with God if we come to him in faith. If we do that, we will listen to the servant of God’s voice and obey him. And if we do that, we will find our lives changed.
I urge us all to put our trust in Jesus. Only he can make us right with God. Only he can remove the cancer of sin, taking away our shame and guilt. Only he can give us eternal life. Everything else that we try to make us right is just a band aid. Jesus gets to the root of our problem. Let’s turn to him this Christmas.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75. ↑
The food, music, decorations, and gifts that we experience at Christmas are nice, but they often leave us feeling empty. We need more than celebration and feasting to be well. Fortunately, God gave us his servant, Jesus (God’s Son and the anointed King of Israel), to heal us. We can learn more about Jesus by looking at some passages in Isaiah, who prophesied about God’s servant and what he would do. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 22, 2019.
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.
On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.
In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.
Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.
It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?
I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.
This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.
We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.
Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.
Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.
Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.
Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)
Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.
Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.
Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.
Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.
Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.
So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.
Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.
Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”
Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.
However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights. Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.
So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).
I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”
The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.
Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.
Let’s look at verses 32–34
32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.
But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.
And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.
However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:
53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.
Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.
And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303. ↑
- Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106. ↑
- Ibid., 107. ↑
- Ibid., 115. ↑
- For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016). ↑
- Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63. ↑
In this Easter message, Brian Watson shows from 1 Corinthians 15 what the good news of Christianity is and why it gives us hope. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and all who are united to him by faith will rise from the dead when Jesus returns to destroy the last enemy: death.
Jesus says, “One thing is necessary.” What is that one thing? What is most important? Listen to this sermon on Luke 10:38-42, preached by Brian Watson, to find out.
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.
Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.
How are you feeling today? Do you feel well rested? In general, does your life feel at rest, or do you feel anxious? Do you feel at peace or ill at ease in this world?
Today we’re picking up our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, after taking a six-month break. If you weren’t here months ago, you can catch up on this series by visiting wbcommunity.org/luke. This is a good time to get to know the true Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible.
This is what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke is writing this biography of Jesus to provide an orderly account of the story of Jesus. He says his writing is based on what he has received from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke is writing history, but it’s a theological history. He wants us to know what God has done in and through Jesus.
Luke tells us that Jesus had supernatural origins. His miraculous conception by a virgin was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Right at the beginning of this story, we’re told that Jesus is more than just a man. Gabriel tells Mary,
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
Luke tells us that Jesus grew and he gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus at age 12. When he is fully grown, Jesus is baptized, an event that begins his public ministry. When he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and the voice of God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). There are echoes here of the beginning of the Bible. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over these waters, where the Word of God is present. Just as God created a universe out of nothing, he has created a new man out of “nothing” (a virgin’s womb). Just as God pronounced a blessing over the first creation, calling it “very good,” God pronounces a blessing over this new creation. God has stepped into the universe that he has made and Jesus, the God-man, will fix what is broken in the first creation.
He does this in part by withstanding the devil’s temptations. Luke tells us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when Satan tempted him. Jesus stands up to Satan’s attacks by quoting Scripture back to him. Jesus is the only one who doesn’t give in to evil.
Then we see Jesus begin his public ministry. He does this by teaching and by healing. He teaches in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, telling those who are gathered that he fulfills the Old Testament. But he is not well received. We see that Jesus’ teaching is divisive, and he gets run out of his hometown.
Jesus heals people who had various diseases and he heals people who were under the influence of unclean spirits, or demons. This shows that Jesus attacks the results of evil in the world and evil itself. According to the Bible, all bad things in the world are the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of sin in the world. Angels and people have rebelled against God, and as a result, God has given the world over to things like diseases and death. But God hasn’t given up on the world. Jesus’ becoming a man is God’s rescue mission to save a lost world. And Jesus’ miracles indicate that he has the power to fix what is broken.
We also have seen Jesus call his first disciples and get into various controversies with some of the religious leaders in his day. These are usually the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that was devoted to a strict interpretation of the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus hung out with people who were regarded as particularly sinful. This was controversial. But he called them to a new way of life, a better life. And Jesus even claims that he has the power to forgive sins.
Today, as we begin Luke 6, we see those controversies continue. We’ll see two controversies over the Sabbath. Let’s first read Luke 6:1–5:
1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
To understand what’s happening here, we need to understand what the Bible says about the Sabbath. So, let’s take a quick tour of what the Old Testament says about the Sabbath.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, we see God creates, or orders and arranges, his creation. Over six days, God establishes realms of sky and sea and land and he fills them. There are a lot of different views on whether those days are twenty-four periods or longer ages, or if the week is analogous, but not exactly equivalent, to our week. But we won’t get into that today. What we do want to see is that on the seventh day, God rests. This is Genesis 2:1–3:
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
This doesn’t mean that God was really tired from those six days and need a break. It meant that his work of creating and arranging was done. God had established the world to be his temple, a theater for his glory, and he was done. He could now sit on his throne, as it were. The drama of the Bible’s big story could now begin.
This seventh day of rest established a pattern for Israel. In fact, God commands Israel to rest on every seventh day in honor of the pattern he established at creation. The Sabbath is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. This is the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:8–11:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The word “Sabbath” basically means rest. It was also a day of worship, a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Holy means “distinct, withheld from ordinary use, treated with special care,” the opposite of “profane” or “common.” The seventh day was a “Sabbath to the Lord,” a day that belonged to God (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15). The Israelites were supposed to take a break from their regular work. This taught them to trust in God’s provision and to realize that they were not in control of time.
The Sabbath reminded the Israelites both of creation and salvation. Exodus 20 mentions creation. The Ten Commandments are also given in Deuteronomy 5. There, we are told another reason why Israel should observe the Sabbath: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he created a new people, a people who could rest, instead of working as slaves. The Sabbath is the link between creation and salvation.
The Sabbath was so important that it was a sign of the covenant (Exod. 31:12–17; Ezek. 20:12), just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 9:12–17), and circumcision was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). We may not understand the word “covenant” very well, but it’s sort of like a treaty. It’s similar to a marriage contract. It’s something that binds two parties together and sets the terms for that relationship. In this case, the covenant was how God would relate to his people and how they would relate to him. It spelled out what was expected of God’s people. The Ten Commandments were like the founding principles of Israel, something similar to the Bill of Rights. But instead of rights, the Ten Commandments told Israel what God expected of them.
Observing the Sabbath was so important that the punishment for breaking it was death (Exod. 31:14–15; see the story in Num. 15:32–36). Breaking the Sabbath was associated with idolatry, the worship of false gods (Lev. 19:3–4; Ezek. 20:16–24). It seems that breaking the Sabbath was one of the reasons why Israel went into exile (2 Chron. 36:21; Jer. 17:19–27; 25:11–12; Ezek. 20:12–24). After Israel returned from exile, the Sabbath was one of the concerns of Nehemiah.
By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws. Keeping the Sabbath had become synonymous with Judaism. It set Jews apart from the people of other nations and religions. On the Sabbath day, Jews met in synagogues for prayer and Scripture readings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws that accumulated over time, forbade thirty-nine activities on the Sabbath day.
So, that’s a quick study of the Sabbath in the Old Testament.
Now, let’s go back to Luke 6:1–5. Jesus and his disciples were going through a field on the Sabbath. They took some grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff, and ate. This is hardly work, but according to strict Jewish interpretations of the law, this violated the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. This is a serious charge. Yet Jesus doesn’t answer directly. As he often does, he asks a question. He reminds them of a story from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 21:1–6). The story was about David, the greatest king of Israel. Before David became king, was on the run from Saul, the first king of Israel, who was jealous of David and who wanted to kill him. David had to flee from Saul just to stay alive. At one point, David and his men were so hungry that they ate the bread of the Presence, which was bread that was in the tabernacle, the holy place where God dwelled among Israel. This bread was holy. It symbolized Israel eating in God’s presence. It was bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Now, Jesus brings this up and challenges the Pharisees to say that David was wrong. The implication is that David didn’t do wrong, and just as David didn’t do anything wrong by eating that bread, because he was hungry, Jesus and his disciples didn’t do anything wrong by eating some grain that they “worked” for on the Sabbath.
Jesus doesn’t deny that there might have been some violation of the Sabbath, at least according to the way the Pharisees understood the law. Instead, he seems to say that when two principles clash, some things are more important than others. David and his men were starving. So, the priest decided it was okay to let them eat holy bread. It was more important to support these men than to uphold laws regarding the bread. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and need some sustenance. The grain was there for the plucking. In Mark’s telling of this passage, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was supposed to help people, not hurt them.
The Sabbath was for the benefit of the Israelites. It told them to rest in God’s provision, to trust in him. It wouldn’t make sense for Sabbath observance to put them in harm’s way. And there must have been some understanding of this. Sometimes, two laws clash, even two biblical laws. Israelite boys were supposed to be circumcised on the eight day. If a boy was born on a Sabbath, he would have to be circumcised on the following Sabbath day. Either that doesn’t count as work, or it does and you violate the Sabbath commandment, or you circumcise the boy on the seventh or ninth day, thus violating another commandment. Sometimes, laws must bend. What’s important in those cases is upholding the spirit of the law.
Here’s an example we can relate to: We know that lying is wrong. But what if you’re living in Europe in the early 1940s, you’re hiding Jewish people in your attic or your basement, and Nazis come to your door, asking if any Jews are there. What do you do? Do you lie and save lives, or do you tell the truth and let them be led to slaughter? I know what I would do.
Mature Christian thinking understands this. There are times when we feel like two moral principles are clashing against each other, and we have to find ways to accommodate the spirit of both of those principles. For example, we’re called to welcome the sinner, but we have to have safeguards against the destructive power of sin. An abusive person can be forgiven and yet there can still be consequences for that person’s behavior.
In this passage, however, Jesus does something besides suggesting that laws can bend. He says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. “Lord” could be used to address people of authority, but it was also the way God’s name, Yahweh, was translated from Hebrew into Greek. And Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. That sounds like he’s making a claim to be God. After all, the Sabbath was the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10). Jesus is saying it’s his. He owns the Sabbath. And if it’s his, he can do what he wants with it. This should have given the Pharisees pause. Jesus is coming quite close to saying he’s God.
Let’s look at the next paragraph, Luke 6:6–11.
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It’s another Sunday, not necessarily the very next one. The Gospel writers weren’t terribly concerned about precise chronology. Luke (and Matthew in Matthew 12 and Mark in Mark 2) wants us to see the connections between these two Sabbaths. On this one, Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There happens to be a man with a withered hand there. His hand must have been crippled, his muscles atrophied. Perhaps he had suffered some kind of accident in the past, or perhaps he had a birth defect. The Pharisees and the scribes, the strict religious leaders of the day who were so concerned about how to follow the Old Testament law, carefully watched what Jesus would do. They were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They would have loved to have some dirt on him, to put him on trial and put an end to him.
Before I go on, notice the irony. This is a day of a rest, a day of worship. And what do the religious leaders do? They work at trying to capture Jesus in some violation. They aren’t thinking about God; no, they are looking for a way to trip Jesus up. Who are the ones violating the Sabbath? And who is the one who is maintaining the spirit of the law?
Jesus asks the crippled man to come to him, and then he asks a rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Who could argue with that? Later in Luke’s Gospel, during another Sabbath controversy, Jesus will ask, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5). Wouldn’t you help a person or even an animal that was in trouble, even if it were on a Sabbath?
Confident that no one will argue against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus then asks the man to stretch out his hand. The man does, and when he does, his hand was healed. The man listens to Jesus’ voice, does what Jesus tells him to do, and then finds healing. We could say the man had faith that Jesus could heal him, he responded, and Jesus healed him.
One thing we can learn from this episode is that the Sabbath was intended for the good of humanity. It is better to do good than to allow one to suffer.
But think about this: the man with the withered hand was not in dire need of healing. Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to heal him, but Jesus intentionally heals him on the Sabbath, even though this wasn’t an emergency. In healing on the Sabbath, he was making a point. To understand the point, we need to think about the relationship between sin and Sabbath. In the Gospels, healing is a physical symbol of the salvation that Jesus offers. All physical problems come from sin, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why anyone gets sick is because the world is tainted by sin, a powerful force of rebellion that entered into the world when the first human beings decided not to trust and obey God. Sin violated the first Sabbath.
Think back to the original Sabbath, the one in Genesis 2. There was nothing but peace and rest. The Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe was a taste of that peace and rest. It was almost a way of recapturing the original harmony of the world before sin corrupted it. But the Sabbath also pointed to one who would come, a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David. It pointed to the Prince of Peace, the only one who can bring rest, the only one who can restore us to harmony with God.
The four Gospels that we have in the Bible have similar material, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before these two Sabbath controversies that we’re reading about today, Jesus said,
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).
The fact that this saying of Jesus comes right before his actions on the Sabbath shows us that Jesus is the true Sabbath. He fulfills the Sabbath. He is one who gives us rest.
But how does Jesus do that?
In the Gospel of Luke, there are seven different Sabbaths. There were two in chapter 4 (Luke 4:16, 31) and now we’ve seen two in chapter 6. One more appears in chapter 13 (Luke 13:10) and another one comes in chapter 14 (Luke 14:1). I suppose there’s no accident that there are seven Sabbaths in Luke’s Gospel. Seven is the number of completion or perfection, and the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The seventh Sabbath in Luke is the one when Jesus was in the tomb, after he died on the cross. He was killed on Friday, the sixth day of the week, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, which began on Friday at sundown. He rested in the tomb on the seventh day of the week, after he completed his work. Remember, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work, at least in part, was to come and die for our sins. He completed that work in full when he died on the cross. There is nothing that you and I can do to pay for our sins. Our crimes against God are so great that only the death of the Son of God can pay for our sins. And we can have our sins paid for if we simply trust in Jesus. He asks us to stretch out our arm to him and if we do that, trusting that he alone can make us right with God, we are healed. No amount of law-keeping makes anyone more righteous. We can’t fix ourselves. The only way we can be healed is to rest from our striving to save ourselves and to let God save us. Only Jesus can remove our sin and make us right with God. Only Jesus can get us to heaven. Only Jesus can make us live with God forever.
After Jesus died on the sixth day and rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, he rose from the grave on the eighth day. Or, we might say that he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, a new era. For these reasons and others, I believe that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath for us, just as he fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul writes,
16 Therefore [because Jesus died for our sins and has given us new hearts—see Col. 2:6–15] let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16–17).
The Old Testament Sabbath was meant to point Israel to Jesus. It foreshadowed the rest that only he can give. But now that Jesus has come, we don’t need to keep the Sabbath in the way that Israel did. To keep the Sabbath today is to stop striving to save yourself and to start resting in the give of salvation that Jesus has given you.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first installment of a new creation. He established something new. His death inaugurated a new covenant. This new deal promises that God’s people will be forgiven of sin, they will have his law written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, and they will truly know him. Jesus’ resurrection also promises new life. We don’t feel completely at rest in this life. We struggle, and we die. But a day is coming when Jesus will return, when all who have trusted in him will be raised from the grave in bodies that can never die. At that time, God’s people will live with God forever in a recreated, or renewed world. They will experience perfect rest.
Again, we can experience some of that rest now, but we also look forward to the ultimate rest that will come when Jesus returns to Earth, when he establishes a new creation. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). That means we rest from trying to earn our salvation. But we must also work. Jesus said that God is always working (John 5:17). It’s not as though God stopped working on the original seventh day. He always upholds the universe. If God didn’t do that, things would cease to exist. So, even though we rest in one sense, we also continue to work. We don’t work to earn something from God, but we work because we are thankful, because we love God and he has given us work to do. So, we work and rest, and we urge other people to find rest in Jesus.
The Sabbath is a reminder that each person is spiritually restless and that the only rest available to satisfy our souls is offered by Jesus, who beckons the weary to come to him. Augustine understood this reality when he prayed to the Lord, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Nothing else in this world can give our restless souls rest. But in order to receive true rest, we must give up. We must stop working. We must trust that God will provide for us. We must realize that Jesus is our Boss, our Master, our King, and our Lord—the Lord of the Sabbath.
The religious leaders “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Matthew says, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). How do you respond to Jesus? If you’re not resting him, I urge you to do so now. If you don’t truly know Jesus as your Lord, I would love to talk with you. But for now, let’s pray.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century. New American Commentary in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 87. ↑
- Nehemiah recalls the giving of the Sabbath in his prayer of confession (Neh. 9:14) and he states that no buying or selling should be done on the Sabbath (10:31). When he discovers that the Sabbath commandment was being broken, he confronted the leaders of the people and then made sure the gates of the city were shut on that holy day, so that no buying or selling of goods could be done (13:15–22). He likely did not want the people to be exiled again for their lack of observing this important commandment. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49. ↑
- Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
Jesus clashes with the religious leaders of his time on two Sabbath days. Find out how Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and gives us true rest. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:1-11, recorded on September 16, 2018.
Every week, people seem to be freaking out over something political, or some event that has political ramifications. This week, people were freaking out over the news that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court. That means that our president, Donald Trump, will be able to nominate a new judge to fill Kennedy’s open slot, which means that Trump will be able to place two judges on the Supreme Court in two years. Anthony Kennedy was known as the swing vote on the Court. Though he was nominated by a Republican president, Ronald Regan, he often voted in favor of so-called liberal decisions. If he’s replaced by a conservative judge, that means there will be five conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 85, retires or dies in the next two years, Trump could place three judges on the Supreme Court.
Now, all of this means that some people are happy, and other people are upset, depending on their politics. Isn’t it strange how so much can hinge on one person? Really, it’s a sign that our government isn’t working the way it ought to be. In fact, that so much can hinge on the presidency shows that our government isn’t working well. Congress should make the laws, the president and his administration should make sure the laws are carried out, and the Supreme Court should determine if laws (and their execution) are constitutional. But the reality is things aren’t work well, and big decisionx are often made by one individual. And that’s strange in a country of over 300 million people.
What about the church? Are all decisions made by one person, or a small group of people? What role does the congregation play in making decisions? I have spent considerable time in this series talking about the role of pastors, or elders, or overseers. (Again, these three terms are used of the same people.) I stressed that they are the shepherds of the church, the leaders. But does this mean that all decisions are made by them? Can the congregation make decisions?
Today, I’m going to talk about the role the congregation plays in making decisions. And since it’s hot and we’re also going to take the Lord’s Supper, I’ll try to make this sermon as short as possible. So, I’ll tell you up front what the Bible seems to say about the congregation’s role in making decisions. In short, the congregation helps decide who is in, and who is out. The congregation has some role to play in determining who can join a church or who must leave a church. The congregation may also play a role in affirming who can serve as ministers.
To see this, we’re going to look at some passages in the Bible. The two most important ones we’ll look at are 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. We’ll also take a peak at some other passages along the way.
So, let’s first read 1 Corinthians 5. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth, part of what we now call Greece.
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Let’s quickly review what we see in this passage. Paul calls out some sinful behavior in the Corinthian church. He says that “a man has his father’s wife.” He means that a man is having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. This is probably his stepmother, because Paul doesn’t say “his mother,” which would be even more shocking. Still, this is very bad, the kind of behavior that not even the pagans tolerated. And that’s saying something, because sexual practices in the Roman Empire would make us blush.
What I want us to pay attention to today is the fact that Paul addresses the whole church. He’s not just writing to the pastors, the elders, or overseers. He’s not saying, “Hey, pastors, why have you allowed this? Kick this man out of the church!” No, he says the whole church is failing. Instead of mourning, the people are boasting and are arrogant. Maybe they’re boasting about how tolerant they are, or how diverse they are. But Paul knows that what this man is doing is evil, and even a little evil has a way of producing a big effect, just as a little yeast can leaven a large amount of dough.
So, Paul tells the church, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That sounds intense, doesn’t it? What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? Well, at the least it means removing that person from the protection of the church. Paul wanted this man to be excommunicated, at least for a time. Whenever the man would be removed from the church, he would no longer experience the blessings of the church. His sin would be exposed. He was to be treated like a nonbeliever. Perhaps Paul thought that God would punish this man in some physical way, by using Satan to afflict the man with an illness. But Paul is clear that he wants the man to be saved from condemnation.
This episode shows what is at stake in the church. The great problem of humanity is our separation from God. Our problem is that we start out life with a broken relationship. Something is wrong with us, a power that corrupts us and keeps us from God. That something is sin, the power of evil and rebellion that leads us to reject the one true God and replace him with something else as our ultimate authority. Sin leads to condemnation. Why? Because God doesn’t want evil spreading throughout the world. He is patient. He is merciful. He puts up with our sin. But he won’t put up with it forever. There will be a time when he calls us all to account, when all our sins are judged. And we will pay for them.
We will pay—or someone else will. But the only person who can pay for our sins, besides us, is Jesus. He is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe, and who also became a human being over two thousand years ago. He is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always obeyed God perfectly because he has always loved God perfectly. Yet he was treated like a criminal, like an enemy of the state and of the Jewish religion. And he was killed, put to death on a cross. This was because people hated him and didn’t believe him. But it was also God’s plan, to have his Son bear the punishment of sinners. All who turn to Jesus in faith, who trust that he is who he claimed to be and that he has accomplished what the Bible says he has, have their sins paid for. They are reunited to God. They are forgiven of all wrongdoings. And though they die, they will rise from the grave when Jesus returns, just as Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.
But since Christians are united to Jesus, and since the church is where Jesus dwells on earth, by means of the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t keep sinning. Of course, we will sin. We still wrestle with our old nature. But we shouldn’t want to sin and as a church we cannot allow flagrant, egregious sins to occur. Sin has a way of corrupting the whole church. And more than that, it makes Jesus look bad. So, the church should monitor such behavior. Paul says, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” He doesn’t mean judge in an ultimate way. Neither you nor I can determine if someone truly knows Jesus. God knows the heart; we don’t. But Paul means judge in the sense of evaluate. We certainly can look at someone’s behavior and say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t what Christians should do.” Notice that Paul says we should make a distinction between what happens in the church and the world. Christians in America have this a bit backward. We spend all our time judging those outside the church and very little time judging those inside the church. Paul says we can’t separate ourselves from non-Christians, or else we would have to leave the whole world. But we can separate unrepentant sinners from the church, and that’s what we should do. “Purge the evil from your midst”—that’s a command that is repeated throughout the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24).
What Paul is commanding here is no different than what Jesus taught his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples how the church should deal with sin. This is what he says in Matthew 18:15–20:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Jesus says that if a person has sinned against you, it is your responsibility to approach that person directly. Don’t gossip. Go to that person and point out his or her wrong. If they see the error of their ways, “you have gained your brother”—or your sister. But if that person will not listen, then things escalate. The next step is to take another person or two. These people will bear witness to whether the sinning brother or sister is repentant or not. But if that person still won’t listen, then he or she should be brought before the church. And if they refuse to listen to the judgment of the whole church, then they should be removed and treated like a non-Christian.
In both cases, the goal is to bring the sinning person to repentance. But there is another goal, which is to purify the church. And when the whole church says to a sinning person, “This kind of behavior won’t be allowed here,” it sends a strong message.
It’s not just flagrantly immoral behavior that deserves excommunication. That is, it’s not just things like sexual immorality, or violence or stealing or things we think are “really bad.” Paul also says that people who are divisive should be avoided. In Romans 16:17–19, part of another letter that Paul wrote to a different church, Paul writes,
17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
Divisive people can be obviously divisive, the kind of people who complain and argue and fight. But they can also be quietly divisive. Either way, divisions in the church threaten the health of the church, and divisive people must be avoided and, if necessary, removed from the church. The same is true of people who teach false doctrine. Paul tells the church in Galatia that anyone who comes teaching a different message is accursed (Gal. 1:8–9). And in 1 Timothy, Paul said that he removed a couple of men who were blaspheming (1 Tim. 1:18–20).
In each case, Paul says that the church should be involved. In another passage, 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul says that a majority of the church had brought a punishment upon a person. This may or may not be the same person that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5. In this case, the person has attacked Paul personally, but he has also caused pain to the whole church. If that were the man of 1 Corinthians 5, it’s likely that the man resisted any correction, attacked Paul’s authority, and then later the church excommunicated him. But it could be someone else. But, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the punishment was voted on. Let’s read what Paul writes:
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Here, it seems as though the rebuke of the whole church has brought this person to a godly sorrow. Paul worries that if the punishment continues, it might produce “excessive sorrow.” So, he asks the church to forgive and comfort him. If not, they are playing into Satan’s schemes. Satan wants a divided church; he also wants an unforgiving church.
Now, I have to make this point: the fact that Paul says a majority of the church brought the punishment upon the sinner means that there is a definite number of people who voted. And, I would argue, it means that there should be definite church membership, or a roll of members.
Some people don’t like the idea of church membership. They think it is unbiblical because there is no one verse in the Bible that says, “You must officially join a local church.” It’s true that there is no one verse that says so much. But the concept of an official membership of a local church is presupposed in several passages. This is one of them. Who could vote against the unrepentant sinner? Did they take a vote on a Sunday, and everyone who showed up, including people who came for the first time, vote? That doesn’t make sense. But what about someone who had come for a month? Or someone who came to the church for a few years but refused to join and officially submit to the authority of the church?
Joining a local church is important because it’s a sign of commitment. Joining a church says, “This is my church. I belong here. I submit to the leaders of the church. I commit to these people. I will serve and love them. I am also committed to the spiritual health and purity of the church. And if someone starts messing with the church, I am prepared to take action.” That’s a big deal. I think churches suffer greatly because people don’t make that kind of commitment. And I think a lack of commitment to a local church speaks volumes about the level of commitment people have to Jesus.
What we have seen so far is that the congregation has a role to play in bringing discipline to unrepentant members. And what Paul writes suggests that there was an official vote. I think, by implication, that the reverse is true: when people officially join a church, the church should vote on that. The reason is that members of a church may know more than the pastors know about a person, their reputation, and their behaviors. When a potential member is brought before a church, it is like when a pastor asks at a wedding if there is any reason why the couple shouldn’t be married. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.” In the case of church membership, perhaps someone in the congregation knows why a person shouldn’t join the church.
There are also other things that churches may vote on, at least according to Scripture. In the book of Acts, we see the church active in determining who served the church and who were sent as missionaries. Now, we have to be careful, because what is descriptive in the Bible isn’t always prescriptive. To put it another way, what is narrated isn’t always normative. There were some unique things that happened in the early church. But in Acts, we see that the apostles asked the church to find seven men who could serve widows in the church (Acts 6:1–7). We looked at this passage two weeks ago when talking about deacons. So, it might be that the congregation has a role to play in deciding who serves in the church. Elders in churches were appointed, but perhaps that was something that apostles had authority to do. Now that we don’t have apostles, perhaps the church should determine who leads. Or, perhaps at the least, the church should affirm the decisions of those who are serving as elders. If a team of elders, or pastors, or overseers, recommend that another person join their ranks, they should ask the church to affirm their decision. That way, the church is making a statement: “We will submit to this man’s leadership.”
In the book of Acts, the church in Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off as missionaries (Acts 13:1–3; 15:3). The whole church in Jerusalem, with the apostles and the elders of the church, chose a couple of men (Judas and Silas) to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to deliver a letter (Acts 15:22). So, it would seem that the church has the authority to send people for certain purposes, and the church should vote on that, too.
The Bible does not speak of the congregation voting on all manner of other things, like a church budget or special purchases. But there is wisdom in having a church vote on such things. God uses the congregation to affirm the decisions of leaders. And the congregation, by voting, says, “We will financially support the church’s budget.”
The Bible does not teach anything about committees that consist of lay people. I suppose the leaders of the church can delegate authority and ask committees to serve for certain purposes. But it’s worth considering what Mark Dever, a pastor and author, says: “The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel. The congregation more normally recognizes than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.” The elders of the church should be the ones that have their hands on the steering wheel, directing the church as God has directed in the Bible and as the Holy Spirit leads. The congregation can act as an emergency brake if they see that something wrong is clearly happening. The congregation can also recognize what God is doing through its leaders and the congregation can affirm what the leaders have decided.
So, what does this mean for us? I think the main thing we should consider today is that all Christians should care about the health of a local church. And that requires commitment. It requires knowing the people of the church, knowing them well enough to know if there is some egregious sin in their lives. Also, when we read the pages of the New Testament, we get the sense that all Christians should take ownership of the local church. They should care about the welfare of the church. They should serve in the church, which is something I’ll talk about next week.
If you’re here today and have not yet officially committed to this church, I would urge you to make that commitment. We will be inviting some of you personally to do that, and we will announce when a membership class is meeting. If you aren’t a member of this church, I invite you to be more than a consumer. A consumer comes and takes. And, yes, a consumer gives money. But a member of a church is more than that. A member cares about the whole body. A member cares about the health of the whole body. Do you care about this church enough to want to make it better?
If everyone who comes to this church joined the church and was truly committed to the church, we would be much better off. More people serving would mean we could accomplish more things. When few people serve, a great burden is put on a relatively small number of people. The 80/20 rule says that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. That’s probably true of this church. That means those 20 percent are taxed and burdened. It also means that we struggle to keep up with the basics. Instead of working on new things, like doing more outreach, we struggle to keep up with the basics of meeting together in worship and taking care of the building. We need more help. We need commitment. And beyond serving, the health of the church requires commitment. We should be committed not only to our own spiritual health, but the spiritual health of other people in the church.
I also need to say this: If you’re here today and you’re not yet a Christian, I would urge you to make a commitment to Christ now. There is no other Savior, no other one who can make you right with God and grant you eternal life. To reject Jesus is to reject God. And to reject God is to reject your Maker and the very purpose of your life.
Right now, I’m asking that all of us—even myself!—become more committed. Let us love one another. Let us care about each other’s souls. Let us care about the purity of the church, the reputation of the church, and the direction of the church. The church is where Jesus dwells on earth. Let us make sure his house is in good order.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- It’s interesting that Paul’s life sometimes echoes the life of Jesus. In verses 3 and 4, when Paul says that he is absent in the flesh but present in the spirit (because he had spent time in Corinth and was now writing from elsewhere), he is likening himself to Jesus, who is in heaven but is present with his people through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit of God is greater than the spirit of Paul, and perhaps this was Paul’s way of making the church realize that. In other words, if Paul is absent and his spirit compels the church to act in a certain way, how much more should they act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, who is with them though Jesus is in heaven. ↑
- Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 143. ↑
What role does the congregation play in the church? What kind of decisions can the membership of the church make? The Bible indicates that the church as a whole has the authority and responsibility to determine who is in and who is out. Find out more by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on July 1, 2018.
This past week, we had a memorial service. It was somewhat typical for a church service. A lot of the people there are churchgoers or used to be churchgoers. People generally dressed appropriately for the occasion. And that’s usually how things go. But several years ago, I was part of an interesting memorial service at my last church, where I was associate pastor. A man named Henry had died and his family came to our church because they needed a place where they could have a service. Henry wasn’t a member of that church. His family and friends were not members of the church. But the senior pastor agreed to conduct the service because he thought it would be a good opportunity to tell people about Jesus.
So, on that Saturday, we had an entirely different congregation show up at our church. The service started late because at least half the group was outside smoking. As I remember it, there were a lot of people in denim and leather. During the service, there was an opportunity for anyone to share memories or thoughts about Henry. One man stood up and said, “The thing about Henry is, he stuck to his roots. No matter what, he was true to his roots.” That was about all he said. Now, from hearing people speak, I got the sense that Henry touched many lives. He seemed to be a good friend and the people there loved him. But this friend, the one who stood up and spoke, didn’t say what Henry’s roots were. I suppose his friend meant that Henry was true to himself, a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy who was loyal to the people around him.
Who among us wouldn’t want someone to say at our funeral, “He stuck to his roots”? When we first hear that, it seems like a good thing. It sounds like this person didn’t compromise. No, he stuck to his guns. He didn’t sell out.
But we’re only as good as our roots. I don’t mean historical roots, or genealogical roots. We all have those, and sometimes they’re not good, but we can move away from them.
What I mean is that each one of our lives is rooted in something. Our lives are based on something, they’re built upon some foundation. Usually, this is what we believe is true or what is most valuable to us. For Christians, that root, that foundation, is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Today, in a passage from Colossians, we’re going to see how Christians need to stay rooted in Christ by continuing in their faith, avoiding all other philosophies and religions, and remembering the gospel.
Today, we’re going to be looking at Colossians 2:6–15. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians in the city of Colossae. Let’s start by reading the first two verses:
6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
In the first two verses of this passage, Paul tells the Colossians to walk in Christ as they have received him. “Received” is a technical term that refers to receiving the teachings of Christ. The Colossians have heard about Jesus and they have believed in him. So, Paul tells them to continue to follow Jesus as their Lord. They are supposed to be rooted in him and built up in him, as they are established in the faith, just as they were taught. This kind of life should result in an abundance of thanksgiving.
This passage teaches us something very important about Christianity. It shows us that making a commitment to Jesus, professing faith in him, is merely the beginning of a relationship with God. Real faith, or trust, in Jesus is not one moment in your life. Real faith, the kind that unites you to Jesus and puts you into a right relationship with God, is a lifelong thing. We need to continue in our faith and live as though Jesus is the Lord of our lives. Jesus should be our King, our Master, the one who “commands our destiny” as we just sang. When Paul says, “built up in him,” he implies that we are a work in progress. We are supposed to grow into what God wants us to be as his children.
These two verses alone also show that salvation should lead to thanksgiving. Christians, we should be thankful that God has saved us out of a dark future of condemnation and a bleak present of a meaningless, hopeless life. As Paul says in Colossians 1:13–14,
13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
And this passage touches on a very important theme that runs through the whole Bible. It is the theme of the temple. The church is God’s temple. We are supposed to be the “place” where God dwells on earth, where God is worshiped, and where the forgiveness of sins can be found. I think that’s why later Paul says that we—together, as the body of Christ, as the temple of the living God—have been filled by and in Jesus. Our purpose is to glorify God by worshiping him in all areas of our lives. And our lives should be marked by thanksgiving as we respond to the gospel of grace. We who were once dead have been made alive in Christ. We are now his servants and he is our Master. For that reason, we shouldn’t let anything else take us captive.
That is why Paul warns the Colossians not to be taken captive by any other philosophies. Let’s read verse 8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we must avoid all other empty, deceitful, rival philosophies. Paul doesn’t condemn all philosophy. After all, the word simply means “love of wisdom.” Paul has just told us in verse 3 that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. The kind of philosophy that Paul warns about is the philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. The key is that these philosophies are described as “empty deceit.” They are empty because they cannot fill us up the way that Jesus does. And they are deceitful because they are not true.
We know that there are a lot of manmade philosophies out there. And these philosophies are godless ones, such as naturalism, the view that there is no God or anything supernatural, or scientism, that all of reality can be explained through science. These are essentially worldviews in which God does not exist, and all can be explained by science or by human reasoning. In Colossae, the “empty philosophy” might have combined Jewish regulations, such as dietary laws and circumcision, with mysticism and a form of asceticism. If you look at the next passage in Colossians, verses 16–23, you can see that. The Roman Empire was full of many different religions, and there might have been a temptation for these Christians in Colossae (a city in what is now known as Turkey) to add other religions or philosophies to Jesus. Certain people in Colossae might have believed that these things were necessary in order to have a right standing with God. But Paul says that the Colossians need nothing other than Christ.
It’s a little harder to know what Paul means when he writes about philosophies according to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The “elemental spirits” can either mean the physical elements of this world, such as air, earth, fire, and water. They can also mean spiritual beings like demons. Perhaps the best way to understand this phrase is to see it as both. Unbelievers worship the creation instead of the Creator. These “elemental spirits” somehow represent idols, or rivals to God. Paul could have meant that these “elemental spirits,” or “elemental principles,” were being taught by some false teachers. Ultimately, false teaching and false religious practices are rooted in the demonic realm. They belong to Satan, the father of all lies (John 8:44).
In our day, many empty and deceitful philosophies try to usurp the throne of Christ. Any form of idolatry is a rival to Christ as Lord. Obsession with romance, wealth, fitness, or politics can prove to be an empty philosophy.
There are many false teachings that creep into the church, like the postmodern thought that no one religion can be true, or that all religions lead to the same place, or that everyone is saved and there is no hell. There are other false teachings that become popular, such as New Age teachings. The specifics come and go, but they all tend to do with finding spiritual healing and peace outside of Jesus. And there are many false teachings that attempt to say that Christianity is false. I like to call this “Dan Brown history.” You know the story: there were many competing Gospels, and the Church decided which Gospels to keep and which ones to cover up.
I realize that there are many people who don’t regard themselves as religious, or who don’t think they have become captive to any philosophy or ideology. I think all of us are religious. We all think something is ultimate, and that something doesn’t require any other explanation. That something tends to be our god. And people seem to do a lot of irrational things.
This week I heard about a man named Braco the Gazer. He’s a Croatian man who appears to thousands of people and just gazes at them for several minutes. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t stare. He just sincerely gazes. And people claim that his gaze gives them feelings of love and light and energy and heat, and that his gaze can even bring healing.
Perhaps such things have a kind of placebo effect. But they don’t unite us to God. They don’t make us right with him or give us eternal life. That’s why we need to reject all of these false teachings. Christianity is a true view of all of reality. Christians need to develop a Christian worldview that tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God; all truth comes from God; the problem of the world is sin; and the only solution is Jesus. We need to guard our doctrine and the doctrine of our churches.
Sadly, I have seen many examples of people leaving their Christian roots because of empty philosophies. I have a friend whom I met in Austin when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. We met at the church that I was attending and eventually joined. I was studying voice at the university and he was a singer, too. Thought he had a day job working in a government office, he wanted to be a Christian R&B singer. He had even recorded an album. We became friends and occasionally had lunch together. We would talk about life and music.
From what I knew of this man when I lived in Austin, he was a godly man. He had a wife and three daughters, and it seemed to me that he wanted to use his musical abilities to serve the Lord. It was only after I left Austin that I noticed a change. The next time I came back to visit, I had lunch with this man. He started to tell me how he had been doing some “research” on the Internet. He told me there were other Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas. He told me other religions featured a virgin birth and a resurrection. I wasn’t very familiar with these things at the time, but now I know that there is a lot of bad history out there. The other Gospels were written in the second century or later. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was written towards the end of the second century. Thomas certainly did not write it. The same is true for the Gospel of Judas and other false gospels.
At any rate, this man was reading this inaccurate history and he was starting to doubt his faith. On my next trip to Austin, I once again had lunch with this man. He told me he was starting to look into Judaism. After all, if he couldn’t trust Christianity, he might as well go back to the roots of Christianity.
The last time I saw this man, he said he was just trying to live his life. He said he meditated on Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He told me he realized he needed to work on loving himself better. He also hinted at having some desire for contact with men. His comments were very ambiguous, but I could tell he had struggled with same-sex attraction.
This was the last time I saw him, but every few months, we would talk on the phone. Eventually, he told me some big news. He had decided to leave his wife. He had also tried out homosexuality. Though he had sex with a man, he didn’t know if he wanted to pursue being gay. He was obviously very mixed up. The last time I talked to him, he told me he was doing naked yoga and be was still trying to sort out his sexual orientation. From the looks of his Facebook profile, he is involved in some group that makes sexual pleasure their religion.
That’s just one example of someone I know who has left the faith. Another, closer friend I had seemed to be a strong Christian. But something has happened in her life, and I’m not sure what. All I know is that she divorced her husband and is now exploring astrology.
Now, you don’t have to get caught up in strange things to be taken captive by an empty, deceitful philosophy. People leave the faith in order to pursue desires, relationships, careers, or simply because they don’t want Jesus to be Lord over their lives.
We must guard our hearts, guard our doctrine, and even guard each other so that we can continue to stay rooted in Christ. We don’t need any other philosophies, because all true wisdom is found in Christ. And he is the only one who can save us.
If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we need to remember the gospel message. That means we must continue worshiping, reading the Bible, and even preaching the gospel to ourselves. We must remember that in Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. If we are in Christ, our old self has died. If we are in Christ, we are risen to new life. If we are in Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. And if we are in Christ, our enemies have been defeated.
Let’s read verses 9–15:
9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Verses 9–15 summarize the key elements of the gospel message. In Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us once again that the fullness of God dwells in the physical body of Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” Jesus is God, or, to put it more accurately, the God-man. And if we are united to Jesus, we have access to the fullness of God. Think about that: if the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, and we are “in Christ” through faith, we have direct access to all of God. If we are the body of Christ and he is the head of that body, we are connected to the one who is over all rulers and all authorities. If we are the temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth is in us. Our Lord is the Lord of the universe. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. There is no greater power out there. Why would we want to worship something else or pursue any other philosophy? In Christ, we have everything we need.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn other things, like math and science and history. But we should learn those subjects knowing that math and science are possible because they reflect the orderliness of the mind of God and the order and design of his creation. All truth is God’s truth. So, we should learn to connect all of life, including everything we learn, to God. We should learn to interpret every fact in light of the existence of God.
Beginning in verse 11, Paul gets to the heart of the gospel. In Christ, our old selves have died. Paul talks about this transformation that God performs in Christians by using the metaphor of circumcision. God told Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that all of the men among God’s covenant people had to be circumcised (Genesis 17). Literally, this was a surgery, a putting off of part of the flesh. But even in the Old Testament, circumcision took on a metaphorical quality. Israelites were told they needed to have circumcised hearts, which meant they needed to have new hearts, hearts changed by God (Deut. 10:12; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). We might say that to be right with God, we need to have spiritual heart surgery. That’s because before that transformation, we don’t desire or love rightly. Our problem is that we don’t love God and other people the way we should. We don’t desire to do what is noble and right, at least not all the time and not with the right motives.
Here, Paul says that all Christians have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” In other words, God is the one who did this circumcision. God has performed this spiritual heart surgery on his people. It was done “by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” The meaning of this is debated. Some people think the circumcision of Christ refers to his actual circumcision, which is a reminder that Jesus obeyed the law, the covenant demands of God. Paedobaptists—those who believe children of believers should be baptized while they are infants—believe that Christian baptism is the equivalent of circumcision, and this is what they baptize babies. However, the mention of faith in verse 12 shows why this view is wrong. Baptism apart from faith does nothing.
Other people think the circumcision of Christ is a way of referring to his death. When Jesus died, he was “cut off.” Still others think that it refers to the spiritual circumcision that Christ performs on us. Even in the Old Testament, circumcision language was used for regeneration, or being “born again.” God told the stubborn, rebellious people of Israel that they needed circumcised hearts and even ears (Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51). To listen to God’s voice and respond to it rightly, we need to be transformed. We often think of the gospel as dealing with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And that’s right. But part of the good news is also that God transforms us so that we can respond rightly to Jesus. He gives us the Holy Spirit.
I think the “circumcision of Christ” refers both to his death and to our regeneration. If we are united to Christ in faith, we participate in his death. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Romans 6:3–4. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
True circumcision is also described in Romans. Romans 2:28–29 says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” To be circumcised by God is to have a radical heart surgery performed by God the Father, through the Son, by means of the Holy Spirit.
In Christ, we become spiritually alive. Not only do we die with Christ, but we rise with him, too. This dying and rising is represented in baptism, which is considered part of the complex of events—faith, repentance, receiving the Spirit—that marks our initiation into the family of God. The key element in verse 12 is faith in God’s ability to do powerful things. If God can raise Jesus from the grave, he can make us into new creations. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Ephesians 2. We once were dead in our sins and now we are alive in Christ.
In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, by dying in our place, we have the forgiveness of sins. Our debt to God that stood over us with its legal demands was nailed to the cross. This reminds me of that verse in “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
On the cross, Jesus paid our debt. We all have turned our backs on God. Sure, we may think of him when we have a need, but the rest of the time we don’t think of him and love him as we should. We don’t live life on his terms. Our lives are rooted in something else. God cannot have this, because our sin ruins his creation, and because he is a righteous, perfect judge. Yet Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live—always rooted in God—and he died in our place, paying the penalty for our crimes against God. And his resurrection proves that his death paid that debt in full. Jesus took on the sentence for our crimes against God and walked out of the grave a free man, having satisfied the penalty for our sin.
Finally, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven have accomplished one last, important thing. On the cross, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to save us through Jesus. But Jesus also died because Satan and the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him eliminated. The devil and the Sanhedrin thought that they defeated Christ when he was crucified, but the irony is that through death, God defeated his enemies. When Jesus died, the authorities stripped him naked, paraded him in front of angry crowds, and celebrated their triumph over him. But Paul tells us the reality is quite different. Through Jesus’ death and subsequent vindication, God stripped his enemies naked, paraded them in public, and celebrated his triumph over them. This may not be apparent to the world right now, but when Jesus returns, it will be.
Once again, we see that Jesus is Lord over all authorities and rulers, on earth and in heaven. If our root is in Christ, no enemy can defeat us. We must remember to preach this gospel message of regeneration and forgiveness and triumph to ourselves, to remember that we have everything we need in Christ. We need to do this in the midst of temptation or discouragement, to keep us from slipping away from Jesus.
Now that we’ve looked at the details of this passage, how should we respond?
Let me first ask this: what is your life rooted in? What is your life built on? If it’s not truly built on Jesus, or on the one true, three-in-one God that is the Father, Son, and Spirit, it will be built on something else, something that isn’t lasting.
If you haven’t built your life on Jesus, I would urge you to do that. Other things may sound good. Other ideas, ways of life, or even religions may sound very attractive. But they either won’t be true (in the case of other religions) or they won’t put you in the right with God (in the case of philosophies). Only Jesus can forgive our sins, change our hearts, and give us eternal life. But we must be rooted in Jesus. We can’t plant Jesus into another root. It doesn’t work that way. He won’t be built on our lives. It’s the other way around.
A lot of people have wrongly been taught that to become a Christian means saying a prayer, or making a one-time confession of faith. Now, we can and should pray to God when we come to faith, and we should confess that we believe that Jesus is Lord and God and that he died for our sins. But real faith isn’t just saying words. Real faith is a living, continuing trust in Jesus. There are many false converts, people who once said they believed and were baptized and are not following Jesus. Let’s not be fooled. Those people are not Christians. Anyone can say some words. Anyone can get wet. Anyone can appear to follow Jesus for a short time. But real Christians continue to follow Christ.
If you’re not a Christian, or if you’re not sure you’re really a Christian, I would love to talk to you about what it means to follow Jesus.
If you are a Christian, how do we stay rooted in Christ?
There are some practical ways to help us stay rooted in Christ. We need to continue to read our Bibles. My goal is to read the entire Bible every year. I think it’s a reasonable goal—though I’ve often failed. You can do it by reading twenty-three chapters each week, or a little over three chapters a day. We need to remember that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). But there’s no law saying you have to read in the Bible in one year. Try reading it over the course of two years. If you read two chapters a day, even if you miss a day here or there, you can read it two years’ time. Staying in the Bible helps us remember what is true and what is valuable. It keeps us rooted in Christ.
We can also read other books that help us understand the Bible or help understand how to connect the Bible to every area of life. What’s important is that we are careful about our inputs. You will only be as good as the diet your brain and your heart are getting. So, choose wisely.
Here’s something I want you to think about. We have a limited amount of time, and we should be careful how we spend our time. Think only about reading. Tony Reinke, in his book on reading called Lit!, makes the following observations. There are currently eighteen million books in the Library of Congress. In fifty years, there will probably be at least twenty-eight million books. If in the next fifty years we read one book a week, which is a lot of reading, we could read 2,600 books. That sounds impressive. But that means that for every book we read, we choose not to read ten thousand other books. We will only be able to read one out of every ten thousand books, and only if we read one book per week. So choose your reading wisely. Don’t waste all your time on the Internet, watching TV and movies, and reading bad books.
We can also stay rooted in Christ by worshiping him, particularly on the Lord’s Day with other Christians. Remember that Paul said we should abound in thanksgiving. Be thankful that God saved you and show your thanks through prayer and through praise. Sing of how good God is and talk to him regularly.
Staying rooted in Christ means that we have to dig up weeds that would threaten us. Whether those weeds are sinful practices or distractions or philosophies, ideologies, or even other religious ideas, if they are contrary to Jesus, we need to root them out of our lives so that we can stay rooted in Christ.
Finally, remember the gospel. Remind yourself that you have sinned against the holy Creator and are deserving of eternal condemnation, and you have been saved by God’s grace, which is available at great cost: Jesus’ death on the cross. Preach the gospel to the people around you, whether it’s your congregation, your Sunday school class, your family, or your friends. Never assume that they know the good news of Jesus Christ. And even if they know it, we never move past the gospel. We need to keep hearing it and thinking about it. It keeps us rooted in Christ.
When we continue in our faith, reject the world’s deceitful philosophies, and remember the gospel, we stay rooted in Christ. If you do these things, when you die, someone will stand up at your funeral and say, “He stuck to his roots, no matter what.”
- These words come from the hymn “In Christ Alone.” ↑
- For the role of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, even in the Old Testament, see James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Spirit: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006). ↑
- Tony Reinke, Lit! (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 93–94. ↑
What is your life rooted in? What is it built on? If it’s not built on Jesus, it’s on shaky ground. Find out why it matters that our lives are rooted in Christ and how we can keep our lives rooted in Christ. This sermon on Colossians 2:6-15 was preached by Brian Watson.
Who are you? What is your identity? If our identity is found in our jobs, feelings, desires, accomplishments, or relationships, then our identity won’t be stable and it can be crushed. But our identity can be found in one who never fails. Jesus takes sinful people, losers and failures, and turns them into his people. Find out why Jesus gives us great hope. Pastor Brian Watson preaches this message based on Luke 5:1-11.
Who do you think you are?
That’s an important question. I don’t mean, what are you? The question of what human beings are is an important one, to be sure. But I have something far more personal in mind. Who are you? What is your identity?
The question of identity is an important one. It concerns how we think of ourselves and how we think of others. Think about what happens when you meet someone new. You start to identify that person by categories. We think of what a person looks like, his or her gender and age and looks, how that person is dressed, how they speak and act, and so on. When we get to know people, we often ask, “What do you do?” We mean, “What do you do for work?” or, “What do you do for a living?” That’s another way of identifying someone. We may ask, “Where are you from?” That, too, is a way of placing that person in a certain category.
The question of identity has also come front-and-center in many important political and cultural debates. The term “identity politics” addresses the issue of how people’s identity affects their politics. As far as I can tell, this began as an attempt to organize minority voices, which isn’t a bad thing at all. If, say, people who have a certain skin color and/or ethnicity aren’t getting their voices heard in the public square, it’s good for them to band together and make their views known. But what has happened is that now we pigeonhole people according to gender, skin color, religion, and sexual orientation, among other things. Instead of evaluating people according “to the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it, we assume that if people are white male Christians, they must think this way, or can’t possibly have anything to say to that issue. It seems that instead of getting less prejudiced, we’re getting more prejudiced, putting everyone into camps before we even know what each person is really like.
Today, many people identify themselves according to their desires, and this creates new classes of people. People who are transgender have a biological sex, yet they self-identify as having a different gender, the one usually associated with the opposite sex. So, a transgender man is a biological woman who feels that she is a man. People who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual identify themselves according to sexual desires. These identities are not rooted in biology, but only in desire. Imagine if you self-identified according to other dispositions, like pride, anger, lust, jealousy, and covetousness.
Our identities can also be based around our accomplishments or failures. We can find our self-worth in our jobs, our awards, our degrees, the amount of money we’ve made, or the way that people view us. Or, we can think of all the jobs we’ve lost, the awards we failed to earn, the degrees we never earned, the money we’ve lost, and the relationships we’ve lost.
What is your identity? Is it based on what you do for a living? Your political views? Your ethnicity? Your looks? Your desires? Your achievements? Your failures? When you think of yourself, what comes to mind? Who are you?
I ask this question because today we’re going to look at a passage of the Gospel of Luke that deals with identity. We’ve been studying this biography of Jesus for about three months, and we’ve seen that Jesus has recently begun his public ministry. He has preached a message of God’s kingdom and he has healed people. Now, he gathers some coworkers to himself. The story is rather simple: Jesus calls Simon Peter and a couple of associates to be his followers. They were fishermen, but Jesus gives them a new vocation: instead of catching fish, they will now catch people. (Don’t take that literally—I’ll explain what that means in a bit.) At the heart of this story is identity. Peter saw himself as a humble fisherman and, besides that, a sinful man. Yet Jesus summons Peter to take on a new identity. We might read this story as just a bit of religious history, but it’s much more than that. Jesus is still in the habit of calling sinful people to himself, giving them new identities and new roles to play.
So, with that in mind, let’s read Luke 5:1–11:
1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
As I said, the story is fairly simple, but I’ll give us a few details to explain. Jesus is at the “lake of Gennesaret,” which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been gaining a following, so there were people there who wanted “to hear the word of God.” Jesus’ words are God’s words. The crowd must have left little room for Jesus to preach. We don’t know exactly where Jesus was, but it was possible that he was at a location south of Capernaum where there was a bay that formed a natural amphitheater. “Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.” To get an appropriate place to speak to this crowd, Jesus gets in a fishing boat and has its owner, Simon Peter, sail out a little way from the shore. Jesus then preaches from the boat.
Again, Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was preaching. We’ll hear a lot more of Jesus’ preaching as we go through the gospel. Luke is more concerned with what happens next. After Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Simon to try to fish. Now, we’re told that Simon and the other fishermen were washing the nets. This was probably a trammel net, which created a vertical wall of three layers of netting that caught fish. Because of the complexity of the nets, they needed to be washed after use. (I suppose the nets trapped weeds as well as fish.) The fact that the fishermen were washing the nets meant they were done fishing.
Simon’s response to Jesus in verse 5 is a bit skeptical, but it also shows his faith. He says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” It’s as if he’s saying, “Jesus, why are you telling us to fish. We’ve been fishing for hours and haven’t caught a thing!” But Simon also says, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Simon’s experience tells him he won’t catch anything. It doesn’t seem likely at all. But he also trusts Jesus’ word. In chapter 4, we saw that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by his word (Luke 4:38–39), so Simon knows that Jesus’ word is powerful. He may not realize who Jesus is yet, but he knows Jesus is someone he should listen to.
So, Simon obeys Jesus, and when he does, he finds that Jesus was right. The nets catch so much fish that they start to break. In fact, the haul was so large that Simon has to call his partners, James and John, to bring their boat. And when the fish are divided between both boats, those boats start to sink. This is no ordinary catch. How did this happen? Well, Jesus is the God-man. It’s possible that either he commanded those fish to be there at that exact time, or he knew they would be swimming by at that time and could be caught if only the nets were in place. Either way, this is a display of Jesus’ power over nature.
When all the fish are in the boats, Simon doesn’t worry about the damage to the nets or the fact that the boats may sink. No, he doesn’t worry about that at all. Instead, he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why would Simon say something like that? Because he knows he’s in the presence of the divine. He may not realize that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but he knows that Jesus is no ordinary man, and that somehow Jesus is associated with God. His response may seem strange, but it’s perfectly natural, and fits a pattern that we see in the pages of the Bible. When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). He realized he and his fellow Israelites had spoken sinfully. When the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of God, he fell on his face (Ezek. 1:28). The same John in this passage, one of Jesus’ specially-commissioned followers, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. John reports, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
Why do these people respond this way? They realize who God is. They know God is perfect. God is pure. And when we see God’s holy, righteous, pure, perfection, we also see how very imperfect and impure and unrighteous we are. Who are we in comparison to God? If you were a fisherman, it would be intimidating to be in the presence of the world’s greatest fisherman. But how would you feel if you were in the presence of the one who created fish? But it’s more than that. Sin is a rebellion against God. And it’s more than just bad choices. It’s deliberately doing what is wrong. More than that, sin is a power that corrupts and contaminates us. It turns us away from God and turns us in upon ourselves, thinking that the world revolves around us. Only when we’re called out of that inward gaze, when we face the very foundation of reality, the Creator himself, do we see the horror of our own sin. If we don’t encounter God, we will never say, “I am a sinful man,” or, “I am a sinful woman.” We may, “Oh, I’ve made some mistakes,” but that’s different. Mistakes can be honest or unintentional. But sins are crimes, violations of a holy God’s will. And until we see God for who he truly is, we’ll never understand the depth of our sin.
And unless we know the depth of our sin, we’ll never truly understand the depths of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace. Think of the way Jesus deals with Simon. Jesus already knows that Simon is a sinful man. And he never says, “No, Simon, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jesus would agree with Simon’s self-assessment. But Jesus doesn’t condemn him. No, Jesus tells Simon and his partners, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” He actually says, quite literally, “from now you will be catching men alive.” This is a bit puzzling. Of course, it’s not meant to be taken literally. What Jesus means is that they had previously spent their lives catching fish. Of course, those fish would die and be sold for food. Jesus doesn’t mean they will hunt down people. What he means is that they will be gathering people for Jesus. They will go and tell others about Jesus, about who he is and the forgiveness that he offers sinful people. A couple of weeks from now, we’ll see Jesus respond to some Jewish religious leaders who question why he spends time with obviously sinful people. Jesus says, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).
How do Simon and his partners respond? Earlier, Jesus had told them to let down their nets, and they let their nets drop into the water to catch more fish. Now, they let down their nets—not to catch more fish, but to leave their old lives of fishing behind. They drop everything and follow Jesus. They trust his word and they follow him.
The passage is rather simple, but it’s profound. On one hand, we can see this as simply a bit of history. Jesus starts to call twelve men to himself. These twelve will follow Jesus, learn from him, see the miracles he performed, and then witness his death and resurrection. He happened to call some fishermen to join him, he performed a miracle to show them something of his identity, and they followed him.
But this passage reveals a paradigm: Jesus deliberately calls humble, sinful people to follow him. And those who follow Jesus trust his word and they leave their old lives behind. They have new identities and a new role to play in life.
And this is great news. Earlier, I said that we all have identities. Often, people identify themselves by their group, their people, their tribe, as it were. Everyone is labeled, and we even label ourselves. These labels have to do with gender, age, skin color, ethnicity, where we grew up, our socioeconomic status. We put other people and even ourselves in neat little boxes. But that isn’t liberating. It’s suffocating. Why should those accidental properties define us? I can’t control the fact that I was born in 1976 to a white family, that I have blue eyes, that I’m 6’2”, that I have this set of genes, and so on. All those things are important parts of who I am, but why should they define me?
And why should our desires determine who we are? What if our desires are harmful? What if we desire things that are contrary to God’s design for our lives? Our feelings shouldn’t determine who we are. What if our feelings are eating us up? What if our feelings consist of anxiety and depression?
If we build our identity on past successes, what happens if we fail in the present, or in the future? What then? And what happens when we think of ourselves and all we think about are our failures? How can we get an identity that isn’t destroyed by all the ways we’ve made a mess of our lives?
The same could be said of relationships. If we build our primary identity on our status as husband or wife, what happens if our spouse leaves us or dies? If our primary identity is mother or father, what happens when our kids don’t turn out the way we hoped the would be, or what happens if, God forbid, they die?
What happens if we never had the family we wanted, the career we wanted, the life we wanted? How can we have an identity that is positive?
I want to press this home a little further. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a wise, older friend. I was telling him about some recent difficulties that I’ve had. And I even told him that I’ve had a difficult time, emotionally speaking, over the last two years. I said that there was a point when I wanted to get out of my life. I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to hit the reset button, to start all over again, to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I remember telling friends that I felt like the opposite of King Midas. You may remember the story of King Midas: everything he touched turned to gold. I felt like every good gift that God had given me I turned to garbage.
Well, my friend said something very interesting. He said that being stuck with ourselves forever is hell. What he meant was that if we are stuck with ourselves and are not redeemed, not saved, not transformed, then that is hell. To be unchanged and without hope, and to be stuck with our old identities, is a kind of hell.
Some of the most profound thoughts about personal identity have come from the great theologian Augustine. In his famous book, the Confessions, he talks about how he became a Christian. He first pursued a life of pleasure and non-Christian philosophies. Reflecting back on that time, he writes, “I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Where is there where I cannot pursue myself?” Over sixteen hundred years before I had these thoughts, Augustine had them first. Human nature doesn’t change.
Don’t all of us wish we were different? Maybe we wish we had a different family, a different career, a different station in life, or even a different body. This is what all of us feel. I’ve felt it. Augustine felt it. I’m sure you have, too.
When Augustine became a Christian, he realized the depth of his sin. He confessed, “My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.” We were made for God, to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him. But instead of treasuring the Creator, we treasure his creation. Instead of loving the Giver of all good gifts, we make idols of the gifts and ignore the Giver.
If this is the human condition, where can we go for help? Where can we find hope? How can we get new identities? How can we be changed?
The good news is that Jesus offers us new identities. He offers us transformation. He offers us change. And, in the end, he will bring about that change.
But first, we must realize that we have sinned. And we must own that fact.
Last week, I read a fascinating little book called The Riddle of Life. It was written by a Dutch missionary named Johan Bavinck over fifty years ago and it was recently translated into English. This book dares to ask the big questions of life, such as, “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” In the course of the book, Bavinck describes the nature of sin. He says, “In our hearts we carry a goodly number of passions, and we are loath to reveal these most intimate thoughts to others, because we are well aware that they are not at all what they should be.” Deep down, we know we have thoughts and desires that we should be ashamed of. And we all know we have done things we shouldn’t have. In short, if we’re honest, we know we’re not right.
But there comes a choice. Do we admit that we’re not right, or do we talk ourselves into thinking that we’re okay, or we’re not as bad as those people over there?
The proper response to an encounter with God is to own our sin, not to shift the blame. Bavinck addresses this issue, too. He writes,
As much as possible, we want to blame our shortcomings on others and on institutions outside us. We continually want to rid ourselves of all blame, while the only route to real salvation is that we fully own up to our guilt, admit that the emptiness dwells in our own soul. To put it differently: we are inclined to explain our suffering in such a way that we are victims of hostile powers outside ourselves. Our victim-obsession deprives us of the real incentive to essential conversion. Thus the first thing we have to do is to recognize that we are totally on the wrong track, that our lives completely lack a goal, that we ourselves are entirely to blame, and that the fundamental fault lies first of all within ourselves. Only then have we arrived at the heart of the matter.
That quote is so very relevant for our world today. We cannot blame our sin on others, on outside forces or institutions. Yes, we may have been wronged by others. But we have wronged others, too. And we have to admit that we’ve not loved God or wanted to live life on his terms. Bavinck writes, “The real reason for denying sin is our constant effort to wrestle free from God and to resist his will.” In order to come back to God, we must first admit this and seek his forgiveness.
To know God is to know you’re a sinner. To know you’re a sinner is the first step to knowing the Savior. Jesus knows your sin. As God, he knows everything. Yet he still came and died for everyone who would simply trust him, who would run to him for refuge, who would come to him to find a new identity.
Jesus knew that Simon was a sinful man. Simon knew he had failed in life. He even failed at fishing. But what does Jesus say? “Let down your nets.” “But Jesus, we’ve fished all night and haven’t caught anything!” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, get away from me, I’m a sinful man. You don’t know the things I’ve done.” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, I can’t be of any use to God. I’m such a loser.” “Let down your nets.”
Simon didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. But there’s one thing he had. He had confidence in Jesus’ words. So, at Jesus’ word, he tried fishing again. And he found that Jesus was right. And after he confessed his sin to Jesus, he let down his nets. He left behind his life of fishing and became an evangelist, catching people not to die, not to be sold and enslaved, but so that they would have eternal life, and new identities. In fact, Simon was given a new identity and even a new name. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus first meets Simon, he says, “‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42). Cephas and Peter both mean “rock.” In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter says that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” 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. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16–18). Simon went from a humble, sinful fisherman to being Peter, the rock, one of the first leaders of the church. He went from sinner to saint and son of God.
This wasn’t because Simon cleaned himself up and atoned for his own sins. Jesus can call sinful people to himself and tell them that they will catch men alive, because Jesus allowed himself to be caught and killed. Though Jesus is the perfect Son of God, the God-man, the only person who has never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and an enemy of the state. He was tortured and crucified, killed in a brutal way. This was because sinful people hated him, but it was also God’s plan. God made a way for sinners to have their sins punished when Jesus died on the cross. And God made a way for sinners to be clothed in Jesus’ righteous status, receiving credit for his perfect life. This is a gift. We call this grace.
You can have this, too, if you trust Jesus’ word. Do you trust that God can forgive you? Do you trust that you can be regarded as perfect, as clean, as sinless? God promised this in the new covenant, the terms for his relationship with his people: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Do you believe that is true? Do you believe that God can forgive you and cast aside all your failures? Do you believe that God is good enough that he would send his precious Son into the world to receive the penalty that you deserve? Do you believe that Jesus would lay down his own life to rescue yours?
The Bible also says that the world is still broken, marred by sin. But one day Jesus will return to settle all accounts. He will right all wrongs. His people will be raised from the dead and receive new bodies that can never die. Do you believe that could happen? Do you trust that it will?
You may think this is too good to be true. You may not understand it all. But you can still be like Peter and say, “I don’t think this can happen, but because you say so, Jesus, I’ll trust you. I’ll follow you.”
You may not have to change your job like Simon Peter did. Letting down your nets may be leaving behind some old, destructive habits. We need to put sins to death. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave our jobs or our families. We’ll all have to leave some things behind. Some of us will have more dramatic conversions than others. But we all need to change and we all need to be willing to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us and whatever he tells us to do.
Now, if you are a Christian, I want to leave us with two quick thoughts. The first is that we have a tendency to forget that our real, primary identity is in Christ. We can look back at our failures, or we can look to other things to give our lives meaning and purpose. But being a Christian means being “in Christ.” Our old lives are gone, and our new life is found in Jesus. When I was feeling depressed, when I felt like I was being attacked by forces of evil, I had to remind myself of the gospel. We all have to do that.
The second thought has to do with evangelism. Why does Jesus call fishermen? I suppose it’s because fishing requires hard work and patience. Fishermen have to be willing to go out, work hard, and get little for their labors. There will be days when they don’t catch much. And I suppose that’s a lot like evangelism. All Christians should be witnesses to Jesus. All of us should tell others about who Jesus is and what he has done. We can tell others about how Jesus has changed us. This requires many attempts. Some attempts won’t produce fruit. But we should keep trying. We might think, “Jesus, I can’t believe that person would ever put their trust in you. Jesus, I’ve tried already. Jesus, that person is too far gone, too bad, too stubborn, too angry.” But, still, we have to be like Peter, “At your word, I’ll try again.”
The only true good news that the world has ever received is that Jesus is the true King, the righteous ruler who comes to rescue his people. He lived the perfect life that we don’t life. He died a death in place of his people so that their sins are punished. He offers new life, forgiveness of sins, and new identities to those who trust in him. He promises that one day he will fix all that is wrong. There is no better offer out there. Please, take Jesus’ offer. Let down your nets and follow him.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream . . .” This speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. The text of the speech is available at https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. ↑
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 153. Edwards cites B. Crisler, “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (1976): 137. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 60. ↑
- Ibid., 30. ↑
- J. N. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, trans. Bert Hielema (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 66. ↑
- Ibid., 81. ↑
- Cephas is based on the Aramaic for rock and Peter is based on the Greek word for rock. ↑
- See 1 Corinthians 7:17–24. ↑
The first episode of Jesus’ public ministry that we find in Luke’s Gospel is an account of him teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus’ message ultimately produces a hostile reaction. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 4:14-30.
Do you know what a “bucket list” is? A “bucket list” is a list of things to do before you kick the bucket. According to one website, here are the top ten bucket list ideas:
1. See the Northern Lights.
3. Get a tattoo.
4. Swim with dolphins.
5. Go on a cruise.
6. Get married.
7. Run a marathon.
8. Go zip-lining.
9. Go scuba diving.
10. Ride an elephant.
I looked at a few similar lists and there’s a lot of overlap on these lists. Most of top bucket list items involve travel, seeing something unique, and achieving something significant. So, other bucket list items might involve traveling to all fifty states or all seven continents, seeing the Great Wall of China, and writing a book.
What’s on your bucket list? What do you want to see or do before you die?
Today, we’ll look at how two older Jewish people reacted to the baby Jesus. It seems they both had a very short bucket list, a list that had only one item: See the Messiah. They wanted to see God’s anointed one, the one who would redeem God’s people, who would bring the promised “consolation of Israel.”
This morning, we’ll be reading Luke 2:22–40. Before we start reading, I’ll briefly remind us of what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke begins by explaining how this book is a work of history. He wrote of the amazing things that God had done through Jesus, and his history was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The first chapter of Luke showed us how the angel Gabriel promised that two special children would be born. First, John the Baptist would come. He would urge Israelites to turn back to God and he would prepare the way for the second child. The second child is Jesus, who was conceived in a virgin’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the anointed one, the one who would inherit the throne of David, the one who would rule forever, the “Son of the Most High.”
The second chapter of Luke begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman emperor, Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken. The census required that Jews travel to their ancestral homeland. Joseph was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, who was from Bethlehem. So, Joseph and Mary traveled to the “city of David.” Jesus was born there amid animals, in a very humble and perhaps quite filthy environment. This is not the way you would expect such a special child to be born, but it shows that God comes to us in our filth.
After Jesus is born, angels appear to some shepherds and tell them the good news that the Savior, the Lord, the Christ is born. They announce that there is peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. The shepherds race to discover that indeed the Christ is born. They glorified and praised God for all that they had seen.
In today’s passage, we find out what happens when Joseph and Mary bring their child to the temple in Jerusalem. They bring Jesus there to fulfill the law that God gave to Israel. When they do, two older Israelites are overjoyed.
Let’s first read verses 22–24:
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Why do Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple? They brought him there to fulfill two things written in the law of the Old Testament. One is the purification that must occur after a woman gives birth. The book of Leviticus says that after a woman gives birth to a male child, she is unclean for seven days. Then, the child should be circumcised on the eighth day, which is when Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). Then, for the next thirty-three days, the woman shall not touch anything holy or enter the temple. At the end of this time of purification, she shall bring a sacrifice: a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. If she couldn’t afford a lamb, she should offer two pigeons or two turtledoves (Lev. 12:1–8). The law says, “And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (Lev. 12:8).
To our ears, all of that sounds very strange. Why would a woman be ceremonially unclean after childbirth? Isn’t giving birth a good thing? Well, we can’t understand this idea without having some concept of the holiness of God. According to the Bible, God is holy. That means he is transcendent and pure. The presence of sin in the world taints us, however, and makes us unholy. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no blood shed. In fact, one of the consequences of sin is that childbirth would become painful (Gen. 3:16). If sin, which is a rebellion against God, never existed, life would be different. According to the law that God gave Israel, Israelites could offer sacrifices to atone for sin. In the book of Leviticus, other things that might not seem inherently sinful, like mold and mildew, could render something unholy. The idea is that the negative things in the world are the result of sin, and the holiness code of Leviticus taught the Israelites that if they were to approach God, they needed to become pure.
The second part of the law that Joseph and Mary fulfilled concerned the firstborn child. The firstborn Israelites belonged to the Lord. They were God’s and they needed to be bought back, or redeemed. This idea goes back to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. To free the Israelites, God sent ten plagues on Egypt. The tenth plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. The only way that anyone could avoid this fate was to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb on the door frame and lintel. Since God allowed the firstborn Israelites to be spared, they belonged to him (Exod. 13:2, 12–15). Later, the law required a redemption price of five shekels, which was equivalent to about six months of wages (Num. 18:16).
I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of these Old Testament laws. The point is that Joseph and Mary were obedient to God. They followed his law. The fact that they sacrificed two birds shows that they were not wealthy. When the present Jesus to the Lord, there’s no mention of their paying a redemption price. Perhaps they simply offered Jesus to God without paying the redemption price. The idea would be that Jesus is God’s, dedicated to his service. They might have been saying, “He is yours, not ours.”
Beyond these details, it’s interesting that Luke mentions Jerusalem, the temple, and the law. We already saw one scene at the temple, when Zechariah offered incense in the temple and the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Throughout both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the temple will play an important role. Of course, the temple was the center of Judaism. It was where God was worshiped, where God’s special presence dwelled, and where various sacrifices were offered. But Jesus came to replace the temple. He is the true temple, the dwelling place of God. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). He is the true sacrifice; in fact, he is the true High Priest. He’s also the “place” of worship for Christians. We don’t have to go to a particular building or city to worship God. We can meet God if we are united to Jesus.
Luke also emphasizes the law. Five times in this passage we’re told that Joseph and Mary did things according to the law (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 26, 39). We saw last week that the law of Caesar Augustus brought them from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–7). But it is the law of the Lord that brings them to Jerusalem, and there is no doubt that the law of the Lord is greater than the law of any human ruler.
The fact that Joseph and Mary observed God’s law shows that they were faithful Israelites. But it also has a greater theological significance. According to the apostle Paul, “[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus came to obey the law perfectly, which is something that no other Israelite did, something that no other human could do or did do. And he came to do away with the law. That doesn’t mean that he came to put an end to morality, or moral principles. But the particular set of laws that God gave to Israel wasn’t intended to be permanent. It revealed their sin, it taught them important principles, and it prepared them for the coming of the Messiah.
The law is superseded by the Holy Spirit. It’s no surprise that Luke would emphasize the law and the Holy Spirit in the same passage. The age of the law was passing away, and the age of the Holy Spirit was arriving. We see this in the next several verses. Let’s read about a man named Simeon. I’ll read verses 25–32:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I want to explore three things in this passage. One concerns who Simeon is. We’re told he was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” We’re also told the Holy Spirit was on him, the Holy Spirit told him he wouldn’t die before seeing the Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit led him to the temple to see Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God, and he is very active in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. We’re not told how old Simeon is, but we get the sense that he was advanced in years. It seems like he had been waiting for years.
The second thing I want to point out what Simeon was waiting for. He was waiting to see the “consolation of Israel.” The Greek word translated as “consolation” is παράκλησις (paraklēsis). It’s sometimes translated as “comfort,” and that reminds us of passages in the Old Testament that promised God would bring comfort to Israel. The most famous is Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Another passage is Isaiah 49:13:
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.
That Greek word is also related to the word παράκλητος (paraklētos), which Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit. The word is often translated as “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). God will bring comfort and consolation to Israel by means of the Holy Spirit. And Simeon knew that the day of consolation had arrived. The Messiah, anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, had come to redeem his people.
The third thing I want to point out is what Simeon said. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and he sings the fourth hymn that we find in the first two chapters of Luke. It is known as Nunc Dimittis, which is a Latin translation of the first two Greek words, “now dismiss.” Simeon tells God that he can now depart in peace, for he has seen the salvation of God. He knows that Jesus is the Savior, the one who will bring peace between God and his people. And this salvation is not just for ethnic Israel only. It is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. The idea of a “light to the nations,” or a “light to the Gentiles,” also comes from the book of Isaiah (42:6; 49:6; 60:3). It had always been God’s plan to save Gentiles through his Messiah.
Before we move on, we should wonder that an old man would have spent so much time waiting to see a baby. We should wonder that this man, after seeing this baby, said that he could now “depart,” which might be a euphemism for death. He is saying to God, “I can now die. I have seen what I wanted to see.” Some people want to see other countries or famous landmarks before they die. I bet there were some people in Red Sox Nation who said, before 2004, “God, just let me live long enough to see the Sox win the World Series.” They hadn’t won it all in a lifetime (from 1918 to 2004). But World Series don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And as great as it is to travel, to see unique sites, traveling doesn’t take care of our biggest needs. Traveling can’t promise eternal life. Various achievements, like running a marathon or writing a book, can’t make us right with God or give our souls rest.
But what Simeon saw was indeed the greatest thing anyone could see. He saw God in the flesh. Jesus is not just the Messiah, but he is the Son of God. That means he is divine. He is and has always been God the Son. And when he was conceived, he added a second nature. He was and is truly God, but he also became—and still is!—truly human. He came to fulfill the law for us and he came to pay the penalty for our sin for us. He came as the true sacrifice for sin. Simeon saw this, and he knew that his life was complete.
This is the hope of Israel. It is what faithful Israelites waited centuries to see. And it is the hope of all the nations. Simeon’s words echo another passage in Isaiah. This is what Isaiah 52:7–10 says:
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Simeon serves as a watchman, waiting for the salvation of Israel to come. And he sings of the good news that God has brought salvation to his people. He saw that the Lord had come to Zion, Jerusalem, to save. He knew that salvation would extend to people of all nations. He rejoiced and was glad.
Simeon’s words caused Joseph and Mary to marvel. But he wasn’t done. Let’s read verses 33–35:
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
So far in Luke, the news of Jesus’ coming has been all joy. But now there’s an ominous tone. Simeon says that the child has been appointed for the fall and rising of man, that he will be opposed, that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul, and that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Simeon says that Jesus will be a polarizing figure. Some people will receive him and others will oppose him. In the book of Isaiah, it says that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa. 8:14–15). And yet God says, also in Isaiah,
Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste’ (Isa. 28:16).
In the New Testament, this language is applied to Jesus (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6–8; cf. Luke 20:17). The idea is that for some, Jesus is a stumbling stone. He is offensive. People trip over him and fall. But others will build their lives on Jesus. He will be their rock. And he is the cornerstone of the church.
Jesus himself said that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34). That does not mean that Jesus was violent. What Jesus meant was that he will divide people. Some will trust him and others won’t. It was true two thousand years ago and it remains true today. Jesus knew that. Simeon knew that. But I doubt that Mary and Joseph knew that when Jesus was just a baby.
Jesus is divisive because he reveals our true condition. He said he is the light of the world (John 8:12). Light is a good thing. The light of the sun provides warmth. Without that light, there would be no photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, there would be no plant life. Without plant life, there would be no animal life. We wouldn’t be here. But light also reveals the truth, and a lot of people don’t want the truth about the spiritual conditions revealed. Jesus said,
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (John 3:19–21).
Jesus reveals that we’re sinners. He told his own brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). That’s a verse that most churches won’t read. But Jesus said it, and he did tell us we’re sinners who need to turn from our sin and turn to God.
Simeon also told Mary that this child would cause “a sword [to] pierce through your own soul also.” I can’t imagine how Mary took this news. I wonder what she thought. How would her soul be pierced by a sword? What does that mean? It probably refers to the pain she would experience as Jesus’ mother. Sometime after this event, Joseph and Mary would take Jesus to Egypt to hide from King Herod. Luke doesn’t tell us about this, but Matthew does (Matt. 2). Herod the Great heard that the “King of Israel” had been born in Bethlehem. That was a threat to his own rule. So, he had the male infants in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph about this and he took his family to Egypt. Next week, we’ll see an event that caused Mary great distress (Luke 2:41–52). But the greatest distress must have been caused by Jesus’ death. Mary was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. He was treated like the worst of criminals, an enemy of the state. And Mary had to witness her own son’s execution (John 19:25).
Jesus brings joy and comfort. But he also brings pain. In the end, that pain leads to greater joy for those who are united to Jesus. I’ll say more about that later.
But before I do that, let’s meet the other Jewish person who waited for the consolation of Israel. Let’s read verses 36–38:
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
At the same time, there was an old woman named Anna who was a prophetess. We’re told that she had been married for seven years and then lived as a widow. The ESV says she was married until she was eighty-four, but the original Greek could be translated “and then as a widow for eighty-four years.” If she had married quite young, perhaps at age thirteen (not unheard of for Jewish woman of that era), she would be over one hundred at this time. Either way, she lived as a widow for a long time. She spent every waking hour at the temple complex, waiting for the redemption of Israel. We’re not told her actual words, but we are told that she was a prophetess, and that when she saw Jesus at the temple, she gave thanks to God and told everyone else who was waiting for the redemption of Israel. God has come in the flesh as a baby, a baby would grow up to be Israel’s Savior and King.
After offering sacrifices and dedicating Jesus to the Lord, we’re told that Joseph and Mary moved back to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke is probably compressing the events. It’s likely that after this, they returned to Bethlehem for some time, then went to Egypt in exile, and only later moved to Nazareth. At any rate, let’s finish today’s passage by reading verses 39 and 40:
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
We’ll talk more next week about how Jesus grew, became strong, and was filled with wisdom. But for now, I want us to think about a couple of things. One, let me return to that idea of a bucket list. What is on your bucket list? What do you want to see before you die? Could that something ever compare to seeing God in the flesh? Could that something ever compare to seeing God come to rescue his people? Jesus came to save his people. When he first came as a baby, he didn’t come to fix every problem in the world. But he came to fulfill God’s righteous demands, to obey God’s law where we have so often failed. And Jesus came to die to pay for the sins of all who will ever trust in him. Our bucket list items are so pathetic and trivial when compared to Jesus.
For those of us who know Jesus, let me ask this: What do you want to see God do before you die? Is there something you are waiting for God to do? Is there a way that you can work to make that a reality in your life?
Another way of asking this is to ask, why are you still alive? What does God want for you to do? God doesn’t just want us to live pleasant lives of comfort, to retire from work and just wait around. God has planned in advance good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Sometimes, we need to wait on God to do the impossible. But many times, we need to act. We should be faithful to do the things that God wants us to do, the things that are clearly stated in Scripture. Make those your bucket list items.
Those who are faithful wait on the Lord. And those who are faithful act on God’s word. Simeon and Anna were faithful. They waited. But they also acted. When the Spirit led Simeon, he went. Anna had been waiting at the temple. We might say she was actively waiting. And Simeon and Anna were blessed. The many decades of their lives had been a prelude to meeting Jesus. They were rewarded for their patience and their faithfulness.
Often in the Bible, we read of older people whose greatest moments came later in life. That was true for Abraham and Moses. It was certainly true for Simeon and Anna. You may be retired and in the last years of this life. But that doesn’t mean you’re finished doing God’s work. You may yet see God do amazing things in your life. We tend to think of our lives as winding down at the end. What if your six, seven, or eight decades of life have all been leading to something that is still ahead? What if the best is yet to come?
In fact, the best is yet to come. Even the old and the frail have hope that the best years aren’t behind, but ahead. Simeon and Anna saw Jesus in their latter years. Those who have put their trust in Christ will see their Redeemer. In their flesh, they will see God. But they won’t meet him as frail, weak, mortal beings. No, when Christians meet Jesus, they will see him with perfect eyes in glorious, immortal, resurrected bodies. They will live in a perfect world with him forever.
But for those of us who don’t know Jesus, or who perhaps are not quite committed to Jesus, I want to say something. Earlier, I said that Jesus is a polarizing figure. He produces division. People either embrace him or reject him. They will find him to be a stone of offense or a rock upon which they can build their lives. Which side are you on?
Simeon said that Jesus would cause the falling and rising of many. All of us are bound to fall. We will die. That is a fact. And we fall in the sense that we do things that are wrong. We sin against God and each other. The question is whether we will rise. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus in repentance, who confess their sin and ask for mercy will find forgiveness. They will rise. Those who humble themselves before God will be exalted. But those who refuse to do this will simply fall, with no rising. And that falling will continue forever.
Admitting our sin can be painful. Repentance can feel like a sword is piercing our soul. In fact, there are elements of the Christian life that feel painful. God often uses our pain to cause us to grow. He uses painful events in our lives the way a surgeon wields a scalpel. God causes us pain in order to heal us. But that pain is far better than an eternity of misery, of being cut off from God.
And Christianity is the only religion that says that God knows pain. He knows what it’s like to be cut off. He knows what it’s like to have a sword pierce him, at least metaphorically speaking. When the first human beings sinned against God, they were evicted from Paradise. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Then God placed cherubim, angelic creatures, to guard the path back to the Garden. And they wielded a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). The idea is that if someone were to try to get to Paradise, they would be cut down by the sword. We need someone to take the sword for us, to open up the path to Paradise so we can be reconciled to God. And that’s what Jesus did on the cross. He took the sword so that we don’t have to. He fell, bearing God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin so that we don’t have to. Yet after he fell, he rose from the grave. His resurrection guarantees that his work on the cross has the power to defeat sin and death. All who follow Jesus can follow him back to Paradise.
Many people oppose Jesus because they don’t want to be told they are evil, because they don’t want to accept his authority, because they don’t want to change. But Jesus is our only hope. He is the only one who can bring us comfort and joy. He fell so you can rise. He was pierced by the sword so that you don’t have to experience God’s condemnation. I urge you to follow Jesus. Trusting him should be at the top of your bucket list.
- https://www.bucketlist.net/ideas/#top10. ↑
- Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 161. ↑
- Compare this dedication to 1 Samuel 1:22–28, when Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord’s service. ↑
- “Caesar’s authority brings the family to Bethlehem (2:4); the law’s authority brings them to Jerusalem, the first time the city is mentioned in the narrative. Following the pattern of step parallelism, Luke conveys his conviction that God’s law is higher than the law of the emperor.” David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 131. “Step parallelism” means that two events run parallel to each other, but the second event is greater. In chapter 1, the parallels between John and Jesus show that while both are special, promised children, Jesus is greater. Here, the parallels show that God’s law is greater than Caesar’s. ↑
- I have italicized some of the key words that connect that passage to this one. ↑
After Jesus is born, his parents bring him to the temple to fulfill the law. There, two older Jewish people meet Jesus and praise God for what they have seen. It seems they waited their whole lives to see Jesus. What are you waiting for?
Let me state an obvious truth: Christianity stands or falls with Jesus Christ. The whole definition and shape of Christianity begins and ends with Jesus. A distorted understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done produces a distorted Christianity. And a distorted Christianity is like fool’s gold: it’s worthless. Anything less than the real Jesus is an imaginary Jesus, and an imaginary Jesus can’t save us from condemnation or grant us eternal life.
Today, we continue our series on the Protestant Reformation by looking at the principle “Christ Alone.” “Christ Alone” means that Jesus is unique. He is the unique, one of a kind Son of God. He is the only God-man. He is the only mediator between God and sinful human beings. His death on the cross is the only sacrifice needed to pay for sins. His righteous life is the only righteousness that perfectly meets God’s standards and fulfills God’s intent for human beings. There is no other way to know God truly and be reconciled to him except through Jesus, because there is no one like Jesus and there is no one who has done what Jesus has done.
Martin Luther, the great trailblazer of the Reformation, came to this position in 1518: “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in their prayers, merits, or their own good deeds.” Luther was a Catholic monk, priest, and professor who protested the views of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church taught—and teaches today—that God’s grace is mediated through the Church, and it comes down from God, through Christ, by the Spirit, and also by means of saints, the Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and sacraments, such as baptism, the eucharist, and penance.
I don’t want to get bogged down in talking about Roman Catholic Theology this morning, but the fact is that though they have the same views on the person or identity of Jesus, their teachings seem to undermine his uniqueness and the sufficiency of his work. According to the Bible, Jesus is the only sinless human being who has ever lived (Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5; cf. Rom. 3:9–20, 23). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.” None of that is found or even suggested in the Bible. In fact, Mary recognized that she needed a Savior (Luke 1:47).
While the Bible recognizes that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Mary is also a mediator. This is what it says:
This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfilment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation.… Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.
There are a number of problems with this statement, but the ones that are greatest come at the end. We’re told she has a “saving office” and that her intercession “bring[s] us the gifts of eternal salvation.” This is completely unbiblical. Only God saves. According to the Bible, God the Father predestined us and sent God the Son to save us; God the Son added a second nature of humanity, lived the perfect life, died on a cross to pay for our sins, and rose from the grave; and God the Spirit applies the benefits of Jesus’ work to us. Yes, God chooses to use sinful human beings to preach the gospel and to pray for us, but he doesn’t need to use them. He chooses to, but he doesn’t rely on them. And they aren’t sinless, nor do they have a “saving office.”
What bothers me most about that statement regarding Mary is that she is given titles that belong only to God. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are called advocates or helpers (1 John 2:1; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). And Jesus is the only mediator (1 Tim. 2:5). So, I view the Church’s statements about Mary to be blasphemous.
In Catholic theology, the Church is the body of Christ in a very real, and not merely metaphorical, way. Therefore, salvation is mediated through the Church and through the sacraments. Furthermore, sin must be atoned for not just by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but also through sacraments and in purgatory. Again, this is against Scripture, which tells us that Jesus finished his atoning work on the cross (John 19:30). We cannot add to Jesus’ perfect work on our behalf. To even suggest that is to undermine his work.
Though we are surrounded by Roman Catholics today, Catholic theology is not the only threat to a true understanding of Jesus and his work. We are also surrounded by many fictional Jesuses, such as the Jesus who never excluded anyone or who never judged and the Jesus who is merely a man, whether a prophet, a good man, a spiritual guru, or all of the above. Many people believe that Jesus is not the one-and-only Son of God and the one-and-only way to God. Therefore, we need to uphold “Christ Alone” today, too.
This morning, I want to focus on three things. First, I want us to see who Jesus is. Second, I want us to see what he did for us. And, third, I want us to see how we should find our identity in him. He alone is the one in whom all things hold together. He alone is truly God and truly man. He alone is the one who died for our sins. And he alone is our true identity.
I won’t be able to say everything about Jesus this morning, of course. If you want to know more about Jesus, go to https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. But to see the uniqueness of Jesus, I want us to turn to the book of Colossians.
First, we’ll look at a very important passage in the first chapter. We’ll read verses 15–20. And as we’re turning there, I want to read the two verses before that passage. The apostle Paul writes this to Christians:
13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
I’ll come back to the idea of how God rescues his people through his Son. But it’s important to understand that we are rescued by the Son. Now, Paul tells us more about who the Son is in verses 15–20:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Let’s take this passage bit by bit. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He represents God, whom we can’t see, perfectly. The book of Hebrews says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This is important for understanding Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. If we fail to see that Jesus is both God and man, we’ll get Jesus wrong. I’ll explain that in just a moment. But it’s important to see here that Jesus is the perfect image of God. Not only that, but in him “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” That can only be true of God. No mere human being could contain the fullness of God.
We’re also told that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation.” In the fourth century, Arians took this verse to mean that Jesus was the first created being. Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses would read this passage in a similar way. But here “firstborn” refers to rights and status. We know this from another passage in the Bible. In Psalm 89, which is a Psalm largely about David, God says this:
And I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth (Ps. 89:27).
David was not the first king of Israel. That was Saul. And David was not the firstborn of his family. He was the youngest of eight brothers. So, “firstborn” does not literally mean “born first” here. It refers to his unique position. In the Bible, there are times when Israel or the king was said to be God’s “son.” Jesus is truly God’s Son, the “highest king.”
We know from other passages in the Bible that Jesus is God. Sometimes, Jesus is quite simply called God (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1). Sometimes, passages that in the Old Testament clearly refer to God are quoted (or alluded to) in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. Other times, Jesus is described as doing the same work as God. Only God can forgive sins, judge people, and create the world. And yet we’re told that Jesus does these things. So, in this passage in Colossians, we’re told that Jesus created all things, and not just all physical things in the universe, but all created realities, whether angels or people or anything else. If that is true, he cannot be a created being (or else he would have created himself).
And not only that, all things are created by Jesus and for him. Romans 11:36 says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” There, the apostle Paul says everything exists for, through, and to God. Here, in Colossians, we’re told that everything exists by Jesus and for him, and that he sustains everything, holding it all together. This cannot be possible unless Jesus is God.
Jesus is the center of reality. He holds everything together. Hebrews says he does that by his word (Heb. 1:3). He holds the universe together. Without Jesus, there would be no creation. Everything would cease to exist. You would cease to exist without Jesus, whether you trust him or not. And he is the one who connects God to human beings. He is the point where heaven and earth meet. That is why he alone is the one who connects us to God and why he alone is the head of the church.
Earlier, I said that it’s important to know that Jesus is God. If he were not God, he would not have the power to save us, nor would we have lived the perfectly righteous life. I also said that he is human. When he was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, though he has always existed, he added a second nature. He was and is still God, but he also became a human being. As a human being, he fulfills God’s plans for humanity and he can be our representative and our substitutionary, atoning sacrifice for our sins.
When Jesus is called the “image of God,” it reminds us that humans were created in God’s image. The first human beings were created to reflect God’s character, to represent him on earth, to rule over the world, and to multiply so that the world would become full of God’s image bearers, who would also reflect his glory and rule the world. But humans can only carry this mandate out if they come under God’s rule by obeying God’s word. Yet, from the beginning, humans haven’t trusted God. They haven’t paid attention to his word. They have disobeyed him and lived contrary to his design for our lives.
Because we ignore God and rebel against him, we deserve condemnation. Yet God has always had a plan to save people. At the right time, he sent his Son into the world. Jesus truly reflected, represented, and obeyed God. He always loved God perfectly. Therefore, he fulfills God’s expectations for us. He is truly the perfect man. And yet he died for our sins, paying the penalty for our crimes against God.
We’ll talk about that more in a moment. But it’s important to know that Jesus died, because this passage says that he is “the firstborn of the dead.” In this case, Jesus literally was the first resurrected person in history. He was the person to die and come back to life in a body that can never die again. He is the “firstfruits” (1 Cor. 15:20, 23) of the resurrection. That means he is the first resurrected person, but others will follow later. When Jesus rose from the grave, his immortal body was like a down payment, guaranteeing that at the end of time, when Jesus returns, all of God’s people will be resurrected and live in a perfect, resurrected world. At that time, all things will be reconciled to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that every person will be reconciled to God in terms of salvation. We know from many other passages in the Bible that there will be people who are condemned, who continue to reject God and want no part with him. But it means that everything in the universe will be reordered to reflect God’s reign. Those who trust in Jesus will live with him in a perfected universe, a universe of peace and harmony. Those who reject Jesus will be removed from this universe, cast out into what we call hell.
So, we have already seen in one passage that Jesus is both God and man, that he created the universe and sustains it, and that he is the head of the church who was raised from the dead.
In Colossians 2, we’re told more about Jesus’ work as our Savior. Let’s read verses 6–15:
6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Notice that in verse 9, we’re told that “the whole fullness of deity” dwells in Jesus. This cannot be said of a mere human being. And Christians have access to the fullness of God because they are “in Christ,” which means they are united to him and their lives are subsumed or submerged in him.
But what I want to focus on is what Paul says about what Jesus does for us. He says that Jesus gives us a spiritual circumcision. This may seem very strange to you if you’re not familiar with the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were told to circumcise male children. Literally, this involved cutting out part of a man’s flesh. But even in the Old Testament, this was a sign. It pointed forward to the Messiah, who would come out of Israel. And it symbolized the need to have one’s old nature cut out, to have a spiritual change. We might use the metaphor of a heart transplant.
In this passage, we’re told that Christians have received a circumcision “made without hands.” That’s another way of saying that God has done it. And we’re told this is done “by putting off the body of the flesh.” In the New Testament, “flesh” doesn’t literally mean one’s body. The physical stuff of the world is not inferior to spiritual things. But “flesh” often means sinful desires. We’re supposed to put those away. When God brings us to faith in Jesus, we receive new desires and a new nature.
This change occurs because, when we’re united to Jesus by trusting in him, our old selves are buried with him and our new lives are resurrected in him. That’s what that spiritual circumcision really is, and that is what is pictured in baptism. It’s a change of condition, a change of status, and a change of our spiritual lives. When we have a right relationship with Jesus, it is as though we have already died, and we have already been raised to new life, because he has died for our sins and been resurrected for our justification. If we believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and has done what the Bible says he has done, then we receive whatever is his. We are credited with his perfect, righteous life. Though we will die, we will receive immortal, resurrected bodies.
How is this possible? Because God has forgiven us. And how can God forgive people who have sinned against him? God cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” God is a perfect judge. He makes sure that every crime is punished. For those who trust in Jesus, all their sins were nailed to the cross. Jesus has already died for them. All our spiritual debt has been set aside, paid for by Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 7:27; 9:26; 10:10, 12, 14). We do not have to pay for our own sins, because they have been paid for—if we trust Jesus.
I want us to look at one more passage from Colossians to see that not only is Jesus the God-man who was crucified for our sins, but he is also our identity, our very life. Let’s look at Colossians 3:1–4:
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
If we have been raised with Christ, or made spiritually alive in him because we have faith in him, we’re supposed to seek “the things that are above.” That means we’re supposed to seek after eternal matters, the things of God. That doesn’t mean the things of this world aren’t important. But it does mean they need to be put in their proper place. They are not the center of the universe. Jesus is.
Paul tells Christians that they “have died” and their “life is hidden with Christ in God.” Then, he says, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus is our true life. He is supposed to be our true identity. Our true selves haven’t even appeared yet. We won’t know who we’re truly supposed to be until we know Jesus and until we see him face to face (1 John 3:2). This means that our lives are supposed to be built around Jesus. He isn’t a little something that we add onto our lives. Following Jesus isn’t a hobby. Trusting in Jesus is a life-consuming reality. If we know Jesus truly, our lives are swallowed up in his life. We find our true selves by finding him.
What do these passages in Colossians mean for us? How do these truths affect our lives?
First, Jesus alone is the God-man, the one who holds the universe together, the one who connects us to God. There is simply no one like him. Christianity says that there is one God who exists in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet Jesus is unique, because he is both God and man and we need him to be both. Only a human being could die in place of other human beings, and Jesus died for our sins. Only a divine human being can live a perfect, holy human life, satisfying God’s standards for humanity. Only an infinite God could pay for the sins of a multitude of people. There is simply no other way to satisfy God’s perfect, holy, righteous demands for justice than Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death. He is the only bridge between God and man. As Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
I realize that many people find this offensive. They think that any claim that one religion is true is too exclusive. They think it’s narrow-minded and bigoted to say that Jesus is the only way to God, the only way to eternal life.
I understand that. But, in the end, all truth claims tend to be narrow, exclusive, and specific. If I say that two plus two is four is true, I’m excluding other claims, such as “two plus two is five,” or “two plus two is three.” All mathematical truths are very narrow that way. Scientific truths and historical truths are narrow and specific. Why shouldn’t that be the case when it comes to God?
Furthermore, different religions have different views of Jesus, and they can’t all be true. Islam says that Jesus is not God’s Son, that he is not divine, that he didn’t die on the cross and therefore that he didn’t rise from the grave. This and the biblical view of Jesus both can’t be true. Jesus can’t be the biblical Jesus, the Muslim Jesus, the Mormon Jesus, and the New Age Jesus, because these different “Jesuses” have contradictory descriptions. Different religions say contradictory things about God and salvation. They could all be false, but they can’t all be true.
And when it comes to exclusivity, we sometimes need to go through one channel. This may seem like an odd illustration, but I think it works. I have an iPhone and an iPad. When I use these devices, I use “apps” that I downloaded from Apple’s “App Store.” To get a new app on these devices, I must go to that store. There’s no other way. And if you develop an app and want it to be used by Apple’s customers, you have to go through Apple. Apple decides whether your app will be available on the App Store. They want to make sure the apps are not inappropriate or have viruses. So, both customers and app developers need to go through one channel. To get our church’s sermons on iTunes so they can be listened to on Apple’s podcasting app, I had to go through Apple. There was no other way.
Sometimes, there is only one path. There is only one God who created the universe and sustains it even now. There is only one God who became a human being without ceasing to be God. There is one God-man who died for our sins. There is simply no one else.
Here’s a second thing I want us to consider: Jesus’ work is perfect. He is the true image of God. He lived a perfect human life imaging God: reflecting him, representing him, obeying him, loving him. And he died a once-for-all death to pay for our sins. There is nothing we can do to add to Jesus’ work. All our efforts are small and tainted with imperfections and bad motives, such as selfishness. So, it’s not “Jesus plus works,” or “Jesus plus anything else.” It is “Christ Alone.”
When we took questions from people a couple of months ago at West Bridgewater’s Park Day, someone asked, “Will Mary save me?” The answer is no. Neither will Allah, Buddha, Vishnu, Zeus, any president, any athlete, any entertainer, any scientist, your spouse, or even you. Only Jesus saves.
Only Jesus goes between God and us. That means we can go directly to him and put our faith in him. You don’t need to talk to me before putting faith in Jesus and being forgiven for your sins. You don’t have to confess your sins to me or even be baptized. Salvation can be yours today if you trust Jesus. That doesn’t mean the church isn’t important. No, I think the church is very important. I play an important role as a pastor and teacher. Other people play important roles in the church. The church helps us in many ways, such as encouraging us, discipling us, correcting us, teaching us, loving us, and so on. But you don’t need to go through a whole list of intermediaries to get to God. Because of Jesus, we can directly approach God in prayer (Heb. 4:14–16). He alone is our High Priest.
Here’s the third thing I want us to see: To have a right relationship with Jesus, we need to have faith in him. If Jesus is the only God-man who lives the perfect life for us and dies for us, and if he is the only High Priest and the only mediator between God and man, then it makes sense that he is the only proper object of our faith. Of course, we believe in God the Father and God the Spirit, too. But we can have no part with them if we don’t believe in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to believe in the triune God. Colossians 2:12 says that we are raised to new life “through faith in the powerful working of God.” You can’t trust in the powerful working of God without trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he is. Faith is personal. It is trust in a person’s character and abilities. Salvation from sin and condemnation cannot be achieved apart from trusting Jesus and being united to him by means of the Holy Spirit. I think it’s impossible to be saved apart from knowing who Jesus is and what he has done for us. As I said last week, the Bible uses the metaphor of marriage to depict our relationship to Jesus. We are his bride and he is our groom. It’s impossible to be married to someone you don’t know.
Here’s the fourth and final thing I want us to see: Jesus alone is our true identity. He is our life. He is what matters. Our lives often feel disappointing. We may feel like giant failures, because we haven’t measured up to our own expectations, let alone God’s standards. In those times, we must understand that Jesus is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). We may feel like we’ve been rejected by people who should love us. We may not feel loved at all. Yet we know that Jesus loves us because he died for us. We may feel that our lives are falling apart and that we have no security in this world, no guarantee that things will work out. Yet Jesus holds all things together. He has the power to hold your life together. And he is the first installemnt of the resurrected, perfected new creation. If you trust in him, though the worst in this life happens to you, you already have eternal life and you will have resurrected life with him.
In the church I used to serve, there was a man who often talked about his worry that he would never get married. You don’t hear many men talk like that, so it was memorable. He did get married around age 30, but before that time he was worried that he might remain single for the rest of his life. I guess he had those feelings because his parents married when they were young, and they modeled a healthy, loving relationship. So, marriage for him was what a great career might be for other people, a very desirable achievement. When he was wondering if he would ever get married, he asked himself this question: “If I never get married, is Jesus enough?” In other words, would Jesus be enough to satisfy him, to give his life meaning and happiness?
That’s a question we should all ask ourselves. Is Jesus enough if I never get rich? Is Jesus enough if I’m never famous or powerful? Is Jesus enough if I never do what all my friends are doing? Is Jesus enough if I feel like my friends and family don’t love me the way that they should? And the answer must be, “Yes.” Jesus is enough because he is God, because he holds the universe together, because he is our life. Jesus is enough because he is perfect and because he loves us and sacrificed himself for us. Your spouse will never love you the way Jesus does and he or she can’t die for your sins. Your career or money will never be able to give you the riches that Jesus can give you in eternity, because he made everything. Your hobbies and possessions can never quench your spiritual thirst or satisfy your spiritual hunger. You were made for more than the creation. You were made for the Creator. Christ alone can save us. Christ alone can truly satisfy us. Let us trust him and find our true lives in him.
- Martin Luther, “Letter to Johann von Staupitz (March 31, 1518),” in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Briefwechsel, 18 vols. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlhaus Nachfolger, 1930–83), 1:160, quoted in Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone—The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 163, ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, §411, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 104. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, §969, pg. 252. This quote comes from Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). It was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. ↑
- The same Greek word is translated as “advocate,” “helper,” or “counselor” in various translations. The Greek word is παράκλητος. ↑
- For example, see the “I am” statements of Jesus such as John 8:24, 58, which refer to passages in the Old Testament (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12). See John 12:36–43, in which John quotes Isaiah 6:10 and says that Isaiah saw “him” who, in the context of the passage in John, is clearly Jesus. In Isaiah 6, the prophet has a vision of God. See also Philippians 2:9–11, which is about Jesus and alludes to Isaiah 45:23, which is clearly about God. ↑
- Others died and came back to life only to die again later. Technically, that is revivification, not resurrection. ↑
- Some people take this verse out of context and believe it teaches universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved from condemnation. But Paul says that those who continue in the faith are reconciled to God through Christ (Col. 1:21–23). Also, God “disarmed rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in him” when Jesus died on the cross (Col. 2:15). We know from the rest of the Bible that such evil spiritual rulers such as Satan will not be reconciled in a saving way to Jesus. ↑
- See Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:25–26. ↑
- For more on faith in Christ, see the previous week’s sermon, “Faith Alone,” at https://wbcommunity.org/faithalone. ↑
Brian Watson preaches a message on the Protestant Reformation principle “Christ Alone.” Passages from the book of Colossians are examined to show that Jesus is unique in his identity, work, and value.
Brian Watson explains what the Protestant Reformation principle “Faith Alone” means and why it matters. How are we reconciled to God? By trusting in the work of Jesus on our behalf.
If you’re a Christian, one of the most exciting bits of news that you will ever hear is when someone you know becomes a Christian. If a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker puts his or her faith in Jesus, you get excited. On the other hand, one of the most distressing things that Christians will experience is seeing someone we thought was a Christian walk away from the church and Jesus. And that’s usually how it works. Usually, a person leaves the church, and then that person stops following Jesus altogether. I don’t mean that this person leaves one church and becomes a member of another one. That happens, and there are good reasons for moving to a new church. I mean someone quits being a part of any church, and then that walks away from Jesus. He or she may not say they have abandoned Christ, but their life doesn’t resemble a Christian one in any discernible way.
We find that not only disturbing and sorrowful, but also confusing. We see people we thought were Christians change, and we wonder why that could ever happen. We wonder if that person “lost their salvation,” or if they had been faking it the whole time. We wonder who might be next, or if that could even happen to us.
Why do some people turn away from Jesus, particularly after they had seemed to follow him? How can we make sure that we don’t turn away from Jesus? These are questions that our passage this morning answers. So, let’s start by reading 1 John 2:18–27:
18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.
26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.
There are three main things in this passage that I want us to see. And they all begin with the letter A: antichrists, anointing, and abiding.
First, let’s talk about antichrists. John begins this passage by referring to the antichrist. In verse 18, he writes, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Many people get very worked up about the identity of the antichrist or, as the apostle Paul describes him in 2 Thessalonians, “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). John is the only one who uses the word “antichrist,” which means someone who either is opposed to Jesus or who tries to take the place of Jesus. The Bible indicates that there will be a final person—or perhaps it could be an institution, a movement, or a government—that is opposed to Jesus and will cause trouble for God’s people. But notice here that John doesn’t encourage his readers to speculate about end-time scenarios. He doesn’t encourage us to identify a final antichrist, or to match newspaper headlines with Scripture. His point is that it is already the last hour, and antichrists are already here.
A number of passages in the New Testament indicate that it is already the last hour. We are already living in the end times. This was true in the first century, after Jesus rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18) and it’s true today. Theologians often talk about this in terms of “already, not yet.” The kingdom of God is already here but not yet fully established. We can enter into God’s kingdom and live as his servants, but clearly not everyone lives as if Jesus is their King. Satan is already defeated, but not yet fully. And yet, he’s at work in the world and will do more before it’s all said and done. And, in a similar way, the antichrist is already here, but not yet. The spirit of antichrist is already present, but the final and ultimate manifestation of the antichrist isn’t here yet. In 1 John 4:3, John writes, “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
And what does this spirit of antichrist look like? According to that same verse I just quoted, every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is the spirit of antichrist. John specifically says that every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2). It seems that some people thought that Jesus didn’t actually become a man, but that he only seemed to have a real human body. This false teaching would later be known as Docetism.
That’s one way to be against Jesus, to deny what the Bible says about him. If we deny that he is both truly God and truly man, we are against Jesus. That’s why we can say the Jehovah’s Witnesses are antichrists. They don’t believe that Jesus is God, as equally divine as the Father. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses think that we’re antichrists because we believe in the Trinity and that Jesus is God. Their website says that one of the way to identify antichrists is: “They promote false ideas related to Jesus. (Matthew 24:9, 11) For example, those who teach the Trinity or that Jesus is Almighty God actually oppose the teachings of Jesus, who said: ‘The Father is greater than I am.’—John 14:28.” But Jesus said other things. Even in John’s Gospel, he claims to be “I am,” which is a reference back to several passages in the book of Isaiah that are used of God (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4). And what’s interesting is that in those passages in Isaiah, God declares that there is no other God (Isa. 44:8; 45:5, 21; 46:9). The Bible states that there is only one God, and yet the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—we call them three Persons—are all God. To deny what the Bible says about Jesus’ identity is to be an antichrist.
Of course, another way to be against Christ is to deny what Jesus did in dying on the cross and to deny what Jesus taught about various subjects. And we see these heresies promoted today, too. Islam denies that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died on the cross. And many people deny what Jesus says about sin and salvation. Polycarp, an early Christian theologian, said,
“For everyone ‘who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist’ [1 John 4:2–3]; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross ‘is of the devil’ [1 John 3:8]; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the first-born of Satan.” Polycarp didn’t mince words there.
In this passage, John tells us how we can recognize antichrists. In verse 19, he writes,
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” These people, who apparently were teaching false things about Jesus, left the churches that John is writing to. Why did they leave? “There were not of us.” That seems to be John’s way of saying that they never were Christians to begin with. They only appeared to be Christians.
We know that these people were not truly Christians because they didn’t receive the anointing that John talks about in verse 20 and also in verse 27. This anointing must be the Holy Spirit. In other words, these antichrists never received the Holy Spirit. They weren’t born again. It’s not as though they had the Holy Spirit and then he left them. It’s not as though they were born again and then somehow became spiritually dead. It’s not as though they had real faith and then lost it. In short, it’s not that they “lost their salvation.” They never had it to begin with.
I can say that confidently for two reasons. One, the Bible the talks about false professions of faith. Think of Jesus’ parable of the sower. A man sows seed, which is the word of God, on four different types of soil. One is the path. The seed doesn’t take root at all. The second soil is rocky ground, and the seeds seem to grow. However, those plants wither because “they had no root.” The third soil has thorns, which choke out the growth of the plants. And the fourth soil is good soil, which produces grain that grows. When Jesus explains the rocky soil, he says that it represents “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” In other words, it’s someone who appears to have had a real conversion experience, but that person’s faith isn’t enduring. Jesus says that the soil with thorns “is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” I don’t think either of these soils represent real Christians. (See Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23 for the parable and Jesus’ explanation of it.) Jesus’ point is that not all will receive the word of God. Some appear to receive it but they don’t last. Only the one who bears fruit is really alive.
The second reason I can confidently say that these antichrists were never really Christians is because the Bible says that conversion is an act of God from start to finish, and God’s power guards and keeps those who are truly born again. For example, we can look at 1 Peter 1:3–5:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Notice that Peter says that the God “has caused us to be born again.” We don’t cause ourselves to be born again. Also, the inheritance we are promised is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for” us. It is God’s power that guards our salvation. As someone has said, “If we could lose our salvation, we would.” But God guards and keeps it for us. We have to work as Christians, but God is the one who empowers that work (see Phil. 2:12–13).
Another passage is Romans 8:29–30, which shows that God is the one in control of the whole process of salvation:
29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
God foreknew people. In other words, he had set his covenant love on them before they even existed. And he predestined them to be conformed to the image of Jesus, to be saved. He called them by sending the gospel message to them through evangelists, preachers, and ordinary Christians like you and me. When they came to faith, they were justified, made right in his eyes. And these people will be glorified, which is another way of saying perfected. They will be resurrected to eternal life in a body that cannot die. Paul views this as such a done deal that he uses the past tense when he says God “also glorified” these people, as if it was already a reality.
The point is that those who are really Christians don’t fall away from Jesus. But the Bible does teach that there are people who can appear to be Christians who fall away. And their falling away shows that they were not “of us.” There were not transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’ll come back to the implications of that, but for not I want to talk about the anointing that John is referring to. That’s the second thing we see in this passage. In verse 20, John writes,
“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” The Holy One is Jesus (cf. John 6:69), and the anointing he gives is of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus gives to his people. Those who receive the Spirit also have real knowledge of Jesus. They know the truth, which is what John says in verse 21: “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” The false teachers probably were teaching that they had some secret, elite, more profound knowledge of Jesus. But John says, “No, don’t believe that. What you were taught when you heard the gospel message is true. That’s the real message about Jesus.”
Think about it this way: In order to come to faith in Jesus, we need to hear the gospel message. We need to know some basic, true things about Jesus. We need to know who he is and what he has done for us. That doesn’t mean we must know the whole Bible, or have the most precise theology. But it means we need to know that Jesus is divine, that he alone lived the perfect life and that his death on the cross is the only way our sins can be paid for. In other words, we need to know that Jesus is God and our only hope of being reconciled to God. We should grow in our knowledge of God and his word, but those basic truths remain unchanged. If we hear anything contrary to that message, we must reject it. John’s concern was that the false teachers who had departed the churches he was writing to would try to deceive his readers. And he encourages them to cling to the truth.
The reason John is so adamant about rejecting a different message can be found in verses 22 and 23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Whoever rejects what the Bible teaches about Jesus doesn’t have a right relationship with God. I like what David Jackson writes about this: “If an individual does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, God’s own Son, sent from the Father, then he is (literally) against Christ. This means that he cannot be in a right relationship to God the Father, for he is denying the whole basis on which such a fellowship could exist.”
In fact, without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we all would deny Christ. The only way we can see the kingdom of God and enter into it is if the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again. We wouldn’t trust Jesus and know him truly if it were not for the Holy Spirit. In writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul said, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
Not only will the Holy Spirit empower someone to confess faith in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit also empowers people to continue to trust Jesus and live for him. In other words, the Holy Spirit causes us to abide in Christ. And that’s the third thing we see in this passage. In verses 24 and 25, John writes, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” Those who are true Christians will stay connected to Jesus. They will rest in him, trusting that he has done all the work necessary for them to be reconciled to the Father. They will follow him, knowing that his is the only path to eternal life. They will obey him because he is King. John encourages them to continue trusting the gospel message that they heard when they first came to faith. The way of a Christian isn’t always easy in this life, but it’s the only way to eternal life. That is the great promise for those who follow Jesus.
In verse 26, John again warns his readers not to be deceived. And in verse 27, he says that they don’t need what the false teachers are peddling, because they have the Spirit’s anointing. Let’s read those verses again: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”
John’s desire for his readers—and for all Christians—not to be deceived is understandable. If there’s a truth about who Jesus is and what he’s done, and if knowing the true Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to have eternal life, then it’s important that we know the truth and remain committed to it. Verse 27, however, can be misunderstood. John says that his reader “have no need that anyone should teach you.” John can’t mean that they don’t require any teaching at all. If that’s what he meant, then why would he write them a letter which teaches them? It wouldn’t make sense for John to say, “I’m teaching you that you don’t need a teacher” if he means that they don’t need any teaching at all. John probably means that Christians don’t need anyone to teach something different than the gospel they have already heard. As David Jackson puts it, “Every Christian knows the truth because without it he could not be a Christian. But the fact that anyone knows it at all is attributable solely to the gift of God’s grace, in the person and work of the Holy Spirit.” The false teachers were offering a secret knowledge of Jesus, one different from what the apostles preached. John was saying, in effect, “You don’t need anything else. You already know the real Jesus. The Holy Spirit produced in you real faith in the real Jesus. Don’t be deceived.”
The truth is that we do need teachers in the church. The apostle Paul says that Jesus gave the church pastors and teachers, which probably means pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). Pastor-teachers feed Christians the nourishing food that is the word of God. Pastor-teachers protect the flock from false teaching. Pastor-teachers equip the saints for ministry, so that they can be effective in their service and witness. John isn’t contradicting Paul. We need to read this passage in context. And we should understand that John is writing to churches. All the “yous” of verse 27 are in the plural. We tend to read the Bible in very individualistic ways, but John wasn’t writing to isolated individuals. The Holy Spirit dwells in Christians individually, but also collectively. He is in their midst, in the churches. He has given the spiritual gift of leadership and teaching to some in the church. The church needs them. And the church has the Spirit’s word, the Bible. They don’t need to hear a different message.
In a way, this is the equivalent of Paul’s words to the Galatians, when he writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). There is no other news about Jesus that Christians need to embrace.
John’s words about not needing another teacher relate to the promise of the new covenant. The new covenant promise is made in the prophets. In Jeremiah, we are told that members of the new covenant would have God’s law written on their hearts, that they would know God, and that their sins would be forgiven (Jer. 31:31–34). In Ezekiel, we read that God would cleanse them and give them the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27). So, God’s law is written on his people’s hearts by means of the Holy Spirit. And Jeremiah 31:34 says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” Every member of the new covenant knows the Lord. They don’t need someone to teach them that.
Perhaps this is John’s way of saying that there won’t be a newer covenant. The new covenant is the only one we need. The covenant is God’s terms of dealing with his people. His people are those who trust Jesus, who have been forgiven for all their wrongdoing, and who are led by the Holy Spirit. If anyone comes along claiming they have another covenant, they should be rejected. The word “testament” refers to a covenant. The Mormons claim to have “another testament of Jesus Christ.” I believe John would call them antichrists. If anyone says that Jesus has changed, or that there’s new information about Jesus that no one has previously known, that person should be rejected.
So, what does this mean for us? What does this passage teach us and how should we live in light of it?
First, this passage explains, at least in part, why some people who seem to be Christians walk away from the faith. They do so because they were never really Christians to begin with. They did not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Still, this is confusing for us. Why would people who appeared to be Christians, who appeared to be sincere and passionate, later turn their backs on Jesus? Personally, I have seen men who have gone to seminary and were part of church plants later renounce what they claimed to believe. Why would they ever go to seminary in the first place?
The answer is that people are attracted to Christianity for different reasons. Some people, and this is true of children, aren’t settled in what they believe. That’s why some people who grew up in Christian homes, made a profession of faith when they were young, and were baptized don’t persevere in the faith. Children are impressionable. They will change when they are adolescents and young adults. That’s why there used to a be a tradition of baptizing people only after were adults. A number of Baptist pastors in the nineteenth century wouldn’t baptize their own children until they were at least 18. This includes Charles Spurgeon.
Still others are attracted to Christianity because they confuse the gospel with something related to Christianity. I have seen people who seemed to be Christians come to Christianity because they like what it says about social justice and peace. They like what it says about loving other people. But those same people are quick to change their views on Jesus and his teachings when the prevailing culture changes. They hang on to Christian views on social justice—at least some forms of social justice—but reject orthodox Christian theology. That’s because they never really were passionate about the gospel. They confused a byproduct of the gospel with the gospel itself.
Other people have turned away from Christianity because they assumed that patriotism, politics, and the American dream are inherent to Christianity. When they saw Christians supporting political issues that they objected to, or that they thought were contrary to Christian principles, they were turned off. They thought, “If that’s Christianity, I want no part of it.” This is a real problem, one that Christians in America have contributed to. Whenever we confuse the gospel with other issues, or when we marry Christianity with a political party or a blind and uncritical love of country, we are being poor ambassadors for Christ. We aren’t representing our King well when we do that and, whether we realize it or not, we are communicating a distorted gospel.
That is why it is so important to be clear about the gospel. The good news of Christianity isn’t “join this political party,” or, “if we only get the right person in the White House/Congress/Supreme Court, then we’ll be saved.” The good news of Christianity isn’t “be a nice person” or “just get along with others.” The good news of Christianity is that although were made to worship and love and serve God, and yet have rebelled against God by ignoring him and rejecting him, God sent his one and only Son into the world to save us. The Son of God became a man, born as Jesus of Nazareth, and he lived the perfect life we don’t live. He always did what was right. He always loved God supremely and loved other people perfectly. Yet he died for our sins. He died to pay the penalty for our rebellion. And whoever puts his or her trust in Jesus, who loves him and follows him, who swears their allegiance to Jesus, not a country or a political party, is reconciled to God. That person is made right in God’s eyes not because of anything they have done, but because of everything Jesus has done. This is a gift given by God, not something we earn. That is the heart of Christianity. Don’t ever confuse the gospel with anything else.
Here is a second issue for us all: Are we truly for or against Jesus? In other words, are we Christians or antichrists? Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with is me is against me” (Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23). We are either for Jesus or against him. There is no neutral ground. Is Jesus our King or not? Is he our Lord, our Master, as well our Savior and Friend? We are either living for him or we are against him. We either have a real relationship with him, which includes true knowledge of his identity and his works, or we don’t.
That leads me to a third issue: We should examine ourselves. Augustine, in a sermon on this passage, said, “each person ought to question his own conscience, whether he be an antichrist.” You may think that is an odd thing to do, to question whether you are indeed for or against Jesus. But the apostle Paul says the same thing. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, he says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” I believe the Bible teaches eternal security: “once saved, always saved.” But the question is whether someone has actually been saved in the first place. The question is whether a person has been born again, transformed by God, anointed by the Holy Spirit. We should examine ourselves and ask, “Why am I a Christian? Do I really love Jesus? Do I really believe the gospel? Does my life line up with what I say I believe? Am I moving closer to Jesus or am I drifting away from him?” I would simply ask you, why are you here? Are you here because you know the truth and are grateful? Are you here because you know you need Jesus and his grace? Or are you here thinking you’ve done your religious duty and now God owes you something? These are all questions we should ask of ourselves. Ask God to reveal to you your true spiritual condition. Like David, we should say:
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24 And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23–24)
Fourth, and finally, we need to abide in Christ. We need to take our faith seriously. We stay close to Jesus by using God’s regular means of grace, things like reading the Bible, praying, and being part of a local church. If you stop doing these things, it’s spiritually dangerous. And I do think that being a part of a local church—not just showing up for an hour on Sunday, but getting involved as much as you can—is a very important part of abiding in Christ. Those who drift away from Jesus usually drift away from the church first. That is a very dangerous thing to do. If we see someone who has done that, don’t assume that because they once made a profession of faith and were baptized that they’re okay with God. They’re probably not. They may very well be in danger of going to hell. It is completely appropriate to reach out to that person and show concern for their soul. I think that’s why James ends his letter with these words:
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19–20)
- https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/antichrist. ↑
- “The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians,” 7, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 213–215. ↑
- David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 69–70. ↑
- Ibid., 72. ↑
- See Mark E. Dever, “Baptism in the Context of the Local Church,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 344–350. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 3.4, in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 476. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 3:14-29 on July 19, 2015. This passage reveals the purpose of the law and the status of those who are united to Jesus by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:1-6. Christians should obey Jesus because they love him and want to follow his example. But if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who offered himself up as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the book of Job, chapters 22-27. He focuses on the question, “Where is God?” Why does God seem hidden? Why does God seem absent when we’re hurting?
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon based on John 3:1-21. This passage shows us that not everyone knows exactly who Jesus is, that we need to be transformed by God to know Jesus, that Jesus is our only hope, and that in order to become Christians we must come into the light.
Pastor Brian Watson drew from Philippians 1-2 to talk about the importance of being involved in the local church. If all Christians marched side-by-side and contributed their talents, spiritual gifts, and everything else that God has given them, each local church (and the universal church) would be stronger.
It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.
Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.
Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”
What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?
To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:
The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”
There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.
Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet. Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.” According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.” One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.
It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.
Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:
The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.
In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar. This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.
What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year. It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.
None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.
There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.
The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.
We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.
It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.
Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.” Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.
There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”
In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”
- Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564. ↑
- S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370. ↑
- Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36. ↑
- O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239. ↑
- Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378. ↑
- Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906. ↑
- The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.” ↑
- This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118. ↑