A Greedy Man Stirs up Strife

What does the Bible say about greed? How do we avoid greed? Brian Watson preached this message on July 26, 2020.

“Be Not Envious”

Continuing our study of the seven deadly sins, or seven root vices, we look at envy. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on July 19, 2020.

Whoever Is Simple, Let Him Turn in Here (Proverbs 9)

Both wisdom and folly call to us. How do we know which is which? To whom are we listening and responding to? Learn how to discern between wisdom and folly by fearing the Lord. Brian Watson preached this message on July 5, 2020.

Whoever Finds Me Finds Life (Proverbs 8)

God’s wisdom calls to us, offering life. This wisdom is worth more than the world’s greatest riches. We can have it if we respond to wisdom’s call. Are we listening? Are we responding? Brian Watson preached this sermon on June 28, 2020.

Let Not Your Heart Turn Aside (Proverbs 6:20-7:27)

One of the great traps in life is sexual sin. Find out what wisdom says about sex and marriage and temptation by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on June 21, 2020.

A Forbidden Woman (Proverbs 5)

Solomon warns his son to stay away from a forbidden woman and to find enjoyment in his own wife. How does this apply to all of us, both men and women? Listen to find out. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on June 7, 2020.

To Know Wisdom (Proverbs 1)

We are flooded with information and misinformati0n. What we need is not always more facts. We need wisdom to learn how to live life well and to interpret what we experience. Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord, who is the source of wisdom. Brian Watson preached this message on May 10, 2020.

Prepare to Meet Your God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 3, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below). 

Many of us have been spending more time at home than we’re used to spending. Some of us have spent more time at home than we want to spend. A few weeks ago, my wife said she felt like she was “in prison.” Isn’t it strange to think that we don’t feel at home while at home? Shouldn’t home be where we feel best?

Perhaps what we’re longing for is something more than being home. Perhaps we’re longing to be in our real home, the place where we really feel best.

C. S. Lewis addressed this issue in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” He said that we have this “desire for our own far-off country,” our real home.[1] What we’re longing for cannot be found in this world. But still we try to find it here and now. We try to something that will satisfy our longings in beauty and pleasures. Some of us may try to find what we’re looking for in the past. If only we could back, then everything would be right. Lewis says, “But this is all a cheat. . . . These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[2]

We all need a people, a place, and a purpose. Without those things, we will never be satisfied. We were made to be God’s people, to dwell with him, and to live for him. What we really need to be satisfied is a right relationship with God. We were made for God. Being with him is our true home. Taking pleasure in praising him is our purpose. As Augustine prayed over sixteen hundred years ago, “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.” [3]

The story of the Bible is a story about leaving home and getting lost in our wanderings. It is a story about God calling us back home. He sends things into our lives to get our attention, to summon us back to himself—if only we would listen and return to him. It is a story about God coming to take us back home. And the end of the Bible is a depiction of that glorious homecoming, when all things will finally be well.

Today, we’re going to focus on the part where God sends things into our lives to call us back to himself. I think that’s appropriate in the age of the coronavirus. I don’t know exactly why this virus exists, but I think it’s possible that God is using this event to get our attention, to remind us of how much we need him.

Today we’re going to look at the book of Amos, from the Old Testament. Amos is one of the so-called “minor prophets.” However, I wouldn’t use that name. Some people refer to the “major prophets,” like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They use that name because these are some of the longest books in the Bible. And then they refer to the “minor prophets,” the last twelve books of the Bible, which are significantly shorter. But it’s a mistake to think of these books as “minor.” They are very important.

Let’s get a little historical background for this book. It begins with these words:

The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake (Amos 1:1).[4]

Amos was a shepherd who lived in the eighth century B.C. During this time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and during this time Jeroboam II was king (793–753 B.C.). The southern kingdom was called Judah, and during this time Uzziah was king (791–740 B.C.). Both kings reigned for over forty years, which meant that this was a time of unusual stability. It was also “a period of unprecedented prosperity.”[5] Both kingdoms were wealthy. But these kingdoms were surrounded by enemies. In particular, the northern kingdom was threatened by the Assyrian empire, which was becoming the world’s superpower.

The book begins with a word of judgment against the nations around Israel and Judah. This is what the second verse of the book says:

And he said:

“The Lord roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2).

Amos is sharing a word of judgment against the nations, a word from God, whose voice “roars” from Jerusalem.

First, there is a warning against Syria, represented by their capital city of Damascus (Amos 1:3–5). This was the country north of Israel. Then, there is a warning against the Philistines who lived to the west (Amos 1:6–8). There is also a word of judgment against Tyre, also to the west (Amos 1:9–10). Then, God promises to punish nations to the east: Edom (Amos 1:11–12), Ammon, (Amos 1:13–15), and Moab (Amos 2:1–3).

Why was God going to punish these nations? The Philistines helped Edom by exiling Israelites there (Amos 1:6). The Edomites fought against Israel (Amos 1:11). And the Ammonites did, too. In fact, Amos says “they have ripped open pregnant women” (Amos 1:13). That’s how brutal war can be.

Now, if you lived in Amos’s day, and you lived in Judah and Israel, you would be happy to hear that God’s judgment was coming against these nations. You would think, “Finally, God is doing something to punish these people!” It would be like a Christian who is a Republican hearing that God is going to punish Democrats. God was finally going to punish all the enemies that surrounded Israel.

But then Amos delivers some shocking news. God is going to punish Judah (Amos 2:4–5) and Israel (Amos 2:6–15). Why? Look at Amos 2:4–5:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Judah,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.
So I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.”
Judah rejected God’s word, his law. They didn’t keep his commandments.

Then, look at Amos 2:6–8:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;|
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.

The rich and powerful in Israel bought and sold people. They “trampled the poor.” There was also sexual immorality. Father and son had sex with the same woman. This might have been connected to pagan worship practices. Strange as it may seem, sex was part of the worship in some religions. And the people committed idolatry, which is spiritual adultery. God was supposed to be their only object of worship, but they cheated on him. They worshiped at all kinds of altars built to worship foreign gods.

These are specific charges against a specific people at a specific time and place, but these are some of the major sins in the Bible: using and oppressing people, usually through some kind of economic means; committing sexual immorality; and worship false gods. In fact, you could say that misusing money means that your god is money. Having sex outside of the only proper context for sex—marriage between a man and a woman—means that sex is your god. When anything other than the true God becomes the most important thing in our life, the thing that causes us to love, trust, and obey it, that is our god. That is what we’re worshiping. But we were made for God. And God has every right to punish us when we’re destroying ourselves by failing to live according to his design.

Failing to love God and live for him is also a failure to acknowledge what he’s done for us. God says that he brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and sustained them until he led them to their own land (Amos 2:10). For all of us, he has given us life and sustains our lives. He is our Maker, the one who sustains every breath and heartbeat, every second that we live. Yet we run away from him.

In chapter 3, we read this:

Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:

“You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;|
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities (Amos 3:1–2).

God reminds Israel that he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And he says that of all the people on the earth, they alone were the ones he “knew.” Now, God is omniscient. He knows everything. He knows everything about us. What this means is that the Israelites were the only ones he made a covenant with. He revealed himself to them. He gave them promises that were tied to his commandments. If they would trust him and live life on his terms, they would live. But they didn’t.

So, God says, because you were my special people and turned away from me, I will punish you. The reason why they are going to be punished is because they should have known better. God had been exceedingly kind to them, and they didn’t appreciate him.

So, God warns them of punishment, punishment that will come through their enemies. He wants them to know that when enemies defeat their cities, it is because he has brought that about. In Amos 3:6, God says,

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?

Nothing happens unless God has somehow planned it, or even caused it, to occur. That was true of the judgment that would come upon Israel.

But God doesn’t punish because he is unloving. He punishes in order to correct us. He was sending disaster upon Israel to get their attention.

Let’s look at Amos 4:6–13:

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

10  “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

11  “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

12  “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
13  For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

God gave his people famine, bad crops, pestilence, and military defeat—“yet you did not return to me.” That is such as sad refrain. God caused these things to fall upon Israel so that they would return to him, but they didn’t.

I want us to see that God has the power to control all these events. He controls the weather. He causes rain to fall, and he also causes drought. He can direct kings and armies. He uses these things to bring people back to himself.

Now, you may think, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament. God in the New Testament wouldn’t do such a thing.” But look at Luke 13:1–5:

1 There were some present at that very time who told him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

People tell Jesus that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Jews. That’s a form of moral evil, the kind of evil that people do to each other. Jesus asks if this happened because these Jews were worse sinners. The answer is “no.” And he says something like that will happen to everyone who doesn’t repent, who doesn’t turn to God. Then Jesus mentions how eighteen people died when a tower fell. We don’t know why the tower fell. Maybe it fell because it was poorly made. Perhaps the people who made it made it on the cheap, or they didn’t calculate how strong the tower needed to be. Perhaps it was a minor earthquake that caused the tower to fall. It could have been a form of natural evil, the bad things that happen in nature. Again, he says that the people who died that way weren’t worse sinners. But everyone who fails to repent, to turn back to God, will experience something similar.

In short, every time that some evil occurs, it is a reminder to turn back to God. The reason why these evils occur is that humans turned away from God from the very beginning. God made us to love, trust, and obey him and we don’t do that. We want to be our own gods and goddesses. So, God uses evils to punish us, to get our attention, to cause us to turn back to him.

This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes,

What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’[6]

Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t withhold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.”[7] God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[8]

So, after these words of warning in Amos, God says to Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4). “Seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6). And,

14  Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15  Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14–15).

God tells the people to seek him, to seek good and forsake evil, so that they may live. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can return to God by doing good things. We cannot get to God through our own efforts. We know this from the rest of the Bible. Our sin, our rebellion against God, runs deep and it taints every part of us and everything we do. We can’t drive out the evil from within us. But if we seek God, we will want to do what is good.

But when we return to God, it’s more than just paying lip service. God wants more than just for us to do a few religious things. He wants our hearts. He wants changed lives. Look at Amos 5:21–24:

21  “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23  Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24  But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

One of the sins of Israel was religious hypocrisy. They thought they could worship God and also worship other gods. They thought they could go through the motions by praying and singing and offering sacrifices to God, and then go and live like all the pagan nations around them. But that isn’t pleasing to God. In fact, God says he hates that. He hates religious festivals when they aren’t done from the heart. He hates singing, even songs that are about him, if it comes from unclean lips. He doesn’t want sacrifices made by people who aren’t sacrificing their whole lives. Instead, God wants people to love him and to live according to his word. That’s what justice is.

You may notice that Amos quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. here. That’s a joke, of course. Martin Luther King quoted Amos as a call to justice. But this justice isn’t just “social” justice. There’s only one form of justice in the Bible, and that is loving God and loving people the way that God wants us to. If we do justice in the public square but do immoral things in our private lives, that isn’t justice. It won’t do to provide for the poor and then engage in sexual immorality, for example. God isn’t impressed by that. He sees our condition. He demands righteousness.

And that leaves us in a bind. We aren’t perfectly righteous. We are not just. Even when we try to praise God, there’s still some taint of sin. Amos knew this. When he was shown visions of judgment in chapter 7, he says, “O Lord God, please forgive!”

How can we be forgiven by God? Perhaps the clue comes in Amos. In chapter 5, God says there will be a “day of the Lord,” a day of “darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18). This will be a day of punishment, but it’s also a day of salvation. In chapter 8, we read these words:

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9)

On the day of the Lord, a day of punishment and a day of salvation, the sun will go down at noon. Darkness will cover the earth at a time when there should be broad daylight.

This day of the Lord came almost three thousand years ago, when the only righteous man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, was put to death. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He came from a far-off country, from heaven, to bring people back to their God. He did this by living the perfect life that we should live but don’t, and then by dying in our place, taking the punishment for our sin that we deserve. When Jesus was crucified, darkness came upon the land at noon, a sign that he was enduring the wrath of God that we have earned. He didn’t do this for everyone. Only those who turn to Jesus in faith, who seek the Lord, are forgiven of their sins and will live with God forever.

We know Jesus is the one who brings us back home to God because in chapter 9 of Amos, God promises that after punishment, there will be a day of rebuilding. Look at Amos 9:11–12:

11  “In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12  that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this.

God promises to rebuild “the booth of David.” That’s a reference to David’s kingdom. David, the second king of Israel, was a great king. But David had already died, and his kingdom was divided. Yet God promised that a descendant of David would come and build a kingdom that will never end. This perfect king would defeat Israel’s enemies and bring about peace and justice that would last forever. We know from the New Testament that Jesus is that King. And he is calling a remnant of people “from all nations” into his kingdom. This passage is quoted in the Acts 15 when Jewish Christians are trying to figure out how Gentile Christians should live. The point is that the true Israel is everyone—Jew, Gentile, American, Chinese, black, white, male, female, rich, poor—who is united to Jesus by faith.

And those people will go home. They will live with God forever in a perfect world. Look at the end of the book, Amos 9:13–15:

13  “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14  I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,|
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15  I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.

This garden imagery reminds us of the garden of Eden, where humanity was first “planted.” We were kicked out of the garden because we didn’t love, trust, and obey God. How do we get back to the garden? Jesus. We’re told that he will come back to earth one day to make everything right. Those who trust in him will live in this perfect world. The images here are just a taste of what this perfect world will be like, a world of prosperity and pleasure. But most importantly, it will be home because our God dwells there.

Why do things like viruses occur? Why is the world disrupted economically? We could provide naturalistic answers, answers that only appeal to what we can see with our own eyes. Or, we could say, “Well, there’s no good reason.” Or, we could spend our time blaming politicians. But ultimately, God sends these things to get our attention. They are the megaphone he uses to rouse a deaf world. Are we listening? Are we turning back to God?

God lets us go our own way, running away from him to pursue our false gods. But God uses difficult events to bring us back to him. Will we answer his call? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to God while there is time. Learn about Jesus and follow him. If you want to know what that would look like in your life, send me a message and I’ll help you any way that I can. Christians, take God seriously. Don’t just pay him lip service. He deserves more than that.

Turn to God while there is time. If we continue to run away from God, he may very well let us go our own way—forever. And that will be a dreadful thing. Even in the book of Amos, there is a famine that is worse than lack of food, and there is a drought that is worse than lack of water. Amos 8:11 says,

“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.

The most horrifying thing is not to have God in your life, not to hear from him. Now, if you’re not a Christian, you may think that you don’t have God in your life and that you don’t hear from him now. But that’s not true. God is everywhere and all of creation speaks of God (Ps. 19:1–6). But there will be a day when all who have rejected God will be removed from him entirely. To be cut off from God means to be cut off from love, beauty, truth, light, and life. It’s worse than we can ever imagine.

But God has come to do everything you need to be put back into a right relationship with him. And right now, he is calling you back home. Come to Jesus, the truth, the life, and the way back to your God.

Notes

  1. C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper One, 2001), 29.
  2. Ibid., 30–31.
  3. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
  4. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 423.
  6. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36.
  7. Ibid., 36.
  8. Ibid., 83.

 

The Message of Job

Why do we suffer? Where is God when we’re in pain? What is the answer? These are questions that we ask ourselves, even subconsciously. They’re answered, at least in part, in the book of Job. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 26, 2020.

This Illness Does Not Lead to Death (John 11)

What does Jesus have to do with the coronavirus, or any sickness, and death? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on John 11 to show what Jesus did when his friend got sick and died.

Why Are You Troubled?

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on Resurrection Sunday, April 12, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

I want to begin by asking you three questions. One, how are you feeling today? How are you doing? Some of us might feel great: We’re three weeks into spring, warmer weather is coming, and the Red Sox haven’t lost a game yet this season. Others might not feel so great, especially in this time of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us may feel anxious, or trapped in our own homes, going stir crazy. Some of us may be worried about finances. Others may be worried about our loved ones. And some of us might not feel well in general. We’re battling health problems, we’re lonely and depressed, and we don’t feel very hopeful right now.

That leads me to my second question: What are you putting your hope in? Many of us are looking forward to getting back to what we usually do, such as spending time with people we love, working outside of the home, going out to eat, going to the gym. We may put our hope in little things, like eating a nice meal, reading a book, or watching a new movie. We may hope for bigger things: Some of us are hoping that our health will improve, or that we’ll get a promotion. Some of us are looking forward to graduating, or moving, or getting a new job. Some of us may not see hopeful things on the immediate horizon, so we’re putting our hope in ultimate things, that one day God will make all things right. Some of us may have little hope at all right now. Though it’s the beginning of spring, some of us are stuck in fall, where everything is decaying. Some of us are stuck in winter, where everything is dead and barren.

That leads me to my third question: What is troubling you today? What has disappointed you? What has you feeling down? Sometimes we feel troubled simply because we live in a world where things go wrong. We live in a world where our bodies break down and we die. We live in a world where people treat each other poorly. We may also feel down because we had our hopes set on something, and then that hope was crushed. Often, it’s that gap between our expectations and reality that troubles us. We hoped for a relationship that ended. We had hopes for a job that we didn’t get. We had hopes that seeing a new doctor, or even having surgery, would fix our bodies, and yet we’re not healed.

Today, it’s Easter. We remember the resurrection of Jesus. And as we remember that, we’re going to look at a passage that speaks to our troubles and our dashed dreams, but also speaks to a great hope that we have.

Today, we’re going to look at Luke’s Gospel, one of the four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. If you’re not used to reading carefully through the Bible, this may be new to you. Christians believe that the Bible is ultimately from God. The Bible is the way that God reveals himself most clearly. So, we consider it carefully. Otherwise, we would simply be making things up about God. And that’s one of humanity’s biggest problems. We try to make God in our image, after our likeness. But God has said that he has made us in his image. We’re supposed to conform to him, and not the other way around.

Today, we’re going to read Luke 24. We’ll start by reading the first twelve verses:

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.[1]

The setting is a Sunday, just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus had been crucified on a Friday. Though he had done nothing wrong—as Luke makes clear (23:4, 14, 22, 47)—he was treated as a criminal. The Jewish religious leaders didn’t believe that he was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel. They didn’t believe he was the Son of God. They thought he was blaspheming. They also were jealous of him. So, they wanted to kill him. To do that, they brought him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor over Judea. Pilate didn’t think Jesus was guilty or a threat to Rome, but he wanted to make sure that the crowds in Jerusalem didn’t break out into a riot. So, he had Jesus killed. After Jesus died, he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. We’re told that a number of women who had followed him saw where he was buried.

Now, we see that the women come back to the tomb on Sunday morning. They were going to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, which was a practice that people did at the time, in part to keep the decomposing body from smelling.[2] You can imagine their surprise when they return to the tomb and find it open and empty. They see a couple of angels. They remind the women that Jesus had predicted his own death and resurrection (Luke 9:21–22; 18:31–34). So, the women go and tell Jesus’ eleven apostles what had happened.

How do the apostles respond? Do they say, “Of course! We have absolutely no problem believing that dead bodies come back to life!” No, they don’t respond like that. We’re told, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (verse 11). Why wouldn’t Jesus’ own apostles believe? After all, Jesus had told them at least twice that he would be raised from the dead. I suppose there are three reasons why they didn’t believe. One, people knew then, just as people know now, that dead people simply don’t come back to life. Anybody would find this news hard to believe. Two, people in Jesus’ day weren’t expecting that one person would come back to life in the middle of history. British theologian N. T. Wright has talked about this quite a bit. He says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing.[3] He says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23–24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’”[4] So, the apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history. Here’s the third reason they didn’t believe: In that day, women were not regarded as trustworthy witnesses. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases.[5] Now, to be clear, the Bible has a very high view of women. The Bible doesn’t teach that women can’t be believed. But at this time and in this place, a woman’s testimony wasn’t credible. In fact, that’s one of the more significant bits of evidence that shows that this story is true. If someone were making up this story, they wouldn’t have chosen women to be witnesses.

What’s interesting is that most of the objections that people have to the resurrection of Jesus are brought up in the Gospels: “We can’t believe it. Those people who saw the empty tomb or the resurrection must have seen a vision. They were really hallucinating. Someone must have stolen the body. This is simply too good to be true.” But it is true, and there are many good reasons to believe it’s true. If you want to learn more, go to wbcommunity.org/resurrection.

Luke leaves that scene with Peter, one of the apostles, confused. Then he shifts to another scene. Later that day, two other disciples were heading to Emmaus, and on the way there, they were met by a stranger. We read about that in verses 13–24.

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Here, we find two disciples, one of whom is named Cleopas. They are returning from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. At first, they don’t recognize Jesus. And they’re sad. When Jesus asks them what happened, Cleopas starts to say that Jesus was a prophet who worked miracles and spoke amazing things. He says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Even though they had heard the report from the women, and even though they knew the apostles had found the tomb empty, it seems like they’re crushed. They don’t know what to believe. They certainly don’t seem hopeful. The reason they were so crushed is because they thought that the Messiah would come and deliver Israel out of captivity to the Roman Empire. They were hoping for a political savior, and Jesus obviously didn’t defeat the Roman Empire. They don’t understand why Jesus died, and they can’t believe he was raised from the dead. You can tell they really didn’t believe the women’s report, because Cleopas says they had a “vision” of angels. He doesn’t say they actually saw angels. And though the disciples found the empty tomb, no one seems to have seen Jesus alive.

Now, before we move on, try to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you had your hopes set on something. Your dreams seemed to be coming true. And then, suddenly, those dreams are dashed. Now, today you may very well be hoping for a political savior. You may have your hopes wrapped up in who wins the next election. You may hope that your health will improve, or that you’ll get a better job. Some of you may hope that a relationship will improve, or that you’ll find the man or woman of your dreams. But what happens when the thing you hoped for doesn’t come true? What happens when you get the thing you hoped for, but that thing—or that person—turns out to be a disappointment? What happens then?

And let’s push this further. What happens if you get a great job, and make a lot of money? What then? Are you happy? What happens if you have a great family? Will you be completely satisfied? These things don’t last forever. The fact is that we live in a world where we lose things. We lose money and jobs and good looks and good health. And, eventually, we will lose loved ones and our own lives to the grave. In a world where even the best things can disappoint us, and when the best things have an expiration date, where you put your hope? Do you have an answer? Or do you just refuse to think about it? It’s something worth thinking about. In a world of death, where do we find hope?

There’s an interesting book by a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. The book is called A Brief History of Thought. He begins by saying that the great problem for humanity is death. He says we’re different from animals because “a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, and almost unimaginable.”[6] He asks, “what do we desire above all else? To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.”[7] He says that the fear of death keeps us from really living, because we’re anxious about the future. What is the answer to this problem? Is there an answer? We can either hope that there is answer or we can give up hope and assume there is none. What is the answer for you?

I’ll come back to that idea, but first let’s come back to Luke’s words to see what happened next. I’ll read verses 25–35:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

When Jesus first encounters these two disciples, they don’t recognize him. They don’t see him. And they didn’t understand what Jesus had done in dying. They didn’t believe he had really risen from the dead. But now, they finally see who has been walking with them. But they don’t see Jesus until they do two things. First, Jesus tells them that they were slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken. He asks, rhetorically, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” The Christ is another way of saying, “The Messiah.” What Jesus means is that these two Jewish men should have known the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, well enough to know that the Messiah would suffer and die. Jesus was probably referring to the famous passage in Isaiah 53 about a suffering servant who would die for the sins of this people and make them righteous. He could also have referred to a number of Psalms that speak of one who suffered (such as Psalm 22). And then we’re told that Jesus has a Bible study with these men: He interpreted all that the Old Testament said about him, from the first five books of the Bible (“Moses”) through the Prophets and beyond.

Now, you won’t find the name “Jesus” in the Old Testament of your English Bibles, though the equivalent in Hebrew is “Joshua.” But what Jesus means is that, one way or another, all the Old Testament is about him. The Old Testament certainly shows the need for Jesus. The Old Testament reveals our condition, that we were made to have a relationship with God, but we’ve turned away from him. Therefore, we are separated from God and separated from each other. We fight, we experience pain, and we die. There are things like natural disasters and viruses in the world. But the Old Testament also promises that one day God would make things right. He would do this through a descendant of Abraham, the patriarch who lived two thousand years before Jesus (Gen. 12:1–3; 22:18; Gal 3:16). He would do this through a prophet like Moses, who would reveal God’s word (Deut. 18:15–19.) He would do this through a descendant of King David, a perfect king who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13; Isa. 9:1–7; 11:1–9). And he would do this through that suffering servant, who, though he was righteous, would die for his people’s sins, so that they could live (Isa. 52:13–53:12). Also, all the many kings, prophets, priests, sacrifices, the tabernacle and the temple—all these things point to Jesus.[8]

Here’s the second thing that happens before these disciples can see Jesus. They eat with him. The words that are used—“he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (v. 30)—are very similar to the words used in Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22:19). What does this mean? Well, eating with someone means fellowship. It means sharing with someone. In a very real sense, these disciples are sharing something life-giving with Jesus. And Jesus is the one who is serving them the thing that gives life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the bread of life.” He says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. He means that he gives life. He gives spiritual life. He satisfies the hunger of our hearts. He quenches our spiritual thirst. And, as God, Jesus literally sustains life and can cause us to live forever. Just a few verses later in John 6, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-55). Now, Jesus isn’t advocating for cannibalism. He’s speaking metaphorically. He’s saying, if you want to live—truly live—I need to be your spiritual food. If you want to live forever, I need to be your spiritual drink. In other words, we need a steady diet of Jesus in order to have real life.

Now, why do I bring these things up? Here’s the point: In order to see who Jesus really is, we need to see him in the Bible. We need to spend time with God’s word. We need to read good chunks of it, not just little crumbs here and there. We need to feast on the Bible in order to know who Jesus really is. Otherwise, we’ll never really see Jesus. And we need to “feed” on Jesus, in the sense that we need to spend time with him. How do we do that? Coming to church is a great start. So is reading the Bible. So is praying. But the fact is people will never really know Jesus unless they’re willing to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; Heb. 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:3). If you’re not willing to read the Bible a bit and spend some time in a church that actually teaches the Bible, you’ll never really know Jesus. You won’t know what he’s like. And, according to Jesus, you won’t have the hope of eternal life. But if you’re willing to pursue Jesus, he may open up your eyes so you can see him as he truly is.

After Jesus opens the eyes of these disciples, he disappears. And the disciples go back to Jerusalem so they can tell the apostles what happened. And just as they do that, who shows up? Let’s see in verses 36–43:

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.

Of course, Jesus shows up. Again, the apostles can’t believe it. They aren’t expecting to see Jesus, even after they hear reports from the women and from these disciples. At first, they think Jesus is a ghost. But Jesus says, “Look at me. Can’t you see it’s me in the flesh? Touch me, can’t you see this is a real body?” Ghosts don’t have real bodies. And they don’t eat. But Jesus does. Some people have claimed that the apostles actually hallucinated, or that they had some kind of spiritual vision of Jesus. But that couldn’t have happened. Groups of people don’t have hallucinations. And the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus actually rose from the dead, in a physical body (see 1 John 1:1–3). He rose in a body that cannot die again (Rom. 6:9).

And how do the disciples respond? They marvel. They were incredulous. It’s not that they didn’t believe in Jesus. It’s that they couldn’t get over the fact that a dead man was now alive again. They thought it was too good to be true. So, they “disbelieved for joy.” In the midst of their amazement, they experienced great joy. Their hope was still alive.

Then Jesus does what he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He tells the apostles that his death and his resurrection were in accordance with all of the Old Testament. He helps them understand the Old Testament. We see this in verses 44–47.

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

When he says, “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” he’s referring to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. This is the same content that we find in the Old Testament, but in a slightly different order. The point is that the whole of the Old Testament is about Jesus, and he came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus’ death and resurrection were all part of God’s plan. Why did God have this plan? God sent his Son so that people from all nations would repent and find forgiveness in Jesus. Repentance is turning away from your present course and turning to God. It’s changing your mind about what is true and right and ultimate. But it’s more than changing your mind. It’s changing your heart and your actions. The Bible promises that everyone who turns from their old ways and turns toward Jesus will be forgiven. They will be forgiven for rejecting God, and disobeying him, and simply ignoring him. Those who turn to Jesus will have eternal life. Though they die in this life, that’s not the end of the story. One day, Jesus will return to fix everything. When he comes, everyone will be raised from the dead. And all who are united to Jesus—everyone who has repented of sin and trusted in Jesus—will live in a perfect world, where there is no more pain, and decay, and death.

So, what does it look like to repent and have faith in Jesus? The quickest way I can say it is this: Agree with God.

Agree that he made us in his image, and not the other way around (Gen. 1:26–28). He is the ultimate truth, not us. We’re not the center of the universe, but he is (see Rom. 11:36).

Agree that though he made us to have a right relationship with him, one that involves love and worship and obedience, we have not loved him and worshiped him and obeyed him as we should. At best, we ignore God. We don’t think of him. We don’t thank him. We don’t bother to learn what he’s like. We don’t spend time with him. We don’t try to please him. At worst, we know there’s a God, we know what he wants us to do, and we don’t do it (see Rom. 3:23).

Agree that because we don’t live as we should, God has every right to remove us from his good creation forever. And when we are removed from the source of all that is good, the source of life, we find death. That’s what we deserve (Rom. 6:23).

Agree that though we deserve that God sent his Son, Jesus, into the world (John 3:16)

Agree that Jesus is God and man (John 1:1, 14; Rom. 1:3–4).

Agree that he lived a perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22). He never failed to love, worship, honor, represent, and obey the Father. He is the only one who has done this.

Agree that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (Col. 2:13–14).

Agree that he rose from the grave, showing that his death was acceptable to God, that he is the only way to eternal life, and that all his people will one day be fully restored (Rom. 4:25).

Agree that Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God, and that turning to him is the only way to be accepted by God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Agree that Jesus is your King and start living for him (Rom. 14:7–8; 2 Cor. 5:14–15).

I could go on and on, but that’s basically what it looks like to put your trust in Jesus.

The end of Luke’s Gospel brings us to where the book of Acts begins. I preached through that book four years ago, and you can find all those messages on our website.[9] At the end of Luke’s Gospel, he tells his followers that they are witnesses to what he has done. He tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit to them. Then he blesses them and ascends to heaven.

48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.

Earlier in the sermon, I asked how you’re feeling. I asked what was troubling you. Are you troubled by the past? Perhaps you have regrets about the wrong things that you’ve done. Look back further into the past, to the cross where Jesus died to pay for failures. If you turn to Jesus, he has already taken care of everything you’ve ever done wrong. Perhaps others have harmed you in the past. If you turn to Jesus, you can trust that Jesus will take care of all wrongdoing. He will judge everyone who has ever lived, and he will vindicate you.

Perhaps you’re troubled about the future. If you turn to Jesus, no matter what happens, in the end everything will work out for your good. You will be raised from the dead in a glorious body that can never die, and you will live in Paradise with him.

No other religion or philosophy offers what Christianity does. The good news, the gospel, addresses the problems of our past and the worries of our future. No other system of thought offers the hope that Christianity does. Earlier, I mentioned an atheistic philosopher named Luc Ferry. Even he acknowledges, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity.” Yet he then states that while he finds the faith appealing, he doesn’t believe it.[10] What’s interesting is that earlier in his book, he acknowledges that when he studied as a university student, he knew nothing of Christianity.[11] In his own words, “for years I knew more or less nothing about the intellectual history of Christianity.”[12]

I find that is often true: Christianity is often poorly understood. It has not been weighed and found wanting. No, it’s simply not been weighed by many. It’s often misrepresented or marginalized and ignored. Whenever it’s portrayed in mainstream media, it’s almost guaranteed to be misrepresented. Often, even people who claim to be Christians misrepresent Christ. I’m doing my best to present it truly and thoughtfully here. All I ask is that you would take the time to learn about Jesus. You can read about the evidence for the resurrection on our website.[13] You can learn about Jesus by making use of our website. You can explore a sermon series called “Who Is Jesus?”[14] Most importantly, you can do that by reading the Bible. To know Jesus, you must search Jesus’ Scriptures and spend time with him. And if you taste and see, you will see that he is good.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “The Jews did not embalm, so the spices and perfumes help to calm death’s stench and slow decomposition.” Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1877.
  3. “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76.
  4. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192.
  5. Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
  6. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3.
  7. Ibid., 4.
  8. Jesus also says the Old Testament is about him in Luke 24:44; John 5:39.
  9. To listen or read sermons in this series, visit http://wbcommunity.org/acts.
  10. Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 261, 263.
  11. According to Ferry, when he was a student in the last 1960s, “It was possible to pass our exams and even become a philosophy professor by knowing next to nothing about Judaism, Islam or Christianity” (ibid., 55).
  12. Ibid.
  13. http://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ, or https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection.
  14. http://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

Why Are You Troubled?`

What is troubling us? Usually, we’re troubled because we expected something or hoped for something and didn’t get it. But if we understand who Jesus truly is and what he came to do, and if we put our hope in him, we will not be disappointed. Listen to this message from Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.

(The sound quality isn’t great. That is true for the last three or four weeks. We’ll work to improve sound quality going forward.)

Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit

This sermon was preached on April 5, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

It’s interesting to see how people react to this pandemic we find ourselves in. Some people don’t take it very seriously. There were stories of college students on spring break who weren’t going to let a virus stop them from their vacations. And some of them became sick.[1] It’s not surprising that some young people wouldn’t think much about their own mortality and the mortality of others. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are very afraid. Some people are afraid of getting sick, or they’re afraid of their loved ones getting sick. I think more of us are afraid that this situation will cause other problems. We think we’ll lose our jobs, run out of money, or run out of food and basic household supplies. Why do people hoard? Because, at the end of the day, most people fear death.

This pandemic only highlights what was and has always been a reality: We will all die. That’s a hard truth. But I think it’s a good thing to think about death, for the very reason that we will all die. In one of the most fascinating books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we read these words:

 It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart (Eccl. 7:2).[2]

Death is a great teacher. Since we’re all going to die, we should think more carefully about what matters most in life.

One of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal, thought deeply about the meaning of life. He uses this illustration to shock us to think about the meaning of our lives:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.[3]

That’s a cheery thought, isn’t it? We’re all sentenced to die, we see other people much like us who receive that sentence, and we know our time is coming.

Since that is the case, it’s foolish not to think deeply and carefully about death. If death is a great teacher, what should it teach us? There’s a great book called Remember Death, written by Matthew McCullough, that came out a couple of years ago. In that book, McCullough writes these words: “Death makes a statement about who we are: we are not too important to die. We will die, like all those who’ve gone before us, and the world will keep on moving just as it always has. No one is indispensable. It’s a harsh, even terrifying statement.”[4] Let those words sink in a bit: “we are not too important to die.”

But those are not the last words that McCullough writes. He also writes this: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.”[5] The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” We’re looking for good news these days. And the best news is that God would send his Son to die in place of his enemies.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, I urge you to keep listening. It’s ironic to think that anyone’s death could be good news. But that’s what Christians have always believed. At the heart of the Christian faith stands Jesus. And the central act of Jesus is to sacrifice himself for his people, which is what we’ll talk about today. The other act that is central to what Jesus has done is to rise from the grave in a body that can never die again. We’ll talk about that next week, on Resurrection Sunday, better known as Easter.

Today, we’re going to continue to study the Gospel of Luke. We’re going to look at Luke 23:44–56. I invite you to turn there in your Bibles, or your Bible apps. You can find the passage easily enough with a Google search, too. If you don’t have a Bible, would you let us know? You can send a private message or contact us through our website. We’ll mail a Bible to you to make sure that you have your own copy.

Let’s start by reading Luke 23:44–49:

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.

Over the past two months, as we have studied the closing chapters of Luke, we have seen that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by Jewish leaders who didn’t believe that he was the Christ, the anointed King of Israel, or the Son of God, that he was put on trial for making himself out to be those things, and that he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate in order to satisfying a bloodthirsty mob. Last week, we saw that Jesus was crucified, nailed to a cross as if he were a threat to the Roman Empire.

Jesus was crucified at the third hour (Mark 15:25), which would be about 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise. At the sixth hour, at about noon, darkness appeared until the ninth hour, 3 p.m. Obviously, this is an unusual event. Why is darkness appearing in the middle of the day?

This darkness has everything to do with how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. Light and darkness have deeper meanings in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, we’re told that the human condition is one of darkness. Think about what light does. It shows us what is real. Without light, we couldn’t see. Light exposes what is truly there. Light also gives life. Without any light from the sun, life on earth would end rather quickly. The Bible says that our real condition is that we’re separated from God. We have broken a relationship with God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. That relationship is broken by our failure to love him, honor him, and obey him. Instead of coming into the light, into a true relationship with God, we hide from him in the darkness (John 3:19–20). It is our running away from God, our hiding in darkness, that is ultimately responsible for what is broken in the world. That is why we die. We run from the source of light and life.

But Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12). Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus came to bring light to those who were in darkness (Luke 1:79). God the Father sent God the Son to reveal what is true, and to shine a light on the path back to God. In fact, Jesus is not only the light, but he is also the way to God (John 14:6). It was appropriate that when Jesus was born, in the middle of the dark night, the sky was filled with angels and glory, a brilliant light (Luke 2:8–14).

But now it becomes dark in the middle of the day. Why does this happen?

The answer is that this darkness is a sign of judgment. If you’re familiar with the story of the Bible, you know that Israel was rescued while they were slaves in Egypt during the time of Moses. God delivered Israel out of Egypt through a series of plagues. The ninth plague was darkness that covered the land for three days (Exod. 10:21–29). This darkness was a sign that judgment was coming. And, indeed, the next plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land (Exod. 11:1–10). So, this darkness that lasted for three hours as Jesus was hanging on the cross was a sign that God was judging sin, rebellion against him.

God, as the perfect judge, must punish wrongdoing. He must punish crimes. And this is a loving thing to do because sin is destructive. A loving person will want to crush that which destroys. God has promised that in the end, he will do that.

In fact, that judgment against sin was often foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. They referred to a “Day of the Lord,” a day of salvation for God’s people and a day of destruction for those who rebelled against him. These prophets spoke of what would happen when God judges sin, and this often involved darkness. Here are a few passages. This is Isaiah 13:9–11:

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
10  For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
11  I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.

And here is another word from God about the Day of the Lord. This is Amos 8:9:

“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

Again, here is another word about this day of judgment. Here is Zephaniah 1:14–16:

14  The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15  A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16  a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

So, what is happening here in Jerusalem, when the sky turns dark in the middle of the day as Jesus is dying? It is a sign that God is judging sin. But, as we saw two weeks ago, and as we’ll see again today, Jesus is completely innocent. He never did anything wrong. He never sinned. So why is God judging him?

Remember those words I shared earlier: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.” Jesus was dying in our place. He was enduring the judgment of God that we deserve. All rebellion against God and all the destruction that comes with failing to love him and love others, failing to live life on the Creator’s terms, will be judged. But God did something amazing. He sent his Son, who came willingly, to bear the penalty that we deserve. Jesus was enduring the Day of the Lord on the cross. He was dying to pay the penalty for sin, a penalty that all of us should face.

There’s another sign that Jesus was atoning for the sin of his people. We’re told that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The temple was where God dwelled among his people. It was a place of worship, where people taught God’s word and prayed. It was also a place of sacrifice. God told Israel to sacrifice animals, symbolically transferring their guilt to animals who would die in their place. Now, an animal can’t bear the penalty for a human. So, these sacrifices did not actually satisfy justice. But God told the Israelites to do this, and it was a sign that sin deserves to be killed. It also was a sign that the death penalty could be taken by another.

When Jesus died, he fulfilled the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. His death made the temple obsolete. (The book of Hebrews makes this abundantly clear.)

In the Old Testament, for people to approach God, they had to go to the temple. They had to go through priests. But now, to go to God, we only need to go to Jesus. So, the curtain’s tearing was a sign that there is now open access to God. You don’t have to go to a special building. You don’t have a go to a priest. You have direct access to God through Jesus. In fact, Christianity says that all Christians are part of God’s temple. The Spirit of God does not dwell in some manmade building that you must visit. The Holy Spirit dwells in God’s people. And the Bible says that all Christians are royal priests. Jesus is our High Priest, and we must go to him to get to God, to be reconciled to God. This doesn’t mean that there is no longer any kind of structured religion. Jesus gave the church pastors to lead, teach, and protect his people (Eph.4:11ff). And his people do often meet in buildings. But none of these things are necessary to know God and have a right relationship with him. All you need is Jesus.

Though Jesus seems to be passive in his dying on the cross, he is in control. He lays down his life. He yields his life to God the Father. He continues to trust in the Father, even as he’s enduring hell on earth. When he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he’s quoting something from the Old Testament. He’s quoting a part of Psalm 31. This is what Psalm 31:1–8 says:

In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul,
and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.

Even as Jesus is enduring the greatest physical suffering we can imagine, and even as he’s enduring greater spiritual and psychological pain that we can ever imagine, he trusts in God. God is his refuge, his help. He knows that God will deliver him. Even as Jesus saves his people, he serves as an example of how to trust God even in our darkest moments.

When Jesus dies, we see another example. We see a positive reaction to Jesus. A Roman solider, a centurion, a leader of a group of one hundred soldiers, sees Jesus suffer and die, and he comes to this conclusion: “Certainly this man was innocent!” This is the seventh time that someone claims that Jesus is innocent. Luke makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t dying for his own wrongs, crimes, or sins. He was dying for ours. If you want to know why Jesus’ innocence is important, go back and listen to my message from two weeks ago.[6] Jesus fulfilled God’s designs for humanity by living the perfect life, and he takes the penalty of sin for all who trust in him, so that his people, those who believe that he is Savior, Lord, and God, those who trust in him and are willing to follow him, are regarded by God as perfectly righteous, and their sins are removed from them, so that they can be forgiven by God and reconciled to him.

We also see other reactions to Jesus. The crowd leaves the site after Jesus died and they lament. And we see women watching Jesus’ death. This is important for at least three reasons. One, Jesus had female followers (Luke 8:1–3). While his inner ring of disciples consisted only of men, Jesus loved women and treated them with respect. Sometimes you hear how the Bible is misogynistic or somehow against women. But that’s not true at all. It’s also important to see that Jesus’ faithful followers are willing to follow him to the end. That, too, is an example for us. And, third, it shows that these women witnessed Jesus’ death. Jesus truly died. Some people claim he didn’t. Islam teaches that Jesus only appeared to die, that either he didn’t die or that someone else who looked like him took his place on the cross. But that’s not true. These women knew Jesus, they knew what he looked like, and they saw that he actually died.

Now, let’s read the rest of today’s passage in Luke. Here is Luke 23:50–56:

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

This passage is important because it talks about Jesus’ burial in the tomb. We’re now told of a man named Joseph, who was good and righteous. He was a member of the Jewish council that was opposed to Jesus. And he didn’t agree with their decision. We don’t know if he actively worked against them, or if he silently disagreed. But it’s clear that he knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. In the other Gospels, we’re told that he was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38).

Joseph wanted to honor Jesus by giving him a proper burial. Jesus would have been buried in a shallow, common grave if Joseph hadn’t stepped in. To be thrown into a ditch is dishonoring. It was particularly dishonoring in the view of Jewish people, though we would think the same thing today. Just recently I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, and that documentary showed footage of the emaciated corpses of Jews being pushed by a bulldozer into a ditch. It was a horrific thing to see. Though these people had already died, it was a further offense not to treat their bodies with care.

Joseph, a follower of Jesus, wanted to honor Jesus, to treat his body with respect. After all, the body is no less a creation of God than the soul. So, Joseph asks for Jesus’ body. In Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that Joseph “took courage” to do that. Pontius Pilate, the Roman leader, might have treated Joseph poorly for asking for the body of an enemy of the state. But he doesn’t do that. Joseph is allowed to take the body, and he puts it in his own, unused tomb. This is important because we see that Jesus’ body had a specific location after he died. He was put in a tomb, one that these women saw, a tomb that would be empty less than forty-eight hours later.

It is also important because it shows that even Jesus’ burial fulfills a prophecy of the Old Testament. Isaiah 53:9 says this:

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.

Jesus really died. Joseph would be able to see this. Jesus’ female followers saw it. They saw exactly where Jesus was entombed. We’ll see why this important next week, when we consider Luke 24 and Jesus’ resurrection.

Luke also tells us that Jesus that it is now the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, a day of rest. In Jewish law, all work was to be done on six days. The seventh day was for rest and worship. So, Jesus died on the sixth day, when his work was done. He accomplished all the work that is necessary for us to have a right relationship with God. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And then, on the seventh day, Jesus rested in the tomb. On the eighth day, or the first day of a new week, Jesus will rise from the grave, to begin a new era.

Now that we have looked at this passage, I’ll ask the question that I always ask: why does all of this matter?

It’s important to see why Jesus dies. He dies to satisfy God’s justice against sin. Since he is innocent, he didn’t die for his own sin. So, he must have died for the sins of others. And he did. All who come to Jesus in faith, who are willing to confess their sin, to acknowledge that they are not God, that Jesus is God and the world’s only Savior, and who are prepared to follow Jesus like these women and Joseph, are cleared of all their wrongdoing. They are innocent. They are reconciled to God. Our greatest need to is be connected to God, to have a right relationship with Jesus. And Jesus gives us that. He gives us open access to God. We simply need to come to him.

The death of Jesus is also very important to people who fear death. And I think all of us fear death in some way. There’s a book in the Bible called Hebrews, which talks about how Jesus is all that we need to be in the right before God. Jesus is greater than angels, prophets, and priests. He is the true temple, the true priest, the true sacrifice for sin. Early in that book, the author of Hebrews says that the Son of God was made to become like us. He became a human being, to live a perfect life and to die in our place. And Hebrews 2:14–15 says this:

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

Through his death, Jesus destroyed the work of the devil (also 1 John 3:8). The devil wants to tempt us to sin and then accuse us of our sin. In other words, the devil wants to separate us from God. And we willingly separate ourselves from God when we hide in the darkness. But Jesus came to destroy Satan’s work and to bring us back to God. If you have put your trust in Jesus, you have no reason to fear death. You are delivered from the fear of death, which is a form of slavery. And that is so important in this time.

If you’re a Christian, you should find the idea of Jesus’ death comforting. That’s not only true because he died to pay the penalty for your sins. But Jesus knows what it’s like to die. Jesus can relate to us. He knows what it’s like to die.

You may wonder how it is that the Son of God can die. Well, we should remember that dying isn’t ceasing to exist. Death is the dissolution of the body, a separation of body and soul, something that is not God’s ultimate plan for us. Christianity says that the body is important, because God made it. That’s why it’s important to honor the body, even after death. So, Jesus was separated from his body, but he continued to exist. There’s never a moment when the Son of God hasn’t existed. But he did take on a human nature over two thousand years ago, and that meant having a human body, one that could die. But even as a man, Jesus never stopped existing. His soul endured and went to paradise, which was opened up by Jesus’ death. The curtain is torn, heaven’s gate is open, and Jesus invites you to come in.

If you do fear death, trust in Jesus. Jesus has died. He knows what it is like to be mortal. But he came back to life. And Jesus has reported what happens after death. He knows what lies beyond the curtain of death. That’s not a frontier that scientists or politicians or journalists can tell you about. Science is important. I would say it’s a gift from God. But it has its limits. It cannot tell us what lies beyond the grave. We need someone to report that to us, someone who has died and come back to life, someone who knows everything because he’s God. Jesus is that someone.

We’ll talk more about the resurrection next week, but I think it’s important to say this even now. Jesus once told someone mourning the death of her brother these very important words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). That is a question for you, too. Do you believe? If not, I urge you to. At the least, learn as much about Jesus and the Bible as you can. I would love to help you do that.

Notes

  1. David Montgomery and Manny Ramirez, “44 Texas Students Have Coronavirus After Spring Break Trip,” New York Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/us/coronavirus-texas-austin-spring-break-cabo.html.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 434/199, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, rev. ed. (London: Penguin, 1995), 137.
  4. Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 28.
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://wbcommunity.org/i-find-no-guilt-in-this-man.

 

Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit (Luke 23:44-56)

Why did Jesus die? What is the meaning of his death? Find out by listening to his sermon, preached by Brian Watson on April 5, 2020.

Father, Forgive Them

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 29, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

For some people, this is a very tense time. To put it mildly, some people are freaking out. We may feel like we’re under pressure. We all have experienced other times of stress, times when we feel like we’re being squeezed. When we’re under pressure, what comes out of us? What comes out of you when you are put in the vise grips of life? I imagine that there are times when you’ve been under pressure and something ugly has come out of you. I can imagine that because it’s true of me. When I’ve been in stressful situations, some ugly things have poured out of me.

It’s during those moments that our true selves are revealed. So, what comes out of you when you’re stressed out and under pressure? What does that reveal about you?

Now let us think about what comes out of the greatest man who has ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, when he was under tremendous stress. This morning, we’ll see what comes out of him when he is pressured in ways that you and I will never be. When he has been betrayed, rejected, abandoned, mocked, tortured, and put to death, what comes out of him? And how do people respond to Jesus in this situation? Those are the questions we’ll consider as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke this morning.

We’ll be looking at Luke 23:26–43. I would encourage you to look at the text if you can. You can find it easily through a Google search, or by visiting www.esv.org/luke+23.

To give us some quick context: this is the moment when Jesus is about to die. Jesus isn’t just a man, he’s the God-man, the Son of God who has existed forever, and who took on a human nature over two thousand years ago. He has spent two or three years teaching and performing miracles. In this last week of his pre-crucifixion life, he was in Jerusalem for the time of the Passover. A conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day increased throughout the week. These religious leaders did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or the Christ (or Messiah), which is a reference to an anointed king, a descendant of King David, who would come and reign over Israel forever, defeating their enemies and bringing about perfect justice and peace. The religious leaders were jealous of Jesus, they wanted to maintain the status quo and their power, and they simply didn’t believe him. So, they arranged for Jesus to die. They told the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, that Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire. Pilate didn’t believe that Jesus had done anything to deserve death, but because the mob demanded that Jesus die, Pilate gave in to their demands.

And now we come to Jesus’ crucifixion. Let’s begin by reading Luke 23:26–31:

26 And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”[1]

Jesus was put on trial inside the walled city of Jerusalem. Law required that crucifixion take place outside the city. It was custom to have the condemned carry the cross beam to the place of crucifixion. But Jesus is probably too exhausted to carry his own cross. He has been awake for twenty-four hours. He probably hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in about twelve hours. He has been beaten and flogged, so that he probably has already lost a significant amount of blood.

So, the cross is given to a man named Simon, from Cyrene, which was in northern African, in what is now Libya. This man was probably in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. I don’t want to read too much into his carrying the cross, but perhaps this is an echo of Jesus’ earlier teaching, that all who want to be part of God’s kingdom must be willing to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). To have a right relationship with God, we must be willing to change, to deny our natural desires, to be willing to suffer along with Jesus.

As Jesus is making his way to the place where he will be crucified, some people mourn and lament for him. Jesus turns to the women and says that they shouldn’t weep for him. Instead, they should weep for themselves and their children. That’s strange, isn’t it? Jesus has already been tortured, and he is about to die, and yet he says that they shouldn’t be sad for him, but for themselves? Why? Because a time of suffering will come upon them. Jesus already taught that in the future, great suffering would occur in Jerusalem. Roughly forty years later, the Jewish people would rebel against the Roman Empire. Rome would respond by besieging the city, surrounding it, attacking it, and destroying it. The suffering would be great. Many Jewish people would die. This destruction was God’s judgment against Jerusalem for rejecting Jesus. Yet even though Jesus knows that God’s judgments are just, he is sorrowful about them. And he warns these women. If God’s judgment falls upon him, the only truly innocent person who has ever lived, what will happen to those who have rebelled against God?

The fact that Jesus is concerned more about these women and their future grief than his own suffering brings me to my first point. In all that is happening, Jesus is not primarily concerned with what is happening to him. He is concerned about others. This is what a perfect person looks like. First, that person is primarily concerned about God, because God is the greatest being there is. Second, that person loves others and cares for their welfare. Jesus puts us to shame in both ways. When we are doing well, we often don’t look to the needs of others first. But when we’re suffering, that’s the time we usually turn inward. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He looks outward. If you want to suffer well, do what Jesus does. But the fact that we don’t look outward when we suffer is proof that we’re not perfect. It’s proof that we need someone like Jesus.

Let’s move on now and read verses 32–38:

32 Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. 35 And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

Jesus is not crucified alone. There are two others with him. Luke says they’re criminals, but it’s wrong to call them thieves. Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state. It’s more likely that they we’re insurrectionists of some kind. We might call them terrorists today. At any rate, they arrive at the place of crucifixion, called “The Skull.” In Aramaic, it is called Golgotha, which means skull. Sometimes, we use the word “Calvary,” which is a good example of Christianese, a language that we Christians understand but others may not. Calvary is an anglicized version of a Latin word that means “skull.” It was probably called that because it was a bit of land that looked like a skull. It was there, outside that city walls, in view of passersby, that Jesus and these two criminals are executed.

Crucifixion involved attaching the condemned to a cross beam, either by rope or by nails. Jesus was nailed to the cross. At the least, nails would be driven through his wrists, and perhaps also his feet. The Gospels don’t get into the gory details, however. Crucifixion was a word that wasn’t used in polite society, because crucifixion was so gruesome. It’s enough to know that Jesus endured a terrible death.

And as he’s hanging on that cross, left to die a slow, agonizing, literally excruciating death, what does he do? What does he say? What comes out of him in that moment of pressure and pain? He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is amazing. Jesus prays to God the Father that these people who are putting him to death would be forgiven. Now, they should have known what they were doing. They should have known who Jesus is. But because of their unbelief, they thought they were putting a blasphemer to death. They were wrong. They were doing something tremendously evil. Yet Jesus wants them to be forgiven.

Now, I don’t think Jesus expects that they will be forgiven without their realizing what they have done. To have forgiveness, or at least to have forgiveness and reconciliation, there must be confession on the part of those who have done wrong. There must be remorse. There must be a desire to change and repentance. We don’t know how many people involved in Jesus’ death later repented and sought God’s forgiveness. But the important thing is to see that Jesus has a heart of forgiveness. He doesn’t want to hold their sin against them. He wants them to be reconciled to God.

The fact that these people have stripped Jesus and are casting lots for his clothes, and the fact these people are mocking Jesus, even after he has prayed for their forgiveness, highlights how unworthy they are to receive God’s forgiveness. But we’re not much different. Sure, we haven’t mocked the Son of God to his face, but we have often ignored him, acting as if he doesn’t exist, or acting as if he’s not King. No one is worthy to receive God’s forgiveness. That’s why his forgiveness is an act of grace. It’s a gift. And Jesus seeks that gift for others.

I want to point out two other things before we move on. One, what happens here fulfills a prophetic psalm. Psalm 22 is one of many Psalms written by David. It begins with the famous line, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Both Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cried out those words while he was on the cross. Psalm 22 also contains other words fulfilled by Jesus. Here are verses 6–8:

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

And then look at verses 14–18:

14  I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15  my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16  For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17  I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18  they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

These words illustrate the kind of pain and suffering that Jesus endured. He was surrounded by evildoers, who gloated over him and mocked him. “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him.” Jesus must have looked like a joke to those who mocked him. What kind of king is this, who is crucified? How can this man be the Son of God if he’s dying, and dying in such a shameful way?

Jesus could have saved himself. He could have come down from the cross. He could have accessed the divine power that was always at his command. He could have summoned legions of angels to crush his enemies. But he didn’t do that. He laid down his life for his enemies. Why? If Jesus saved himself, he couldn’t save others. Jesus came to earth not only to live the perfect life, but also to die in place of sinners. He came to take away the death penalty that we deserve. He came to receive God’s wrath, God’s just penalty against sin. This was God’s plan. It was the Son of God’s plan. Jesus can’t save himself and save others. So, he endures suffering in order that others can be forgiven. What comes out of Jesus in his suffering? Forgiveness and sacrifice. He focuses on God the Father and on those who will be reconciled to God through his selfless act of love.

Let’s move on to the last section of today’s passage. Here are verses 39–43:

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

When the people who were killing Jesus said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they were mocking Jesus. They thought it was a joke. But one of the criminals who is being crucified alongside Jesus picks up this language. Luke says he “railed” against Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” He must have been desperate for a rescue.

But the other criminal rebukes him. It’s as if he’s saying, “Don’t you realize what’s happening here? We’re both guilty. We deserve condemnation. But this man is righteous. He’s done nothing wrong. If you realized who we are and who this man is, you wouldn’t talk to him that way. If you feared God, you wouldn’t talk to this man that way.”

This is something of a confession. This second criminal realizes he’s guilty. He makes no excuses. He doesn’t expect to be rescued from the punishment that he deserves. So, it’s a confession of his sin. But it also seems to be a confession of faith. Perhaps he doesn’t realize exactly who Jesus is. But he knows that Jesus is innocent. And he also knows that Jesus has the power to bring him into God’s kingdom. He realizes that Jesus is a king. Perhaps he realizes Jesus is the King of kings. That’s why he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

How did this criminal know this about Jesus? Perhaps he heard about Jesus before this day. Jesus had become well known. But Matthew, in his Gospel, says that those who were crucified “reviled” Jesus (Matt. 27:44). Matthew uses the plural to indicate that both men reviled Jesus. So, what could move this one criminal from disdaining Jesus to having faith in him? It must have been seeing how Jesus suffered, seeing that he didn’t hate those who hated him. He saw that Jesus didn’t curse those who cursed him. Instead, he asked for their forgiveness. What kind of man would do that? Perhaps, this criminal must have thought, Jesus’ claims are true.

If the people who killed Jesus, who mocked him, provide a negative example of how to respond to Jesus, this criminal provides a positive example. He knows he’s guilty and he knows Jesus is his only hope. And in response, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is a word that comes from the Persian language. It refers to an idyllic garden. Paradise is where God put the first human beings, Adam and Eve. When they rejected God, he removed them from paradise. And ever since, we have lived in a world marked by suffering and death. That’s why we have thing like viruses that kill people. It’s because of the first sin, and also because we continue to sin—all of us. Ever since mankind was kicked out of paradise, we have tried to get back in. We also desperately want to get back to the garden, to be with God, because that’s our real home. That’s what we were made for. We can’t find paradise in money or politics, in romantic relationships or careers, in convenience and entertainment. Paradise only comes with having a right relationship with God.

The one way back to paradise is Jesus. He is the only road that leads back to God. And to make it possible for rebels, enemies of God, to come back to the garden, someone must take their sin away from them. God is a perfect judge who must punish evil. He can’t let the crimes of our failure to love him and to love others go unpunished. If we received what we deserved, we would be like this criminal, condemned. But Jesus came to save his people from their sin. He seeks forgiveness. So, though he is perfectly righteous, he lays down his life, allowing himself to be arrested, tortured, and killed, so that we can go free. Jesus was numbered with the transgressors, and he takes away their sin.

In dying among criminals, Jesus fulfills another prophecy from the Old Testament. This is what Isaiah 53:11–12 says:

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.

The Righteous One makes others righteous. He bears their iniquities, their sins.

But Jesus doesn’t do this for everyone. He makes “many to be accounted righteous”—not all. He “bore the sin of many”—not all. He only takes away the sins of those who come to him in faith, those who realize who he is and who realize that he is their only hope.

What do we do with this passage? What does it have to do with us? Let us think of what we have already seen.

I want to speak first to Christians. Christians, we must look first to God and then the needs of others. We must love God and we must love others, just as Jesus did. Jesus is more than an example, but he’s not less than an example. We can follow him by caring more for what God wants of us than what we want for ourselves. We can follow Jesus by looking first to the needs of others instead of being so concerned about our own needs. Even in our suffering, we must not forget the needs of others.

In this time, there are people around us who have needs. Most of those needs will probably be very practical. People will need help getting groceries and other supplies. Many people will need financial help. Over three million people filed for unemployment just last week. We should check in on our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to see how they’re doing. We should be prepared to help as we are able.

One way to help is to give to our benevolence fund, also known as the deacons’ fund. That money is used to help people in need. If you want to give to that fund, you can simply mail a check to the church and put “benevolence” or “deacons’ fund” on the memo line. But you don’t need to go through the church to help others.

The greatest need that we all have is to be reconciled to God. And to do that, we need to know Jesus. So, Christians, use this time to help other people know about Jesus. Tell them what you believe. Share with them this video, or other resources we have online. Give them a book to read, or even a Bible.

Christians, we should also seek to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. We should never curse our enemies or respond to hate with hate. It’s not just Jesus who asked for the forgiveness of his enemies. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, did the same. As he was being stoned to death, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). We should have that same gracious, forgiving spirit.

Now, to those who are not yet Christians: In this passage, we see two different ways to respond to Jesus. You can respond by laughing off the idea that God can become man and die in your place to take away your sins. Most of you won’t mock Jesus or the Christian faith, though of course there are some people who do that. You’re more likely to be apathetic or indifferent, to shrug your shoulders and say, “That’s a nice story, but I don’t believe it.” But that’s just another way to reject Jesus. Jesus is not someone you can shrug your shoulders at. He’s either God incarnate, or this is all a lie. If he’s the Son of God, then he demands a response like the one the criminal gave him, a confession of our sin and a humble request for help. If he’s not the Son of God, if this is all a myth, then you can feel free to reject Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible.

But in order to reject Jesus, you must first know about him. And most people have never taken the time to think deeply about the claims of Christ and of Christianity. I encourage you to do that today. You’ll find a lot of resources on our website that will help you. You can listen to other sermons on the Gospel of Luke[2] or you can check out a series of messages I gave about Jesus a few years ago.[3] Or you can simply read the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Learn about why the Bible is historically accurate. Consider the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. If you want to know more, you can personally contact me. You can find my contact information on our website or send a private message through our Facebook page.

Last week I said that one of the things that prevents people coming to Jesus is that we have an authority problem. We don’t want a king to reign over us. We don’t want someone telling us what to do, especially when that involves making hard changes. Another reason that keeps people from coming to Jesus is having to take a hard look at ourselves and see that we’re guilty of rejecting God, that we’ve done wrong. That rejection of authority and that failure to confess our wrongdoing both stem from pride. But pride is foolish. We don’t have the power to fix ourselves or to fix this broken world. The coronavirus is proof of that. And even if a foolproof vaccine is developed very quickly, something else will occur that will kill us. We will all die. And before we die, so many other things beyond our control will happen to us. And we’ll do so many things we regret doing. We’re not in control, and we are all guilty.

The good news is that there is one who is in perfect control, who desires the forgiveness of sinners. Jesus welcomes such people into his kingdom. But we must realize we can’t force our way or earn our way into God’s kingdom. The criminal on the cross realized there was nothing he could do to earn God’s favor. He simply asked Jesus for help. That’s all that you need to do. Admit you’re broken, and that you haven’t loved God or others the way that you should. Ask Jesus for forgiveness and help. All your sins can be erased. You can be forgiven of everything you’ve ever done wrong. And you can have the promise of living in paradise with God. You can have that promise today if you turn to Jesus in faith.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://wbcommunity.org/luke.
  3. https://wbcommunity.org/jesus

 

Father, Forgive Them (Luke 23:26-43)

What comes out of us when we’re under pressure? Contrast that with what came out of Jesus when he was dying on the cross. Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 23:26-43, on March 29, 2020.

I Find No Guilt in This Man

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 22, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

This is a very strange time in our lives. And it can feel like a very heavy time. It’s a time of uncertainty, and it can be a time of fear. We have already heard the reports of high death counts in China and Italy, and it’s natural to wonder how many might die of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in America. As we respond to this pandemic by shutting down public gatherings, we know that life won’t be the same for us for some time, and that can lead to anxiety and panic. At times like these, we long for hope. We may wonder what all of this has to do with God. We may wonder what God is doing, and why there are things such as deadly viruses in the world.

Those kinds of responses and questions are natural. They come with living in an uncertain world. They come with living in a world that is marred by diseases, natural disasters, and death. So, where is hope? What does this have to do with God? What is God doing? I’m not sure that I can answer all those questions completely this morning, but I think we can get partial answers as we turn to another heavy time in history. In fact, I would argue that this was the heaviest time of all history. This is the time when God himself was subject to the powers of darkness.

This morning, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. If you haven’t been with us before, you should know that we’re a church that is committed to studying the whole Bible. That means that we go through entire books of the Bible, looking at one passage each week. If you want to learn more about the rest of this book of the Bible, you can visit wbcommunity.org/luke. This morning, we’re going to look at Luke 23:1–25. If you have a Bible at home, I’m sure you can find that passage rather quickly. If you’re on your computer, you can pull it up by typing into your web browser “esv.org/luke+23.”

To give us some context: Jesus has been arrested by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They have charged him with blasphemy, for claiming to believe that he is the Messiah, or the Christ, and the Son of God. Messiah or Christ mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, God promised that there would be a king of Israel who would reign forever and who would defeat Israel’s enemies. He would bring about justice and peace. He would be a perfect king. Now, Jesus is that perfect King, and he is the Son of God. But the Jewish leaders didn’t believe that.

The Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus, but they didn’t have the authority to put someone to death. They were living under the rule of the Roman Empire, the world’s superpower. If they wanted to put Jesus to death, they had to present him to the occupying forces. So, they bring him to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea. The prefect was in charge of keeping the peace. He had the power to enforce capital punishment. That’s why Jesus is now presented to Pilate.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 23:1–25:

1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

When the Jewish leaders bring Jesus before Pontius Pilate, they make three accusations. They say that Jesus is misleading the nation, which means that his teaching is somehow dangerous and deceptive. Or so they think. But the fact is that they were misleading the nation, whereas Jesus only taught what was true. They also claim that he has forbidden giving money to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. But that is false. Jesus said it is right to pay taxes to Caesar Luke 20:25). Then, they say that Jesus has claimed to be the Christ, a king. That’s true. Jesus is the Christ, and he is the King of kings. But not in the way that some people might think. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t come to command an army and lead a revolution. He was no political threat to the Roman Empire. But the Jewish leaders hope that by presenting Jesus to Pilate in this way, that would be enough to get him executed.

Interestingly, similar charges are brought against Christians in the book of Acts. Paul was a great missionary and teacher, who traveled through the Roman Empire after Jesus’ death and resurrection, telling people about Jesus. When he was in the city of Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece, with his associate Silas, they taught about Jesus in the local synagogue. Some people didn’t like what they heard about Jesus, and they tried to get these Christians in trouble with the local authorities. They couldn’t find Paul and Silas, but they brought a man named Jason before the city’s authorities and said, “These men who have turned the world upside down . . . are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). Jesus has always been viewed as a threat by some people. That’s still true today. It’s true in totalitarian countries, like North Korea. It’s true of Communist countries like China. But it’s also true of individuals. A lot of people reject Jesus because they realize that Jesus is an authority. You can’t really be a Christian without coming under the authority of Jesus. People realize that if you become a Christian, your life must change in some way. There are some things that you may have to give up. And they don’t like that. Some people just don’t like being told what to do. They want to be their own authorities.

Now, you can remain your own authority in this life and reject Jesus. But you can’t be your own king and have Jesus. If you reject Jesus, you reject your only path to God and to eternal life in a new creation where there are not more diseases and deadly viruses, where there is no more death. If you come under Jesus’ authority, you must admit your own failures and limitations, and you must start to obey King Jesus. You can’t have it both ways.

When Pilate is told about these charges, he asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews. Jesus only says, “You have said so.” These are the only words that Jesus says in this whole passage. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make any qualifications to the charges made against him. This must have puzzled Pilate. He must have looked at Jesus, who was already beaten and must have looked rather weak, and not seen a threat to the Roman Empire. So, he says, “I find no guilt in this man.” Luke makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving of death.

But the crowds aren’t happy with that. They try to convince Pilate that Jesus is stirring up the people, and not just in Jerusalem. He has taught throughout the regions of Judea and Galilee. When Pilate hears this, he wonders whether Jesus was a Galilean. Galilee was a separate region, to the north, and it was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who was the Jewish ruler when Jesus was born. These Jewish rulers were under the authority of the Roman Empire, but Rome allowed them to exercise some power. So, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod Antipas. Perhaps Pilate was trying to pass the buck. He saw an innocent man and an angry crowd, and he didn’t want to take responsibility for whatever happened to Jesus.

At any rate, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. Let’s read what happens next. Here are verses 6–12:

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

Herod Antipas was the Jewish ruler over Galilee and another region called Perea. He didn’t have all that much authority, since he was under Roman rule. He certainly didn’t have the authority that his father, Herod the Great, had. Herod the Great was a king, known as “King of the Jews.” But after his death, his kingdom was divided among his sons. Several years after this episode, this Herod sent his wife, Herodias, to Rome to ask if Herod could be given the title of “king.” The emperor refused and Herod was deposed.

This Herod was, like his father, a bad man. He took his brother’s wife as his own wife. He had John the Baptist beheaded. He wanted to see Jesus for some time (Luke 9:9). There was even a rumor that he wanted Jesus dead (Luke 13:31). But here we’re told that he wanted to see Jesus because he was hoping that Jesus would perform a “sign,” a miracle for him.

If you’ve ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, you might remember that Herod sings a song in which he asks Jesus to turn his water into wine and walk across his swimming pool. He wants Jesus to perform for him. That’s how some people treat Jesus today, or how they treat God more generally. They expect God to perform wonders at their command. If God did that, then we would be the authorities. We would be kings. But God isn’t obligated to do what we demand. He has performed miracles, signs that point to his existence. Jesus did perform miracles, signs that illustrated what he came to do, which was to heal people of their greatest disease, sin. But he didn’t come to perform tricks or to entertain people’s curiosity.

So, Jesus doesn’t play that game. He doesn’t answer Herod’s questions. He knows that Herod is not sincerely interested in his identity or his mission. Yet, apparently, Herod doesn’t find Jesus to be a threat, despite the accusations given by the Jewish leaders. So, he sends him back to Pilate, but not before his soldiers mock Jesus. They put him in “splendid clothing,” as if to say, “If you’re such a great king, let’s dress you like one.” Of course, they didn’t believe he was king.

Then, Luke gives us this interesting little bit of information. Pilate and Herod had once been at odds with each other. But now, they became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. They both agreed that Jesus was no threat. Yet neither of them did anything to save Jesus from the accusing Jewish leaders and the angry crowds. They were typical politicians, lacking courage and acting to save face.

So, Jesus is sent back to Pilate. Let’s read verses 13–16:

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

This section is important because it establishes once again that Pilate didn’t find Jesus guilty, and neither did Herod. Jesus did nothing wrong. Ever. He certainly didn’t do anything to deserve the death penalty. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. But first, it’s interesting to see that Pilate was hoping he could release Jesus. He thought that if Jesus were flogged, that would satisfy the blood lust of the crowd. And he did have Jesus flogged (Matt. 27:26; John 19:1). That was a terrible punishment on its own. Flogging was done with a weapon torture: a wooden handle with leather strips that had bone or metal attached to them. Flogging would tear the skin and could even kill a man. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied by some blood; they wanted Jesus dead.

Let’s now read verses 18–25:

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Pilate had a habit of releasing one criminal on Jewish holidays. The crowd knows this. They know that Pilate might release Jesus. So, they ask him to release another man instead, a man named Barabbas, an insurrectionist who had committed murder. He was basically a terrorist.

When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead, the crowds demand that Jesus be crucified. Crucifixion was a terrible way to kill someone. Roman citizens couldn’t be crucified. But enemies of Rome, people suspected of treason, could be. Crucifixion meant attaching a person to a cross with rope or nails and letting that person hang there until they could no longer breathe. It was a slow, agonizing way to die. And it was a public execution. It said: “Don’t mess with Rome.”

Pontius Pilate finds himself in a predicament. He can release Jesus, whom he finds to be innocent, but then he knows the crowds will not be satisfied. They might riot. And Pilate’s job was to maintain order. Or, he can give an innocent man over to the will of the people and release a real criminal. Pilate tries to plead with the crowd, but in the end, he gives into their demands. He releases Barabbas, a murderer, and he puts the only truly innocent person who has ever lived to death.

There’s a great irony here. Barabbas literally means “son of the father” (bar = son; abba = father). Jesus is the Son of God, the true Son of the true Father. Barabbas, obviously a guilty man and a true threat to the Roman Empire, is released. Jesus, who wasn’t a political threat and is the only sinless person who ever walked the face of the earth, is given the death penalty.

But that’s the message of Christianity, and Jesus’ death is no accident. And to understand this, we must consider the broader message of the Bible. The Bible says that God created the universe for his purposes. He didn’t have to create anything outside of himself. It’s not as if he was lonely or bored. But God chose to create the universe to display his greatness and to share his existence with human beings. God created humans in his image, which means they are supposed to reflect what he is like, to represent him on earth, and to rule the world by carrying out God’s commands. God also made us in his likeness, which means that we were made to be his children, to love him and obey him the way perfect children would love and obey a perfect parent. That’s good news, because it means that our lives have meaning and purpose. If there is no Creator, there is no ultimate meaning to life. We’re just cosmic accidents, and in the end, our lives don’t matter.

But there’s bad news. From the beginning, people have turned away from God. Instead of realizing that he is King, they wanted—and they still want—to be their own kings and queens, their own masters and lords. We tend to think the world revolves around us. And if there’s a God, he should do what we want. The result is that we live life on our terms, and not on God’s. We don’t do what he wants us to do, because we don’t love him as we should.

God desires perfect children, perfect covenant partners. God is perfect, and he can’t tolerate people making a mess of his creation. The first human beings lived in a garden paradise, where there was no death. But they were evicted from the garden, and were put in the wilderness, where life was hard, where we find diseases, where we die. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from God. We don’t see him; we don’t always feel his presence. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from each other. We have conflicts, we fight, we’re greedy and selfish—we hoard toilet paper and other supplies! And because of our sinful nature, we feel at odds internally. We realize we’re not who we should be, and we get depressed and anxious. We know we have thoughts and desires that are wrong. We know we have done and continue to do wrong things.

As I said, God cannot tolerate people making a mess of his creation. So, he kicked us out of paradise. And in this wilderness, we find things like viruses. The reason why things like the coronavirus exist is because of sin, because humans turned away from God in the beginning, something we call the Fall.

All of this is bad news. If we were to die separated from God by our lack of love, by our rebellion, by our sin, we would be alienated from him forever. And God would be right to punish and condemn us in that way.

But there’s really great news. There is a way back to God, a way back to paradise. And that way—the only way—is Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. That means that he is God. He’s divine. He has always existed. He created the universe. (It’s most accurate to say that the Father created the universe through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.) But over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a man. When Jesus was conceived in Mary, a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God added a second nature to himself. He still was and is God, but he also was and is a human being. This was God the Father’s plan, and it was God the Son’s plan (and God the Spirit’s plan, too).

The Son of God became a man for two reasons. One, to live the perfect life that God demands of human beings. That’s why it’s so important to see that Jesus was innocent. He is the only one who lived the way God wants us to live. He always loved God. He always worshiped God. He always obeyed God. He always loved other people perfectly. He was never greedy and selfish. So, he fulfilled God’s plans for humanity. And when people have a right relationship with Jesus, when they put their trust in him and are willing to follow him, then they are credited with his perfect standing, his innocence, his righteousness.

The second reason why the Son of God became a man was to pay the penalty for sin that his people deserve. We all deserve condemnation. And that sounds harsh, I know. But think about this: If you have a home, would you allow people there who don’t love you, who don’t abide by your rules, and who do things that are harmful to your family? You might put up with such a guest for a little while, but if they keep acting that way, you would kick them out. And that’s essentially what God does. He says, “You don’t want me, you don’t love me, you don’t want to obey my rules? Fine. Go your own way.” But that’s a terrible thing. God is the source of love. When we turn away from him, we find a world of hate. God is the source of beauty. When we turn away from him, we find ugliness. God is the source of light. When we turn away from him, we find darkness. God is the source of truth. When we turn away from him, we find lies. And God is the source of life. When we turn away from him, we find death.

If you want proof that people don’t really want God, consider something that happened this past week. We find ourselves in this strange world threatened by a new virus. You would think that if ever people would turn to God and humbly ask for his help, now would be the time. But we don’t see that happening. Sometimes, we something else, like a video of celebrities singing John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” You might have seen the video. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman on the big screen, starts to sing the song, and then other celebrities follow her, singing one phrase at a time. It’s supposed to be a hopeful thing, signaling that we’re all in this together. If you know the song, you may remember some of the lyrics. The song can be taken as a hopeful vision of humans working together, united in harmony. But if you stop and think of the lyrics, it’s a troubling song. John Lennon asked us to imagine that there’s no heaven—“above us, only sky.” In other words, imagine that there’s no God. So, in a time of crisis, people are singing a song that says, “We don’t need God and religion. That stuff is divisive. We just need to love each other and get along, and then the world will be as one.” That song is proof that we don’t love God the way we should, that we don’t see that he is the one who gives us life and who sustains our lives at every moment. That song shows that we don’t see our desperate need for God. There’s no admission of our real problem, which is our sin. Frankly, the song is naïve, and it doesn’t provide us with any real answers to the very real problems of the world.

But Jesus is the answer. Jesus lives the perfect life. And Jesus pays the penalty for sin. He was crucified not just because some people didn’t believe him and hated him. He didn’t die just because Pontius Pilate was weak and was afraid to stand up to the crowds. He didn’t die just because he was betrayed, and because the powers of spiritual darkness wanted to destroy him. He died because it was God’s plan to have someone rescue us from the penalty of sin. This was Jesus’ plan, too. He laid down his life to pay for our sin. That’s why Jesus didn’t defend himself, and why he hardly says a word. The prophet Isaiah predicted Jesus’ sacrificial death roughly seven hundred years earlier. He said,

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 (Isa. 53:7).

Right before that verse in Isaiah 53, we read these words, also about Jesus:

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.
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 (Isa. 53:5–6).

When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered the death penalty, but also much more than that. He took on God’s righteous punishment against sin, his holy wrath. He endured hell on earth so that we don’t have to.

We don’t have to experience hell if come to Jesus and put our trust in him. If we trust in him, he takes away our sins. Our punishment has already been paid. And we are credited with his perfection. That’s the good news. We don’t have to earn our way to God. In fact, we could never do that. Christianity says that even our best efforts are always tainted by bad motives. But God came down to us. He entered a world that can be beautiful but also ugly, a world that is governed by orderly laws of nature but can also appear to be chaotic, a world that supports life but ends in death. He did this to rescue us and to bring us back to God, to bring us ultimately to paradise, which will come in the future, when God remakes the world and removes all suffering, sin, and death.

So, why do we have things like the coronavirus? They are the result of sin in the world. These things are part of living in a fallen world. Cancer and earthquakes, toilet paper hoarding and murder, are the result of sin in the world. But there’s good news. God entered this world, and he subjected himself to rejection and betrayal, to mocking and torture, and even to death, so that he could save us. God has not promised that this life will be free of pain and sickness. But he has promised that he will sustain his people, even through death. And he has promised that one day, Jesus will return to bring human history as we know it to an end. And on that day, a new era will begin. There will be no more pain, no more disease, no more wars, and no more death. It will be God and his people dwelling in a renewed and perfected creation.

I urge us all to put our hope in God. Let us look to him during this time. I don’t know exactly why God has us in this situation, but I know that he uses things like this to teach us lessons and to draw us closer to him. So, let us focus on God. Specifically, let us focus on Jesus. If you don’t know him yet, learn more about him. And put your trust in him. Only he would lay down his life for you. No politician will do that. No one else can save you from your real problem, which is a broken relationship with God. But Jesus can, and he stands ready to receive you if you come to him.

 

I Find No Guilt in This Man (Luke 23:1-25)

Before Jesus goes to the cross, he is brought before two political leaders: Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. Both find him innocent, but both don’t let him go. This was no accident; it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 22, 2020.

Are You the Son of God? (Luke 22:63-71)

Jesus’ path to the cross is marked by ironies. The one who is blasphemed is charged with blasphemy. The one who is Judge is judged. Jesus endured this to save to his people from their sins. Find out what happens when Jesus is put on trial, and God is in the dock. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 1, 2020.

He Went out and Wept Bitterly

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 23, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Last week, I asked us how we respond when we are hurt or attacked. What comes out of us during those moments of great pressure reveal what is inside of us.

That’s a very important point. But there’s something else we should think about. What happens when we’re the ones who fail? What do we do when we do what is wrong? In other words, what do we do with our failure, our mistakes, our sins? When we do what is wrong, how can we move forward? Is there hope for us? Can we be forgiven of serious failures?

Well, Christianity says there is great hope for sinners. This is why we refer to the central message of Christianity as the gospel, which simply means good news. Though we fail, God is able and willing to forgive his children.

We will see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. We’ll see what happens when Peter fails. Though this passage doesn’t give us the full story, we can look to other parts of the Bible to see what happened to Peter after he failed.

So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 22:54–62. While you’re turning there, I just want to remind us that this passage is among one of many that is set on the night before Jesus died, the night he was betrayed and arrested. Last week, we saw that Jesus was arrested. Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword, but Jesus told him not to do that. The disciples fled at Jesus’ arrest (Matt. 26:56). But Peter trailed behind Jesus and the Jewish leaders who arrested him, and Luke’s attention now turns to Peter.

Let’s now read Luke 22:54–62:

54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. 55 And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. 56 Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” 59 And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.[1]

Peter follows Jesus and those who arrested him from the Garden of Gethsemane back into Jerusalem, to the high priest’s house. Why was Peter following Jesus? We’re not told. Did he think he could take his sword out again and free Jesus? Did he simply want to see what would happen? We don’t know. But it seems like Peter wanted to do the right thing. He didn’t simply run away from danger, from the Jewish leaders who were hostile to Jesus and who would surely be hostile to Jesus’ disciples. Peter could have done that, and that would have been the safest thing to do. Instead, Peter follows Jesus and his captors from a distance.

While waiting in the courtyard, Peter tries to blend with other people who are warming themselves by a fire. Then, he is noticed. A servant sees Peter, recognizes him, and says, “This man was also with him.” If Peter said, “You’ve got that right!” he might have been arrested and put on trial alongside Jesus. Peter must have recognized the danger. So, in that moment of pressure, he lies to save his own skin.

Shortly thereafter, another person recognizes Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Now, Peter could have told the truth at that point, and confessed that he lied earlier. But as is so often the case, once we tell lies, instead of admitting what we have done, we double down in our dishonesty. I remember when I was a kid there used to be a public service announcement that played among commercial breaks of cartoons. And that PSA said something like, “When you tell one lie, it leads to another. So, you tell two lies to cover each other. Then you tell three lies, then, oh brother, you’re up to your neck in lies.”

After that second lie, about an hour goes by. Now, you might think that Peter would come to his senses, realize that he has twice denied Jesus, and resolve to tell the truth, no matter the consequences. But he doesn’t do that. Again, he is recognized. This time, someone figures out that Peter is from Galilee, just like Jesus, and infers that Peter must be one of Jesus’ followers. Peter says quite strongly that he doesn’t know Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, it says, “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Matt. 26:74).

At that moment, a rooster crows, Jesus looks at Peter from a distance, and Peter remembers what Jesus had predicted. Earlier in this same chapter of Luke, Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny him. This is what we read in Luke 22:31–34:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

And, sure enough, Jesus’ prediction comes to pass. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.

We don’t know what kind of look Jesus gave Peter. Was it a look of sadness, of sorrow that a friend would deny even knowing him? It probably wasn’t a look of “I told you so.” Whatever it was, Peter remembered what Jesus had said, and left, weeping bitterly.

I think this episode is important for a number of reasons, primarily for what it teaches us about failure. If you’re like me, in moments of pressure and even in moments of panic, you might have done the wrong thing. You might have had many moments of failing to do the right thing when you’ve felt under pressure. And you might feel a great sense of guilt and shame because of your failure. But there is hope, and I think that is why the Gospel writers tell us about Peter and his failure.

I want to make a number of observations about this passage and about other passages that discuss Peter. The first is one that I made a few weeks ago when we read about how Jesus predicted Peter’s failure. Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, his inner ring of followers who would become his apostles, his authorized messengers. (Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was later replaced by Matthias.) Jesus chose men who were not perfect. They were not the most righteous, the most religious, the richest and most powerful men. They weren’t stupid, but they were also not elite scholars. They were people that were a bit like you and me.

When Jesus called Peter to follow him, Peter at first thought he was unworthy. In Luke 5, Jesus tells Simon Peter to follow him. After Jesus performed a miracle to demonstrate his divine power, Peter told him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). What kind of sin did Peter have in his life? We don’t know. But if he is anything like you and me, there were some things he had done that bothered him, moral failures of which he was ashamed. He must have thought that the things he had done would disqualify him from serving someone like Jesus in any kind of official capacity.

But Jesus deliberately chose Peter. Jesus knew that Peter was a sinful man. And Jesus also knew that Peter would sin again. As we have already seen, Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. Yet Jesus chose this man to be the leader of this band of twelve brothers. And that is a picture of grace. God uses imperfect people as his servants. He uses people who have failed, people who have cracked under pressure. We might say God uses cracked and broken vessels to carry his perfect word to the world. God doesn’t have to do this. But God is merciful, not giving us over to what we deserve—at least not immediately. And for those who follow Jesus, putting their trust in him, God forgives all sin. And God doesn’t just wipe away that sin. He also gives his children good things that they don’t deserve.

So, the first thing to see is that Jesus chose this sinful man to be his servant, knowing his sin, past, present, and future.

The second thing to see is that what Peter did in this episode was truly wrong. It was no small thing to deny knowing Jesus. In Luke 12, Jesus said this:

And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God (Luke 12:8–9).

Peter denied Jesus before men. Jesus says the one who does that “will be denied before the angels of God,” which is a way of saying that God will say, “I don’t know that person” on judgment day (Matt. 7:23). It’s important that we understand that Jesus means that if one denies Jesus their whole life, they will be condemned. If one ends one’s life in a state of denying who Jesus is—Savior, Lord, Son of God—then that person will be condemned. But if it’s wrong to deny Jesus for one’s whole life, it seems like it’s wrong to deny Jesus at any point in one’s life. And that’s especially true of someone like Peter, who was no casual acquaintance of Jesus. Peter spent two or three years alongside Jesus. Peter was Jesus’ student, his brother, and friend. To deny knowing someone whom you actually know very well is a form of betrayal. Peter not only lied, but he separated himself from Jesus in order to protect himself from whatever harm the Jewish leaders might do to him. This was definitely a wrong thing to do.

We might wonder how someone like Peter, who had such privileged access to Jesus, who had seen Jesus’ many miracles, who was taught so much by Jesus, could do this. On one level, we could say that Peter panicked. He was scared in that moment. Instead of trusting Jesus, who had predicted what would happen to him, he was tempted to do the wrong thing in order to save himself. I know that I have sinned in moments of panic. There were times when I didn’t have a premeditated plan to sin, but when I was afraid and panicked, I did what was wrong. You might say that in those moments, we’re not thinking clearly. It Peter thought clearly, he would recall Jesus’ prophecies. He would have remembered Jesus’ power and promises. He would have thought, “No matter what these Jewish leaders might do to me, I’ll be okay.” But there’s something about sin that is irrational. It doesn’t always make sense.

The third thing we should see is Peter’s response to what happened. Though Peter didn’t come to his senses during that time when he denied Jesus three times, he did come to his senses immediately after, when the rooster crowed and when Jesus looked his way. At that moment, Peter knew exactly what he had done. And he wept bitterly. That is such a moving moment. And it’s something that I can relate to easily. When we sin, and then when we realize what we have done, there is a real bitterness to that realization. Sometimes, that bitterness is immediate. Other times, the bitter realization that we have failed comes later. There are times when it resurfaces again and again, whenever we think of the wrong things we have done.

I wonder if every once in a while, during the rest of his life, Peter thought about what he had done, and a moment of bitter realization reemerged. I also wonder if the apostle Paul had those moments. Even after Jesus rose from the grave, Paul opposed Jesus and his followers for a while. He arrested Christians so that they might be put to death for blasphemy. He approved of the first Christian martyr’s death (see Acts 8:1–3). Though Paul had been forgiven of all those sins when he came to see who Jesus really is and to put his trust in him, Paul still thought of himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder if Peter thought of himself in similar ways, and if every once in a while, whenever his mind thought again of these events, the bitter taste of that memory of his more failure came back into his mouth.

At any rate, sin leaves a bitter taste. At the moment, it feels good. But later, when we realize what we had done, we feel guilty. We’re ashamed. We can’t believe that we would do something like that. Peter knew what that was like.

Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to Peter after this event. Specifically, Luke doesn’t give us information about whether Peter was forgiven. He just tells us that Peter ran to the empty tomb after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And in the sequel to his Gospel, the book of Acts, Luke depicts Peter as a leader of the apostles.

But John, in his Gospel, does tell us what happened. After Jesus rose from the grave, Jesus had a conversation with Peter. This is what we read in John 21:15–17:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Why does Jesus ask Peter three times if he loves him? Surely, his asking this question three times mirrors the three times that Peter denied Jesus. Now, Jesus asks Peter to affirm his love for him three times. And though John doesn’t specifically mention forgiveness or reconciliation, we understand that Jesus was forgiving Peter.

But we should also notice this: Jesus was reaffirming Peter’s position as an apostle. As we have already seen, when Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him, he told Peter to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). And here, Jesus tells Peter to “feed his sheep,” which most likely means that Peter should “feed” Christians “the word of God,” which is their spiritual food.

The point is that though Peter had sinned in a very serious way, he was forgiven, and he retained his position as an apostle. We can easily imagine Jesus forgiving Peter, but saying, “Peter, I love you, and I forgive you for denying me, but you failed your apostle audition. We’re going to have to give your position to someone else.” But Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter. He continues to use Peter as his servant. Peter didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He hadn’t earned that position. But God is gracious. He gives us gifts. He uses sinners. And that should give us hope. You may feel that you’ve done things that are so wrong that here is no way God can forgive you. Or, you may understand that you’re forgiven, but you still think your sin disqualifies you to serve God. You may think, “Who am I to tell other people about Jesus when I’ve denied Jesus by my behavior?” When that happens, think about Peter.

Another thing that we should think about as we think about Peter is that his life was changed. Though he was a sinful man, and though he certainly sinned in this episode, his grew in faith and obedience. The book of Acts makes that clear. And we know from sources outside of the Bible that Peter would eventually be killed for being a Christian. Roughly thirty-five years after this event, he would not deny Jesus in order to save his life. I’m sure he learned from his sin. I’m sure he was strengthened by the knowledge that though Jesus died, he rose from the grave. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit gave Peter strength that he didn’t possess on his own.

God loves us so much that when we are adopted into his family through faith in Jesus, his Son, he wants us to grow. He doesn’t want us to stay the same. He changes us from the inside out. And we need to turn away from our old sinful habits. We need to repent. We need to pursue a greater knowledge of God. We need to obey God’s commands. God expects that of his children.

But that doesn’t mean that Peter never sinned again. I’m sure he did. I’m sure he had moments where he harbored bad thoughts and desires. And we’re told elsewhere in the Bible that in another moment of pressure, Peter panicked once again and did the wrong thing.

In one of Paul’s letters, Galatians, he tells of an episode where he and Peter were in the city of Antioch, where there was a church that had both Jewish and Gentile Christians. It’s hard for us to understand how radical that was. There was a huge divide between Jews and Gentiles. Jewish people thought Gentiles were unclean. This wasn’t just some sort of ethnic or racial division. This was also a religious division. But one of the amazing things about Christianity is that people from all kinds of backgrounds become one when they are united to Jesus by faith. In Christ, there is no Jew and Gentile, or black or white, or male and female (to paraphrase Gal. 3:28).

Peter knew that. But when Jewish leaders came to Antioch, he felt pressured to distance himself from Gentiles. He had been eating with them, which was a thing Jewish people didn’t do. But when these Jewish leaders came, Peter was afraid of them, or at least of their opinions, and so he stopped eating with the Gentiles. In doing that, he was denying the Gospel. This is what Paul writes in Galatians 2:11–14:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Peter was acting like a hypocrite, like someone who never really understood the Gospel. And his behavior led another Christian, Barnabas, to act like a hypocrite, too. But Paul confronted Peter and told him he was wrong.

The point is that even after coming to Jesus, we still will fail. Those failures should be fewer in number and not as serious. But still, we wrestle with sin. And there are times when we fail.

Such is the power of sin. In our moments of weakness, when we are scared, when we are tired, when we have taken our eyes off of Jesus, we might panic and do the wrong thing. Sin promises us safety and security. It promises us pleasures. It promises us freedom. These are false promises, but when we’re not thinking clearly, we believe them. We fail to trust Jesus and we disobey him. And then we come to our senses once again and taste the bitterness of sin. And that is painful.

When I think about this tendency to fall back into sin, I think about different things. I think about songs. One of my favorite song writers is a man named Tom Waits. He has a beat-up voice and an odd sense of humor, but that’s part of what appeals to me. In one of his songs called “Walk Away,” he sings these words:

There are things I’ve done I can’t erase.
I want to look in the mirror and see another face.
I said, “never,” while I’m doing it again.
I wanna walk away, start over again.

I can relate to that. I can see the things that I’ve done wrong and desperately want to erase them. I want to be a different person. I wouldn’t mind looking at the mirror and seeing another face. I’ve told myself, “I’m never going to do that again.” And then I have.

There’s another song I think of, one that was sung by Johnny Cash towards the end of his career. (Though the song was written by Nick Lowe, not Cash.) It’s called “The Beast in Me.” It seems to describe that inner, sinful self that we try to suppress, but who escapes from his cage to do bad things. There’s something inside of us that is a like a beast. We try to keep it shut up in its cage. But there are times when it escapes and overcomes us, and we fail.

I also think about prayers. There’s a wonderful collection of prayers written by Puritans called The Valley of Vision. One prayer in that book is called “Yet I Sin.” Here is part of that prayer:

My faculties have been a weapon of revolt
against thee;
as a rebel I have misused my strength,
and served the foul adversary of thy kingdom.
Give me grace to bewail my insensate folly,
Grant me to know that the way of transgressors
is hard,
that evil paths are wretched paths,
that to depart from thee is to lose all good.

All these sins I mourn, lament, and for them
cry pardon.
Work in me more profound and abiding repentance;
Give me the fullness of a godly grief
that trembles and fears,
yet ever trusts and loves,
which is ever powerful, and ever confident;
Grant that through the tears of repentance
I may see more clearly the brightness
and glories of the saving cross.[2]

In that same collection of prayers, there’s another one called “The Dark Guest.” “The Dark Guest” is like “The Beast in Me.” It says, in part:

Destroy, O God, the dark guest within
whose hidden presence makes my life a hell.
Yet thou hast not left me here without grace;
The cross still stands and meets my needs
in the deepest straits of the soul. . . .
The memory of my great sins, my many
temptations, my falls,
bring afresh into my mind the remembrance
of thy great help, of thy support from heaven,
of the great grace that saved such a wretch
as I am.
There is no treasure so wonderful
as that continuous experience of thy grace
toward me which alone can subdue
the risings of sin within:
Give me more of it.[3]

These prayers confess to God that hellish nature of sin. They make no excuses for committing sin. Doing what is wrong is evil. We are without excuse. But these prayers cry out to God to bring about repentance. They ask God to destroy this beast within. And these prayers recall God’s remedy for sin. “The cross still stands and meets my needs in the deepest straits of the soul.” God the Father sent God the Son, who came willingly, to bear the penalty for sin. Jesus died on the cross, experiencing great physical and spiritual pain, in order to pay the penalty of sin for whoever would come to him in faith. This is the way that we are forgiven by God. Even the bitter memories of great sins “bring afresh into [our minds] the remembrance of [God’s] great help, . . . of the great help that saved such a wretch as I am.”

If you have felt the bitter taste of sin, if you know that you have done wrong, if you feel the guilt and shame that come along with doing wrong, I urge you to turn to Jesus. He stands ready to forgive us all our sins. All of them. We must trust that this is true. If you are not yet a Christian, turn to Jesus now.

Of course, we must also desire to be changed, to stop living the way we have always lived. But that doesn’t mean we will suddenly become perfect. We will continue to struggle with sin. Christians, if you struggle with sin, or if you struggle with the memory of your sin, turn to Jesus. There may be something in your past that you think of from time to time and think, “How could I do that? How could I do something that bad? How I could do something that I know is wrong? What was I thinking? How could I be that bad of a person?” When that happens, don’t just look back to your sins. Keep looking further back in the past. Look back to something that happened almost two thousand years ago, when the Son of God laid down his life to pay for your sins. Look to Jesus. Look to the cross. When those memories of sin come back, think of what Jesus has done for you. Experience once again God’s cleansing grace. And be thankful.

This is the best of news for failures and losers like you and me. Not long ago, I was reading through 1 Samuel again, and I came across a verse that I must have read several times. But this time, it really stood out. It was 1 Samuel 22:2, and it described the kind of people that started to follow David even before he was king. It says, “And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.” Those in distress, those bitter in soul, found hope in David. How much more should people like that find their hope in the son of David, the true King of Israel, Jesus Christ. He beckons those who are crushed by the weight of sin to come to him and find rest. He will forgive you, cleanse you, restore you, and equip you to serve him.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The full prayer can be found here: https://banneroftruth.org/us/devotional/yet-i-sin.
  3. The full prayer can be found here: https://banneroftruth.org/us/devotional/the-dark-guest.

 

The Power of Darkness

This sermon was preached on February 16, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below). 

How do you respond when someone hurts you? How do you respond when someone close to you betrays you and violates your trust? If someone hates you and acts in a way that is unfair toward you, do you respond in hate and with unfair tactics? Or do you respond in a way that is different, a way that reflects truth and love?

How we respond to difficult situations reveals who we truly are. When the pressures of life come upon us and we feel like we’re being squeezed, the real me and the real you will be exposed. What happens to us when we’re attacked, when we’re hurt, when we’re treated unfairly?

Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see Jesus’ arrest. We’ll see that he is betrayed. His arrest isn’t conducted publicly and in the light, but in secret, in the dark. His disciples try to respond one way to this arrest, by striking back. But Jesus responds with love.

We’re going to read Luke 22:47–53 this morning. Before we do, here’s a quick reminder of where we are in this story. It’s the night before Jesus will die. He has spent the last few hours with his disciples. He has taken a Passover meal with them, taking the elements of the meal, the bread and the wine, to demonstrate what his death will accomplish. He has warned them that one of the twelve disciples will betray him. He has also warned them against seeking greatness, teaching them instead to be humble and to serve, for that is the way to true greatness in God’s kingdom. He has told Peter that he will deny knowing Jesus. He has told them that the Scripture about him will be fulfilled, that he will be “numbered with the transgressors.” And, as we saw last week, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, east of Jerusalem, that if there were any way possible, that he would be spared the suffering of the wrath of God that he would experience on the cross. Yet he yielded to the Father’s will.

Now, let’s read Luke 22:47–53:

47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” 49 And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”[1]

I want to point out three things that we see here. The first thing we see is Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. We have already talked about this, when we saw that Jesus predicted this betrayal. But now it comes to pass. After Jesus prays, Judas, who had left the group at the last supper, comes back with a crowd. Luke says that among the crowd were Jewish religious leaders, “chief priests and officers of the temple and elders.” Judas was in front of the crowd, and he identifies Jesus by kissing him, probably on the cheek.

Why does Judas kiss Jesus? A kiss was a common greeting of respect and love. It might have been the kind of greeting the disciples gave Jesus after they had been away for a while. It seems that Judas had arranged to identify Jesus by some sign. It was dark, and perhaps the officers of the temple didn’t know what Jesus looked like. Today, the identifying sign might have been a handshake or a hug. But in that time, it was a kiss.

Yet the kiss is ironic. Instead of a sign of love, it was a sign of hate, a sign of betrayal. The man who had spend a couple of years with Jesus, who was part of his inner circle of twelve disciples, who had been the treasurer of the group, betrayed Jesus. He told these Jewish leaders how they could arrest Jesus away from the teeming crowds in Jerusalem. He knew that Jesus would be alone with his disciples, just outside the city. The leaders could arrest Jesus without any public backlash, without setting off a riot. Jesus sold Jesus out.

Think about that for a moment. We believe that Jesus is no ordinary man. He is the God-man, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being, one person with two natures, one divine and one human. That means that while Jesus had all the essential characteristics of a human being, he was still God. He was still omnipotent, all-powerful. Yet Jesus made himself vulnerable. He loved these men. He served them. He spent a great deal of time with them, traveling with them, teaching them, revealing truths to them that the rest of them would teach and preach and write down.

Though Jesus knew in advance that Judas would betray him, it must have been something else to experience it. It’s one thing to know something is going to happen. That’s knowing a fact. It’s quite another to experience it happen. Jesus knew he would die, but it was quite another thing to experience a painful death and the spiritual suffering that came along with it. In a similar manner, Jesus knew he would be betrayed, but it must have been sorrowful all the same to see one of his friends betray him this way.

And what does that mean for us? Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed. I don’t know if you have experienced betrayal in your life, but you probably have. Of course, the betrayals that we experience are often not as dramatic; most people when they are betrayed aren’t put to death. But anytime someone we love, someone we have made ourselves vulnerable to, turns on us, that’s a betrayal. It could be a friend who has betrayed your trust. Betrayal can come from a co-worker. Betrayal can even come from a spouse. I know that I’ve experienced betrayal. There have been people that have been close to me, people I’ve trusted, who then surprised me by turning on me. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing. The fact that someone we wouldn’t expect to turn on us does is the worst aspect of betrayal. The loss of a relationship is worse than losing a job or experiencing some other bad consequence of betrayal. When people we love turn on us, we’re hurt and confused. We don’t know if someone else will turn on us, too.

When we finish the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to look at the book of Proverbs. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus reminds me of a passage in Proverbs. This is what Proverbs 27:5–6 says:

Better is open rebuke
than hidden love.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy.

Real friends will tell you the truth. They will “wound” you with things that you may not want to hear, but they will do that directly. The kisses of the enemy, however, might appear flattering at first. People who don’t truly love us will say things we might want to hear, things that will flatter us. Yet those same people will then turn on us.

The good news is that Jesus, the Son of God, knows what it’s like to be betrayed. Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakest moments. He knows what it’s like to have someone close to him turn on him. He understands. And Jesus was and is always a real friend. He doesn’t betray us. He rebukes us openly with his words. He tells us hard truths that we may not want to hear. We need to follow Jesus’ example in not betraying people by acting one way to them at one time, and then turning on them the next. Jesus is faithful, the one who never betrays but who was betrayed.

The next thing we should see in this passage is that those who betray, those who are aligned with the powers of darkness, don’t fight fair. At the end of this passage, Jesus says that those who came to arrest him were doing so with the power of darkness. They were doing what was evil. And evil doesn’t play by the rules. Jesus’ enemies should have arrested him in Jerusalem, during the day, in public. Jesus says that they could have done that. Every day that week, he was at the temple, teaching. They could easily have arrested him then if they thought he was a threat. Instead, they come secretly at night. And though Jesus never committed acts of violence against anyone, he was treated like a violent criminal. The word “robber” used here in verse 52 is one used of violent criminals, not mere thieves. Why are treating Jesus this way if he’s not a real threat? Because they want to get rid of him. Darkness doesn’t like the light. It hates light because light exposes the truth. Light reveals what is done in secret. So, the powers of darkness come upon Jesus. It is their hour.

The third thing we should see is that there are two different responses to Jesus’ arrest. One response comes from the other eleven disciples. They ask Jesus, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Before he answers, one of them takes a sword and cuts off one of the ears of the servant of the high priest. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that the disciple who did this was Peter. John also gives us the servant’s name, Malchus (John 18:10). We can understand why Peter would want to fight. He’s trying to protect his teacher, his leader.

But Jesus has a very different reaction. He says, “No more of this!” Then he heals the servant’s ear, which is the last miracle he performs before he dies. He refuses to fight back. Even though the people who come against him are wrong and want to do him harm, he refuses to run away from his mission. He must die. In John’s Gospel he says to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

Jesus could have defended himself. He certainly had the power to do so. Look at what happens in Matthew’s account of this episode. This is Matthew 26:51–54:

51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

Jesus could have responded by calling upon thousands of angels. Twelve legions could be as many as 72,000. He could have struck down all of the Jewish leaders opposed to them and all their servants and soldiers. But he didn’t. He let himself be arrested so that Scripture would be fulfilled. He knew that he had to drink the cup of wrath that his Father had prepared for him.

Not only does Jesus refuse to fight back or run away, but he heals his enemy. He doesn’t respond to hate with hate. He doesn’t respond to swords with swords. He responds with love. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he taught about loving one’s enemy. This is what he says in Luke 6:27–29:

27 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.

We could believe that what Jesus does here is extraordinary. We know that he has to be arrested, because he has to die. He has to die and experience God’s wrath in order to pay the penalty for sins. Of course, Jesus never committed any sins. He is the one perfect human being. So, he’s not dying for his own sins. He’s dying for the sins of all who will come to him in faith, those whom the Father draws to him, those who cling to Jesus because he is their only remedy for sin. If Jesus didn’t die for sins, we all would have to die for our sins. And we wouldn’t just have to die a physical death. We would have to die a spiritual death. We would be condemned, cast out of God’s creation, cut off from all of God’s blessings.

So, we could easily say, “Yes, of course Jesus didn’t fight back. He had to die.” And then we could act quite differently when we are attacked. But we can’t just write off Jesus’ actions as something that he had to do, but something that we don’t have to do. We just read his words: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” When someone mistreats us, we will be tempted to strike back. If someone lies about us, we may be tempted to lie about them. If someone calls us a name, we might be tempted to call them names. If someone does something unethical towards us, we might think we’re allowed to do the same to them. But Jesus says, “No.”

Jesus’ message is reiterated by the apostles. Let’s look at what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. Turn to Romans 12:14–21:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

If someone persecutes you, you must bless them and not curse them. Do not repay evil with evil. Instead, do what is honorable. Don’t avenge yourself, but leave it to God to deal with those who have wronged you. God will deal with all evil. In the end, all evil will be punished. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith have already had all their evil punished. Those who reject Jesus will stand before him in judgment and they will have to pay for what they have done. We must trust that a final day of justice will come. We don’t have to try to right every single wrong in this life. Instead, treat people kindly. Overcome evil with good.

Paul can say those things because the Spirit of God led him to write those things. And Jesus spoke through his apostles by means of the Holy Spirit. So, Paul’s words are no less authoritative then Jesus’ words. His message is the same as Jesus’. Paul can tell us not to repay evil with evil, but to love and bless those who hate and curse us, because he knows that justice will be done. He can also say those things because God has instituted an authority that does provide justice. Paul goes on to say in Romans 13 that the “governing authorities . . . have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). The government is “God’s servant” who “bear[s] the sword.” The government “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). According to the Bible, the main role of government is to punish evil and to protect those who do good from those who do evil. Obviously, governments don’t work perfectly. The Roman Empire wasn’t the perfect model of justice in Paul’s day, but Paul realized that the role of government was to punish evildoers. And if the government failed to punish evil, as it so often does, then evil would ultimately be punished by God. And that means Christians do not have to pick up weapons to avenge themselves.

Why does this matter? There’s a great temptation today to rely on power to get our way. It seems like all kinds of people are obsessed with politics because they realize that if their party has control of the various branches of government, they can then enforce their will on all the people. It seems like hardly anyone cares about truth and doing what is right. Instead, they cheer on the party that can enforce their agenda, regardless of whether that agenda is entirely good or not.

Christians have been caught up in this. I think we have been led to think that if only we could get control of the government, we could enforce our views on the nation. Now, that’s understandable. It matters who is in power. And it matters what laws are made and enforced. Laws cannot enforce virtue in the hearts of people. But laws can restrain vice. And laws are teachers. When the government says that something is legal or illegal, it is saying that something is acceptable (even if it’s not entirely moral) or that something is beyond the pale and is entirely unacceptable. So, we cannot pretend that politics doesn’t matter.

But I think there are some things that we fail to think about. One is that Christianity cannot be enforced or spread through power. We can’t make people believe in Jesus, or accept the doctrines of the Bible. Christianity can only be spread through persuasion and through the power of God.

Think about this: the early church had no political power. Christianity was an illegal religion. And it was considered a threat to the Roman Empire because Caesar, the emperor, was regarded as Lord. But Christianity said, “No, Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is the real King. The Roman Empire had many, many gods. Christianity teaches that there is only one true God. So, Christianity was at odds with the Roman Empire. And for about three centuries after Jesus died and rose from the grave, the Roman leaders were not Christians. Eventually, in the fourth century, Christianity became a legal religion and then even the official religion of the Roman Empire. But that was not the case in the early years. The first Christians had no political power. They weren’t the richest people. But Christianity spread through persuasion. Christians stated what Jesus did and how he fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament. They explained how all the other gods couldn’t save them, and that they were in fact false gods. They pointed out the beauty and the coherence of the Christian faith while pointing out the inferiority of other beliefs.

You simply can’t spread Christianity with force. To try to do so is wrong. Enforcing religion is more or less the way of Islam. Islam started in Saudi Arabia in the early seventh century. After Mohammed died, in 632, the alleged revelations of God that he received in his life were written down and codified in the Qur’an. And before long, the first Muslims engaged in military conquests in the Middle East and across northern Africa, all within the seventh century. By the early eighth century, Muslims invaded Spain.

Now, it’s technically true that people didn’t convert to Islam through violence. We don’t have accounts of people being told, “Confess Allah or you will die!” But Islam wouldn’t have spread without violence, force, and great social pressure. Those people who were not Muslims and who lived in lands that were conquered by Muslims were treated as second-class citizens. They were forced to pay taxes that Muslims didn’t have to pay. There was enormous social pressure to convert to Islam. And that is still true today in Islamic countries in the Middle East.

But that is not the way of Christianity. It can’t be, because you can’t force someone to have a change of heart. When we try to enforce what we believe, it simply doesn’t work. And it often creates a backlash. People resent being forced to live in a way they disagree with. Powerful social movements in our country have not been achieved through power. Part of the reason why the civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s of the last century worked so well is because it was accomplished through persuasion and through people being willing to be arrested and even to suffer mistreatment. Of course, Christians can and should agree that treating someone poorly based on their skin color or ethnicity is wrong. It’s a failure to treat someone as an image bearer of God, regardless of what they believe and how they live.

But there have been social movements in our country that do not align with Christianity. And they, too, have been spread not with violence or power, but with persuasion. We can think about homosexuality and now transgenderism. These movements have been spread through subtle means of persuasion. I don’t think there are good arguments to state why homosexual desires and behaviors are acceptable. I don’t think there are good arguments to say why we should believe that a biological man can be a woman, or a biological woman could be a man. Logic and truth are not on the side of people who advance such causes. But these movements have learned how to play upon the emotions of people. They have used media well, introducing characters in television shows and movies who were non-threatening, appealing to people’s sense of freedom, to the idea that we should be free to love whomever we want, however we choose.

If Christianity is going to counter such movements, it cannot do so through political power. That won’t succeed. We must engage in a battle for hearts and minds. We must present Christianity as a more beautiful alternative. We must persuade people that truth is on our side. We must show them through our acts of love that we care for them and want what is best for them. And I trust that what the Bible teaches about sex, sexuality, gender, and the family will be shown to be true and wise in the end. That may take a long time. In the interim, we must love and persuade.

The other reason why we can’t fight spiritual battles with political power and literal weapons of war is because, ultimately, this is a spiritual battle. This is what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:3–6:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.

Paul’s message was opposed by many people. It was opposed by Jews who refused to see that Jesus was their Messiah, the one who fulfilled the promise of the Hebrew Bible. It was refused by Gentiles who didn’t want to turn from their idols to the true God. And it was even refused by people who claimed to be Christians yet who taught false things about Jesus. Paul realized his battle was not against people. Ultimately, it was against spiritual forces of evil, led by Satan himself. The weapons he used were not swords and clubs. He used reasoning and persuasion. He clung to the truth. He didn’t destroy people, but he destroyed arguments and opinion that were against the knowledge of God. His punishment wasn’t physical, but conducted through church discipline, using the censure of the church as a way of telling people they are wrong.

If you’re familiar with Ephesians, you may recall that Paul told Christians to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:10–20). It’s a metaphor for finding our protection in Jesus. Most of the elements of that armor are purely defensive. The only weapon is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). And right after that, he tells us to pray (Eph. 6:18). Our weapons to fight against evil and darkness are the Bible, prayer, faithfully obeying God, reasoning with people, and trusting in the power of the only One who can destroy darkness.

We need to learn how to fight against spiritual darkness with spiritual light. Instead of relying on political power, we must draw on God’s power by using the resources he has given to us. That’s why it’s so important to know the truth of the Bible and understand it well. It’s our “sword.” We don’t use the Bible to beat people up, but to show that what they believe is false. We must learn how to reason and persuade, and to do so in love. We must rely on God’s power, and ask him, through prayer, to deliver us from evil.

And we must be willing to suffer if that’s what God has called us to do. According to Paul, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” by dying on the cross (Col. 2:15). He defeated evil through suffering. He triumphed by dying. Martyrdom has often been a powerful way of persuading people, because when people see someone dying for a cause, they start to consider that such a cause is worth dying for. Who would die for something they believed to be false? Who would die for something that they didn’t believe was important? The word “martyr” literally means “witness.” When we suffer for the sake of Jesus, we’re bearing witness to the world that Jesus is worth more than the world’s pleasures and comforts.

So, let us follow Jesus. He knows what it’s like to be betrayed. He knows that the forces of darkness are real and that they don’t fight fairly. Yet he knows that we can’t respond with hate and evil. We must respond with love. We must respond with blessings, not curses. And we must respond in faith. The gospel message teaches us that evil isn’t something outside of us. It teaches us that we have evil within us. And it also teaches us that Jesus died for evil people, that those who come to him in faith have their evil defeated, and that those who come to Jesus can love others who act in evil ways toward them. Trust in Jesus and follow in his footsteps.

Notes

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

 

The Power of Darkness (Luke 22:47-53)

When Jesus was arrested, he refused to fight back. He was treated unfairly, but he was willing to suffer to fulfill God’s plans. Find out what we can learn from Jesus. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 16, 2020.

Pray That You May Not Enter into Temptation

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 9, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading below). 

Many people claim to be Christians. And if you ask these people questions about different issues, whether those are ethical or doctrinal, you’ll likely get very different answers. In fact, if you ask people who claim to be Christians some very basic questions about who Jesus is and what he achieved during his time on earth, you’ll likely get different answers, too. That’s sad.

There are many truths about Jesus that are quite clearly expressed in the Bible. It’s rather clear that he was a man, a human being. Though he was conceived in a unique way, he was born, grew up, ate, drank, got tired, slept, felt emotions, experienced pain and suffering, and he died. If you pay attention to what the Bible says, I think it’s also clear that he’s the Son of God. He claims to be divine and equal to God the Father, he claims to forgive sins not committed directly against him, he says that people will be condemned if they don’t believe in him and follow his words.

Yet there are some aspects of Jesus that are harder to understand. How is that he could be both God and human at the same time? How could Jesus be tempted if he’s God? If he’s God, how could he really suffer? What exactly did his death accomplish?

These issues aren’t just intellectual issues. These theological issues have an impact on how we live. Knowing who Jesus is and what he came to do will shape our lives in dramatic ways, particularly as we deal with issues of sin and suffering.

Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’ll consider some of the more difficult aspects of who Jesus is and what he did. We’ll be looking at Luke 22:39–46, the passage that describes Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died. We’ll think about why Jesus prayed, what he prayed for, and the results of his prayer. And we’ll consider his words to his disciples, that they should pray that they may not enter into temptation.

So, with that in mind, let’s read today’s passage. Here is Luke 22:39–46:

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”[1]

Just to give us a bit of context: As I said, this is the night before Jesus will die. He is about to be arrested. He has already taken one last Passover meal with his disciples, he has told them something about the meaning of his imminent death, and he has warned them that one of them will betray him and one of them will deny him. Then, he and his followers left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron Valley, just east of the city, and came to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the western slope of the Mount of Olives.

Jesus tells his disciples to pray that they may not enter into temptation, and then he withdraws a relatively short distance from them to pray on his own. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, we’re told that Jesus took his inner circle of disciples, Peter, James, and John, with him (Matt. 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42).

Now, I want us to see why Jesus prayed. Why, at this moment, does Jesus pray? In fact, why does Jesus need to pray at all, if he’s God? Well, Jesus prayed throughout his time on earth because he was also a man. He came to live the perfect human life. Most of the time, he didn’t rely on his divine power. There were times when he performed miracles and didn’t pray beforehand. But as a human being, and as the perfect human being, he relied on God the Father’s provision. A perfect human being realizes that he or she isn’t God, that God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Provider of all things. So, a perfect human being doesn’t rely on his own strength, but instead he relies on God.

Prayer isn’t simply asking God for things. We’ve read through most of the Psalms on Sunday mornings, and in those poems, those prayers, you see that the psalmists often express emotions to God. They simply talk to God. They praise him. They tell him how they are feeling. They express their concerns, their sorrows. They confess their sins. They dare to command God to rise up and defeat their enemies. They ask God where he is and how long it will be before they are vindicated. Prayer is quite simply spending time with God. Prayer is taking whatever you’re going through and processing it in the presence of God. God already knows whatever it is that you’ll say. You’re not going to tell something new to God. He knows everything, even what is going on in your heart and mind. God doesn’t need your requests to act. But what prayer does is it helps us to focus on God. In our time of need, it reminds us that God is there, that God is in control, and that he is our ultimate source of help and hope. Prayer realigns us to God.

So, why does Jesus pray? He knows what’s happening. He knows he’s about to die. He already has clearly predicted his death. He knows his body will be broken and his blood poured out. He knows Judas Iscariot is telling the Jewish leaders right now that where they can arrest him away from the teeming crowds in Jerusalem. Jesus knows that what he is about to endure isn’t just physical suffering, as bad as that will be. He is going to experience something far beyond physical pain. So, he prays.

What does Jesus pray for? Here is his prayer: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Jesus is asking to be relieved of something. But what? He wants a “cup” to be removed from him. Since he’s not literally drinking anything, this cup must be a figurative or symbolic reference. What is this cup? I’ve heard some people refer to this as a cup of suffering. It is that. But the cup refers to more than just suffering. You and I suffer in various ways. But the cup that Jesus had to drink wasn’t just any suffering.

To understand what “this cup” refers to, we must go back to the Old Testament. As a Jewish man, Jesus was steeped in the Old Testament. He often quoted and alluded to the Old Testament, just as the early Christian writers like Paul did. The cup is a reference to something we find in the Old Testament. It’s best to look at some passages that mention this cup to understand what Jesus is talking about.

First, we’ll look at the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied over seven hundred years earlier, at a time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms. During his ministry, the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated by the Assyrian Empire, and later, the southern kingdom of Judah would be defeated by the Babylonian Empire. The division and defeat of Israel happened because the Israelites turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and love him as they should have. They disobeyed him, broke his commands, and also started to worship false gods, idols. So, God gave them over to their sins and to their enemies. But God promised he would deliver a remnant, whom he would call back to himself and save.

In Isaiah 51, God says he would comfort his people, thought they had forgotten him (Isa. 51:12–13). Because they had forgotten him, God gave them over to punishment. Look at verses 17–23:

17  Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering.
18  There is none to guide her
among all the sons she has borne;
there is none to take her by the hand
among all the sons she has brought up.
19  These two things have happened to you—
who will console you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword;
who will comfort you?
20  Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street
like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.

21  Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
22  Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more;
23  and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
‘Bow down, that we may pass over’;|
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to pass over.”

Jerusalem had once drunk the cup of God’s wrath, the cup of staggering, the bowl of his wrath. But now God says he will take that cup from them and give it to their enemies. The cup symbolizes God’s judgment against sin, his righteous anger and punishment against rebellion. Sin is a destructive force, wreaking destruction in God’s creation. God has every right to get angry against sin and to cast sinners out of his creation. If someone came into your home and started tearing things up and harming your family, you would want them to be removed and punished. So it is with God. To face God’s righteous punishment against sin is a dreadful thing.

There are other passages that talk of this cup of wrath. Consider Jeremiah 25:15–16:

15 Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

God told the prophet Jeremiah to give the nations, including Judah, the cup of his wrath. What he means is that Jeremiah was supposed to warn the nations of God’s judgment. A day of judgment, the Day of the Lord, will come upon the whole earth. All who have rejected God and rebelled against him will drink this cup.

God sends a similar message through the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 23 of that book, God describes in a somewhat metaphorical way how both Israel and Judah, the divided kingdoms of Israel, rejected him and went after other gods. He tells Judah that what happened to her “sister” shall happen to her. Here is Ezekiel 23:31–34:

31 You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. 32 Thus says the Lord God:

“You shall drink your sister’s cup
that is deep and large;
you shall be laughed at and held in derision,
for it contains much;
33  you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow.|
A cup of horror and desolation,
the cup of your sister Samaria;
34  you shall drink it and drain it out,
and gnaw its shards,
and tear your breasts;

for I have spoken, declares the Lord God.

Drinking from that cup sounds like a terrible thing, something that brings shame, horror, destruction, and pain.

Another passage that speaks of the cup is Psalm 75:6–8:

For not from the east or from the west
and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
putting down one and lifting up another.
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.

Again, the cup is associated with judgment.

There are a few other passages that mention the cup, but this is enough to see that the cup is something dreadful. It is a cup of God’s judgment, his wrath against sin. It brings destruction, horror, pain. It’s like drinking the worst poison that first makes someone crazy before killing them in the worst possible way. This is the cup that Jesus was referring to.

Why does this matter? Because there are some people who say that Jesus was referring to a cup of suffering. The cup does entail suffering, but it’s not just suffering. Jesus didn’t just suffer. You and I suffer, but we don’t face what Jesus faced. He didn’t just experience physical pain and death. He bore the wrath of God on the cross. Some people refuse to believe that. They say Jesus died as an example of how to lay down your life, or that he died because he was oppressed by a class of oppressors. There’s truth to those statements. But Jesus’ death wasn’t just an accident. It was planned by God. And his death accomplished something. He died to pay the penalty of sin for his people. If his death didn’t accomplish something, it wouldn’t be a good example. But we know that Jesus came to save his people from their sin (Matt. 1:21), and that his death ransomed his people from sin (Matt. 20:28; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:17–19; 2:18–25).

So, why is Jesus asking for this cup to be removed? Jesus knows he must die. He has already predicted his death. He realizes that it is part of the divine plan. But Jesus also knows that experiencing the wrath of God is something he hasn’t experienced before. He has to this point experienced unbroken fellowship with God the Father. He has only experienced the Father’s love and approval. Now, he knows that the experience of the Father’s love will be overshadowed by the experience of the Father’s wrath. He will experience a psychological, spiritual torment—what can best be described as hell on earth—and this is not something that Jesus wants to experience.

To understand what’s happening, we must first understand that Jesus has two natures. He is one person who has always had a divine nature. The Son of God has always existed as the Son. He is eternal. God the Father created the universe through him. But when Jesus was conceived, he added a second nature to himself. He also became man. Jesus doesn’t just have a body. He also has a human mind, a human soul, a human will. He needed to have these things in order to redeem them.

An early Christian theologian named Gregory Nazianzen wrote the following of Jesus:

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole[2]

The point is that Jesus had a human mind as well as a divine mind. Jesus’ divine mind knows everything, every fact, past, present, and future. But he often only used his human mind, which didn’t know everything. Praying as a human, Jesus might have thought that there could be a way for him to avoid drinking that terrible cup of wrath. His divine will desired to go to the cross. But his human will, quite understandably, didn’t want to suffer God’s wrath.

We might say that Jesus was tempted not to drink this cup of judgment. We may wonder how the Son of God could be tempted. God, after all, has a perfect character. He can’t be tempted. But Jesus, as a human being, could be tempted. Yet Jesus had a perfect character. We’re often tempted to do the wrong thing because want to do things that are inherently wrong. Jesus could be tempted to do the wrong thing—to do what wasn’t the Father’s will, or the divine will—but not because he desired to do things that were inherently wrong. Not wanting to suffer and die isn’t inherently wrong. Wanting to kill an innocent human being or wanting to steal something is inherently wrong. But not wanting to drink the cup of God’s wrath isn’t wrong.

Still, we see in this passage that Jesus yields to the Father’s will. He says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” He’s saying that his human will isn’t to suffer God’s wrath, but he realizes this is the divine will. It’s the Father’s will. But it’s also the Son of God’s will. The divine plan that is jointly held by the Father, Son, and Spirit, is that Jesus, the God-man, must be the one who drinks this cup of wrath. Jesus, in his humanity, yields to the Father’s will, because Jesus is the perfect human being. A perfect human being is obedient. And Jesus was, as the apostle Paul says, obedient even to death on the cross (Phil. 2:8).

Why is it the plan that Jesus must drink this cup of wrath? Why must Jesus die and suffer great physical and spiritual pain? It’s God’s plan to spare sinners from God’s wrath. Jesus drinks the cup of wrath so that you and I don’t have to. And that’s the amazing thing. We deserve to drink that cup. We all have sinned. God would be right to let us receive that punishment for our sin. But God is merciful. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. God is gracious. He gives us good things we could never merit. God gave us a way to be forgiven, to have someone else take our punishment. That way is Jesus. If we put our faith in Jesus, trusting that he is our hope and salvation, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he is has done what the Bible says he has done, then we are forgiven. We will never drink that cup of wrath. We are put back into a right relationship with God, adopted as his children, and we will never be disowned.

And that was made possible because Jesus didn’t give into temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. The first man, Adam, along with the first woman, Eve, gave into temptation in another garden, Eden. The last Adam, the one who came to redeem human beings, didn’t give into temptation.

I’m sure many of us saw the movie The Passion of the Christ, which came out in 2004. The movie, made by Mel Gibson, famously depicts Jesus suffering great physical pain. I don’t think it’s a great movie. It doesn’t contain a lot of theology. But there are some good moments. At the beginning of the movie, Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays, but his prayers are met with silence. And he falls to the ground. Then Satan appears alongside of him. Satan appears as a woman, dressed in a dark cloak. Satan tries to make Jesus doubt that he can actually bear the sins of the world. Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt that God is really his Father. Then, a serpent comes from the bottom of Satan’s cloak and slithers toward Jesus. But Jesus resolves to do the Father’s will. He gets up and stomps on the serpent’s head, crushing it.

That is sort of what Jesus is going through here. He expresses his reluctance to drain the cup of wrath, but he also says that he will do the Father’s will.

What is the response to Jesus’ prayer? Well, the Father did not take the cup from him. Jesus would have to suffer. But notice that something happens. An angel comes to strengthen Jesus. Something similar happened when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. (See Luke 4:1–13.) Jesus turned away Satan’s temptations to receive a kingdom without first suffering. And after Jesus resisted temptation, angels came to minister to him (Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13). Here, Jesus resists temptation, though he isn’t spared the cup. But what God the Father does is give him the strength to drink it. In fact, the angel apparently gave Jesus the strength to continue praying. He was in such agony that his sweat was like blood. Luke doesn’t say that Jesus was sweating blood. But his sweat was like blood. Perhaps the drops of his sweat were heavy like drops of blood. Or perhaps he was sweating profusely: sweat was pouring out of him the way blood pours out of a wound. Jesus was doing battle through prayer, and God gave him the strength to do that. God strengthened him to suffer.

Now, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with you. If you’re a Christian, it has everything to do with you. This is what Jesus endured to save you. He battled through temptation and agony. In distress, he cried out to the Father, asking if it were possible for there to be some other way. But he yielded to the Father. Jesus obeyed for you. He suffered for you. He died for you. It’s important to be reminded of this.

And if you are not a Christian, I hope that you would see the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice. Look at what he was willing to endure. The weight of the world was upon his shoulders. The destiny of billions of people depended upon his actions. And Jesus triumphed by being willing to suffer so that he could save people. If you put your trust in him, you will be spared God’s wrath. But if you reject Jesus, you reject God. And the reality is that you will have to drink that cup of wrath yourself, and it will be greater suffering than you can imagine.

But there’s something else to see in this passage. Jesus twice tells his disciples to pray that they may not enter into temptation. At that moment, they would be tempted to abandon Jesus. Next week, we will see how Jesus is arrested. Judas and some soldiers and officers of the Jewish leaders were on their away to arrest Jesus. The temptation would be to run away, to abandon Jesus, to deny every knowing him, all to save their own skin. If they were coming to arrest and kill Jesus, they might do the same to Jesus’ followers.

Now, we will likely not be put in such a difficult situation. But there will be temptation to deny Jesus in situations that aren’t full of so much pressure. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when our friends and family members don’t follow him. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when it seems like the way of the world is more fun and satisfying. In other words, we may be tempted to abandon Jesus in order to pursue sin, to do things that Jesus forbids us to do. We may be tempted to abandon Jesus when we suffer, when things in this life don’t go the way we want them to go. When we endure physical pain, perhaps an injury or a disease, we may wonder if this God of the Bible really exists. When we suffer in our relationships, we may be tempted to give up on Jesus. There are many different situations that might lead us into temptation. And Jesus tells us to pray so that we wouldn’t give into temptation.

When you’re suffering, don’t run away from God. There’s always the temptation to ignore that suffering, perhaps to numb your pain with drugs or alcohol or to just avoid it through things like entertainment. Instead of dealing with the problems of our lives, we may tune them out by turning on the TV or binge-watching shows and movies on Netflix. Jesus asked the disciples to stay awake with him, but we’re told that they were “sleeping for sorrow.” They were so emotionally spent that they slept. That could literally be what happens to us. Instead of facing our problems, we might just want to sleep. I think that’s what people who commit suicide believe. It’s better to have to “sleep,” to be done with this life, than to deal with the sorrows and sufferings of this life.

But Jesus asks us to wrestle with God in prayer. When we suffer, we should cry out to God. When you’re hurting, talk to God. When you’re in distress, express your emotions to God. You can do that through tears and even shouting. Prayer doesn’t have to done in this hushed, polite, “religious” tone. Jesus prayed with great emotion. This is what the author of Hebrews writes: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). It’s perfectly acceptable to pray in loud cries, to pray through your tears. You can tell God how you really feel. You can ask him questions. You can beg him to spare you suffering.

But when we pray, we must realize that God may not answer us the way we want him to. When we’re hurting, our first instinct is to ask God to remove the thing that’s hurting us. That’s not a wrong thing to ask of God. Jesus did it. Paul did it, too (see 2 Cor. 12:1–10). Bringing that request to God makes us aware that God has the power to remove suffering from our lives. It reminds us that God is in control. And that’s a good thing. But we must also be willing to say, “Not my will, but yours.” God’s answer might very well be “no.” His plan might be for us to continue to suffer. But if that is the case, God will give us the strength to endure that suffering. God strengthened Jesus through the help of an angel. Luke doesn’t tell us what the angel did to strengthen Jesus. We’re not even sure that Jesus could see the angel. Perhaps when we’re suffering, angels minister to us in ways that we can’t see. I don’t know. But if God plans for us to suffer, then he will give us the strength to suffer.

So, if you’re facing something difficult today, something you wish were different in your life, tell God about it. Cry out to him. Tell him how you’re in pain, or you’re confused, or you don’t know what to do. Wrestle with him. Cry, shout, wail. Tell him what you would like to happen. But then be willing to do God’s will. When you pray, you will more than likely never hear an audible reply. You have to wait and see what God’s answer is. There are times when he removes the suffering, when he improves our situation, when he heals us. But there are many times when our circumstances don’t change, when we continue to suffer. If that is the case, take heart. God will strengthen you, perhaps in ways that you can’t sense, ways that you don’t see. He will give you the grace to endure. God will not ask us to bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. Only one person could do that, and he already did. But you will bear some weight. Just know that God will strengthen you to bear it. As Jesus told his disciples on that same night, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Letters of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440.

 

Pray That You May Not Enter into Temptation (Luke 22:39-46)

Jesus resisted temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane by praying to the Father. Though the cup of God’s wrath was not taken from Jesus, he yielded to the Father’s will and was strengthened for his mission. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 22:39-46 on February 9, 2020.

Numbered with the Transgressors

This sermon was preached on February 2, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon.

Last Sunday, news of a death shocked many people. We found out that Kobe Bryant, one of the NBA’s most successful players, died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people. The news of any death is shocking. But I think what shook people was the fact that Bryant was only 41. He had retired less than four years ago. He was healthy and wealthy and accomplished. People like him aren’t supposed to die this young. They are supposed to live long lives. We would expect him to go on to work on television or to coach and to die at an old age. But Bryant, like anyone else, was mortal.

Such news reminds us that life is fragile. We’re only one phone call, text message, email, letter, or police notification away from receiving devastating news, whether that’s a death or some other emergency, or having a relative or friend betray us in some way, or something lesser like being fired or finding out we’ve lost money. There’s no guarantee that things in this life are secure.

There are times when we will feel like we’re shaken. That feeling may come even when there’s not some apparent emergency. We may feel shaken when we’re depressed or anxious, overwhelmed, when the weight of the world is too much for us to bear. We may look back on our lives and have a great sense of regret and shame for what we’ve done, and we may feel like we’re coming undone. We may have great worries about how we’ll make it through another week, another month, or another year.

In short, there are times when we feel like we’re being attacked. The fact is that there are forces that we can’t see that are attacking us, forces of darkness and evil that are very real and that are stronger than we are. Yet there is still great hope. In the midst of all this uncertainty, in a world of tragedies, there is someone who can protect us from ultimate harm and failure.

Today, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in the middle of chapter 22. It is the night before Jesus will die on the cross, nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus has taken one last Passover meal with his disciples. He has explained what his death will accomplish. He has warned them that one of them will betray him. He has told them not to strive for greatness in the world’s eyes, but to be humble and to serve one another. And now he gives one disciple another warning.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 22:31–34:

31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”[1]

Jesus speaks to Peter, the leader of the disciples, calling him by the name “Simon,” which is what he is called when Jesus first invited him and some others to follow him (Luke 5:1–11). Perhaps calling Peter by this name would remind him that Jesus chose him as one of his disciples. Jesus warns Simon Peter that Satan has demanded to “have you.” We can’t see this in English, but in the Greek, the “you” here is plural. It’s a reference not just to Peter, but to all the disciples. Satan wanted to “sift them like wheat,” to separate them from the chaff, to pull them away from Jesus. It’s like Satan, the devil, wanted to shake Jesus’ little group of ragtag followers to see which of them would fall away from Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago, we saw that Satan had managed to sift one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas. Satan decisively influenced Judas to betray Jesus. Now, we find out that Satan has attacked the other eleven disciples, too. Satan is a mysterious and shadowy figure in the Bible. There are few references to him in the Old Testament. From his appearance in the book of Job, we understand that he was a rebellious angel, or at least some kind of otherworldly being who was in heaven. In the book of Job, Satan tries to get a righteous man to renounce God by taking away his wealth, his family, and his health, all with God’s permission. Yet Satan failed in that attack. Satan is also known as being an accuser. In Zechariah 3, in a vision he accuses Joshua, the high priest, pointing out his sin. Yet God rebuked Satan, took away Joshua’s “filthy garments” (representing his sin) and clothed him in “pure vestments” (representing righteousness).

We learn more about Satan in the New Testament. Though we don’t know much about his origins, he’s called “a murderer” and “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We find out that he is the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the “deceiver of the whole world,” and “the accuser” (Rev. 12:9, 11). Satan even tried to tempt Jesus, to get him to abandon his divine mission (Luke 4:1–13).

To summarize what the Bible says about the devil, we can say that he is real, that he is a preternatural or otherworldly force, that he delights to deceive and tempt people so that they turn away from God, that he then accuses those sinners of their sin, and that he tries to thwart God’s plans. But it’s important to know that Satan does not have God’s power and knowledge, and certainly not his wisdom, love, and holiness. And it’s also important to know that Jesus is stronger than Satan, he came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and that Satan will be defeated (Rev. 20:7–20).

Here, in Luke 22, Jesus warns Peter that Satan has attempted to separate him and the ten other disciples. (Satan already managed to separate the twelfth.) But Jesus has protected Peter. He has prayed for him. (Jesus then uses the singular form of “you” to refer specifically to Peter.) Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail—at least not in the ultimate sense. That doesn’t mean Peter wouldn’t fail in smaller ways. In fact, he predicts that Peter will deny him.

What’s interesting is that Jesus first says that to Peter that after he has “turned again,” he should strengthen the other disciples. This implies that Peter will fail, not in the ultimate sense that Judas failed, proving himself faithless, but sinning in some significant way. Peter doesn’t seem to think he will do that, because he claims that he is ready to go to prison and to death with Jesus. Peter will eventually go to prison for being a Christian (Acts 12), and according to Christian tradition outside of the Bible, Peter would eventually be martyred in Rome. But those events would come much later. First, Peter will deny even knowing Jesus. We’ll see that in a few weeks.

I want to drop a little footnote here. Some people don’t believe that the Bible is the truth. They don’t believe that the Gospels and the other historical books of the Bible tell what really happened. They assume that people fabricated these stories, or that they’re some kind of myth. One of the reasons to believe they are true is that they report details that you wouldn’t make up if you were creating a story. Peter, along with Paul, is one of the two great leaders of the early church. If you were making up a story about him, you wouldn’t tell a story about his failures. But Peter’s faults are clearly displayed. He and the other disciples sometimes come across as foolish and thick-headed. Other great figures of the Bible, like Noah, Abraham, and David, are presented warts and all. Compare that with Islam. Islam presents Muhammad as a perfect man. The Qur’an tells stories about biblical figures. (Keep in mind that the Qur’an was written hundreds of years after the Bible was completed.) But in the Qur’an, “David does not . . . seduce Uriah’s wife; Lot does not sleep with his daughters” and acts of violence are expunged from the record.[2] If you’re making up a story, you don’t share embarrassing depictions of that story’s heroes. But if you’re telling the truth, you have nothing to hide.

Think about this for a moment. Jesus chose the twelve disciples. He did this after a long night of prayer to God the Father (Luke 6:12–16). This means that Jesus’ choice of these particular twelve men was God’s choice. This was all part of God’s plan. God knew that Judas would betray Jesus. He knew that Peter would deny him. Yet Jesus chose them still. And Jesus knows that Peter will deny him. Yet he tells Peter in advance that he will repent, that he will have a role in strengthening Christians.

What does this have to do with us? If you are a Christian, know that God chose you before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–14). God didn’t just choose to create us. God chose to adopt us into his family, to save us from our sins and the condemnation that sinners deserve, through the sacrificial death of Jesus. (If you don’t understand what that means, hang on; I will soon explain what Jesus does to save us.) God did this knowing all the sins that we would ever commit. Jesus, in his divinity, knew what Peter would do. Yet Jesus chose him anyway. And Jesus protected Peter from Satan. He interceded for Peter. He prayed for him. He promised Peter that even though he would deny Jesus, which is a serious sin, Peter would still have a role to play as the leader of the disciples.

This is a picture of grace. Jesus gives things to Peter that Peter doesn’t deserve. On his own, Peter would not only deny Jesus, but he would come under Satan’s sway. He would believe lies. He would fail. But not with Jesus in his corner. The same is true of us. If it were not for Jesus, we would be lost. We would believe lies and fall away from God. But nothing can remove us from God and his love for us.

I’ll come back to this idea in a moment. But first let’s read the rest of today’s passage. Here are verses 35–38.

35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus sent out the twelve disciples on a mission to preach and to heal people (Luke 9:1–6). He told them not to take provisions with them. Later, he sent out a larger group of seventy-two people to preach (Luke 10:1–12). Again, he told them not to take provisions, but to trust that God would provide for them through the kindness of others. Now, Jesus tells them to take provisions. They should bring money and a bag. He also tells them they should have a sword.

At the least, Jesus is telling them that something is changing. Earlier, they were not met with much resistance. They preached and they had success. But now Jesus is warning them that times will be hard. In John’s Gospel, he tells them that the world will hate them because it first hated him (John 15:18–25). “The world” refers to the powers of the world that are opposed to God. The disciples will need to be prepared to face such adversity. Things will not be easy for them.

Still, it’s odd that Jesus tells them to buy a sword. Why does he do this? This command is debated. I have seen some people use this passage to justify carrying weapons, as if Jesus were telling the disciples something about the Second Amendment. I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment in principle, but I think it would be a mistake to justify carrying weapons for self-defense based on this passage. And this is why: Jesus tells them to buy a sword. They tell him they have two swords. Two swords would not be enough to defend twelve men. It won’t be enough to defend them from soldiers. Soon enough, they will come to arrest Jesus. Peter, ever the impetuous disciple, attempts to defend Jesus by swinging his sword at a servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear (Luke 22:50; John 18:10). But Jesus miraculously heals that man’s ear and says, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). We should also notice that in the book of Acts or in the rest of the New Testament, there is no account of the disciples brandishing weapons or defending themselves physically. So, if Jesus is telling them to literally carry swords wherever they go, then they didn’t obey him.

Also, in this passage, when the disciples tell Jesus they have two swords, he says, literally, “It is enough.” That could mean, “That number will suffice.” But it won’t be enough to defend themselves. Jesus could also mean something dismissive. He could have been referring to a sword in a figurative or metaphorical way, warning them about the danger and divisions that will come their way. When they show him their swords, Jesus could be saying, “Enough of that. You obviously don’t understand exactly what I mean.”

Just about every commentator believes that Jesus is referring to a sword in a figurative or metaphorical way. He does do that elsewhere, when he says that he came not to bring peace to the world, but to come with a sword, metaphorically separating his people from those who reject him (Matt. 10:34).

But perhaps he does want his disciples to have literal swords for another reason. Jesus gives us a reason for having swords in verse 37. He says, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” He’s quoting Isaiah 53:12, part of a passage that talks about God’s servant, who will suffer and be crushed for the sins of his people so that they could be healed. In fact, right after that portion of Isaiah 53:12, it says, “he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” We have already seen that Jesus intercedes for sinners, people like Peter. We will soon talk about his bearing the sins of many. But it’s important to see that Jesus is numbered with the transgressors. Perhaps part of the reason why the disciples need to have swords is so that they will appear to the unbelieving Jews and Romans as if they are treasonous. Jesus will be accused of being a threat to the Roman Empire, challenging the rule of Caesar (Luke 23:2; John 19:12). Similar charges will be made against the disciples (Acts 17:6–7).

Whatever the exact meaning of the sword is, it’s important to see that Jesus is regarded as a sinner. That, too, is part of God’s plan. Sin is a turning away from God. It his rejecting him. It’s a failure to love him, trust him, and obey him. It’s really a failure to embrace the purpose for which we were made. God made us to know him, to represent him, to reflect his glory, to love him, obey him, and serve him. But we don’t want that. We want to determine our own purpose in life. Instead of accepting God’s terms for our lives, we want to live life on our own terms. Sin is a great crime, one that deserves punishment. That punishment is just repaying evil. It’s also a form of protection, removing evil from God’s world so that it doesn’t further contaminate his creation. God would be right to remove all of us from his world.

But God is gracious. He has provided us a way to be forgiven. He doesn’t sweep our sin under the rug. No, sin must be punished. God is a perfect judge, one who sees all the evidence and must issue a sentence for the crime, which must be punished. But he takes the punishment that we deserve and puts it on his Son. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And God the Son takes this punishment upon himself willingly. He lays down his life to save his people, all who trust I him.

To see all how Jesus sacrifices himself for his people and how he protects them from Satan, it’s worth looking at another passage of the Gospels. In John 10, Jesus is teaching about his identity and the role he plays in saving his people. He says that he is a good shepherd who protects his people, his sheep. There is a thief who comes to harm the sheep—this must be Satan. But Jesus protects his people from them. Here is what Jesus says in John 10:10–18:

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.

Jesus protects his people and gives them abundant life. He’s not a hired hand who abandons the sheep when things get difficult. No, he risks life and limb to protect them. In fact, he lays down his life for them. There is one flock of God, both Jews and Gentiles, anyone who puts their trust in Jesus. They will listen to his voice, and no one can take them from him.

A few verses later, Jesus reinforces this idea. Look at verses 27–30:

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.

What does it mean to be a Christian? You follow Jesus. You hear his voice in the pages of the Bible and you follow him. This begins by trusting in Jesus and his ability to save you from sins and the attacks of the enemy. It starts with believing that he is the Son of God, the perfect God-man who lived a righteous life and died an atoning death. But such faith will lead to obedience, even the imperfect obedience of someone like Peter.

But the good news is that if you are a Christian, no one can take you out of God’s hand. Satan can try to deceive you and attack you, but he won’t succeed. Satan could decisively steer away Judas because he didn’t have real faith in Jesus. But Jesus protected Peter, and he protects all his other sheep.

There are other passages in the Bible that express this great truth. In the book of Romans, Paul gives his most systematic account of this good news message of Christianity. He discusses the universal problem of sin and how it brings condemnation, God’s righteous wrath. But he also tells us that God sent his Son to redeem sinners, and that those who trust in Jesus will experience no condemnation.

At the end of Romans 8, Paul writes these powerful words. Here are verses 31–39:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you are a Christian, you have God on your side. If God is for you, no one can ultimately be against you. If God gave you his own Son, knowing all the sins that you have committed and will ever commit, will he not give you everything you need? He will. If God has covered your sins with the sacrifice of Jesus, can anyone bring charges against you to condemn you? No. Jesus died for your sins and rose from the grave, showing that he paid the penalty in full. And he is now in heaven, interceding for all Christians, pleading his sacrifice to the Father, praying for us.

If you are a Christian, nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing! Though Christians will experience trials and tribulations, distress and persecution, and even death, all of those things can’t separate them from God. Death can’t remove you from God. No emergency or crisis can remove you from God. Your own sin can’t remove you from God. Satan and demons can’t separate you from God and his love for you.

That is, if you’re a Christian. If you are not a Christian, you are not protected from these things. The fact is that you will die, and you will stand before Jesus one day. And if you have rejected him, he will not protect you on that day. He will judge you. He will condemn you. You will be removed from God’s creation and you will experience a literally hellish existence. The only protection from the trials of this life, from all kinds of emotional, psychological, and spiritual distress, from death, and from condemnation, is Jesus. The only protection from all our own failures is him. Turn to him now. If you don’t know who Jesus is and want to know more, I would love to talk to you. If you don’t know what it looks like to hear his voice and follow him, please talk to me.

Christians, this should be a great comfort to you. You may feel like your life is being shaken. You may be reflecting on your own sins. You may feel like you’re coming under attack. You may be overwhelmed by forces that are greater than you. You may be looking at many problems that you can’t solve, broken situations that you can’t fix. When that happens, look to Christ. He is praying for you. He is protecting you. He knows all your sins and yet he still died for you. He loves you and cares for you. And he will preserve your life, all the way to that day when you will receive a resurrected body and live in a perfect world with him forever.

I want to close this message with one more passage of Scripture. It’s a great commentary on this passage, just as it’s a great commentary on the book of Job. Not surprisingly, it’s written by Peter himself. This is 1 Peter 5:6–11:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Timothy Winter, “Islam and the Problem of Evil,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Problem of Evil, ed. chad Meister and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 234.

 

 

Numbered with the Transgressors (Luke 22:31-38)

God knows all of our sins–past, present, and future. Amazingly, he saves some of us and uses us, even though we are sinners. Those who put their trust in Jesus belong to him, and no one can tear them away from him. That is because he was numbered with the transgressors, regarded as a sinner, so that sinners could go free. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 21:31-38 on February 2, 2020.

The Greatest

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 26, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading below).

It’s funny how language changes over time. Certain words that once had one meaning now have have another. One example is goat. As long as that word has existed, it’s always referred to a specific type of animal, but it also has had a secondary meaning. Goat used to refer to someone who was a failure, someone you could blame. And that was most clearly the case in the world of sports. A goat is someone who lost the game for the team. The clearest example that comes to my mind is Scott Norwood, the placekicker of the Buffalo Bills who failed to kick a field goal to win Super Bowl XXV in 1991. With only seconds left in the game, the Bills were down only one point to the New York Giants. Norwood attempted a 47-yard field goal and missed it as the ball sailed wide right. The Bills lost that Super Bowl and the next three Super Bowls. Norwood played only one more year in the NFL before becoming an insurance salesman and then a real estate agent. Of course, Bill Bucker is another infamous goat, because his error helped the Red Sox lose Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

But now goat has a new meaning. It’s now spelled in capital letters as an acronym: Great Of All Time. People refer to Tom Brady as the GOAT. There are debates about who is the GOAT of the NBA. Is it Michael Jordan or LeBron James, or is it someone else?

While the acronym GOAT might be new, the question of who is the greatest is old. It’s the kind of barroom and sports radio debate that has gone on for as long as professional sports has existed. The question of who is the greatest isn’t limited to sports. There’s something in the human heart that seems to rank everything. We debate over which is the greatest movie, the greatest song, the greatest product, and everything else. This seems to start at a young age. Caleb often gives Simon two choices and asks him to pick which is better.

Everyone wants to know who or what is the greatest. This isn’t limited to our culture or time. In fact, even Jesus’ disciples debated about which one of them is the greatest. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, his biography of Jesus, we’re told that the disciples argued about which one of them is the greatest. Jesus used a child as an example of greatness and said, “he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48).[1] The shocking thing about that episode is that Jesus had just told his disciples—for the second time—that he was going to die (Luke 9:44; the first time was in Luke 9:22). I can’t imagine someone saying to a group of people, “I’m about to suffer and be killed,” and then that group of people act as if they hadn’t heard any of those words and start to debate something as petty as which one of them was the greatest. But that’s what Jesus’ followers did, and that reflects something about the human heart. Our pride causes us to try to be seen as great. We want other people to acknowledge us above others.

This same pattern occurs in chapter 22 of Luke, which we will continue to study today. Jesus has been sharing one last supper with his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He explains that his body will be crushed and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. He has even warned his disciples that one of them will betray him. And, once again, the disciples start arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

We’ll see that in today’s passage, Luke 22:24–30. Let’s turn there now and read the passage:

24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

It’s strange that the disciples would pick this moment to argue about something such as this, but I think it makes sense. Jesus has just told the group that one of them would betray Jesus. That person was Judas, who sold Jesus out to the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill Jesus. They had to arrest him away from the throngs of Jewish people celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Jerusalem. When the disciples heard that one of them would betray Jesus, eleven of them must have thought, “I would never do that.” Then they started to ask each other which one would be the betrayer. In verse 22, it says, “And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.” It’s not much of a leap from that kind of question to a discussion over who was so great among them that he would never betray Jesus.

At any rate, the disciples were quarreling over who was the greatest, and Jesus issues them another warning. He basically says, “Don’t try to be like those pagan kings who are all about power and prestige. They don’t lead their people by serving them. No, they lord their power over their people. They may be called benefactors, but they don’t benefit the people.” “Benefactor” was something of a technical term. It sounds good to us, but it reflects another situation in the ancient world: those who were wealthy became benefactors to patrons in order to gain political power and also to have their patrons be indebted to them—not in literal financial and legal terms, but socially. People in the ancient world didn’t give charitably; they gave gifts with the expectation that those who received the gifts would give back to them one way or the other.

Jesus tells them not to be like those worldly leaders. Instead, in the kingdom of God, the truth path to greatness comes through humility and service. Those who were older and in positions of power and respect should act like younger people, people without power. In our day, youth is a prized possession, but that wasn’t the case then. People didn’t idolize youth the way they do now. The point Jesus is making is that they shouldn’t strive for positions of high status. When those who were wealthier or who were honored guests would eat a meal, they would “recline at table.” They would literally be on the floor, in a somewhat reclined position, eating off low tables while they relaxed. In that society, they would be viewed as greater than the people serving them. Perhaps think of a very fancy wedding reception, where the guests are served by those working for a hotel or catering company. The honored guests have a higher status than those servers. In that sense, they are greater. But Jesus tells them that, in reality, it’s greater to serve.

First, he says that leaders should serve. Leaders are not in leadership position to get attention, to accrue power, to sit around and be served by people who are under their authority. Instead, leaders are supposed to serve.

Second, Jesus says that he, the real GOAT—Great Of All Time—has come to serve. If Jesus, the greatest person that has ever walked the face of the Earth, is a servant, then his disciples should be servants. The disciples are students. They should follow the example of their teacher. The disciples are subjects of the King, Jesus, who is not only King of the Jews, but King of kings, the Son of God who became a human being. If such an exalted, authoritative, powerful person came to serve, then his disciples should as well.

I’m going to come back to how Jesus serves in a while. But first, I want to point out that what Jesus says here is consistent with what the Bible says about seeking power and glory. And this is a message that we desperately need to hear, especially in our celebrity-infatuated culture.

It seems like everyone in our culture wants to be famous, wants to be rich, wants to be popular. And because of social media, it is easier than ever to aggrandize yourself. People with a moderate amount of looks and talent parade themselves online in a long series of selfies and videos. They may post revealing pictures of how they look. They may brag about their achievements, or even brag about their family. They may post videos of themselves singing or performing. It’s not wrong to post a picture of yourself, or to share news about something in your life, or to be pleased with your family. It’s not wrong to share your talent with the world. But I think many people go beyond mere sharing. They want to be acknowledged. They want to be seen as great.

But there’s something rather distasteful about such status seeking. Certainly, the Bible addresses that issue. Proverbs 25:27 says this:

It is not good to eat much honey,
nor is it glorious to seek one’s own glory.

Seeking your own glory is like eating too many sweets. It may feel good at the time, but it’s not good for you.

Proverbs 27:2 says this:

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.

These verses aren’t just biblical. They’re also highly practical. They speak about how things go in the world. I think we’ve all experienced people who love to talk about how great they are. Generally, we don’t want to be around such people. The practice of praising yourself is annoying. And truly great people don’t do that sort of thing. Their greatness is apparent. I have a Facebook friend who is a former student of mine, from when I was a professor of music. He posts quite a few selfies of when, I suppose, he’s dressed up for work. He’s not a bad looking guy, but he’s also not a matinee idol. And more than once, he has posted a selfie with a few little fire emojis, which I guess is his way of saying, “I’m looking really hot right now.” I’ve been tempted to write, “If you’re really hot, you don’t need to say it.” But I don’t, because I don’t want to humiliate the guy. But there is something kind of desperate and pathetic about drawing attention to yourself.

Yet we tend to idolize people who have greater power, money, talent, and status. We do that through celebrity news. We do that through sports. If we were to meet a great entertainer or athlete real life, we would be star struck. But we don’t tend to be in awe of the person who volunteers their time, without fanfare, for a church or some charitable cause. We don’t see a woman who has given away a large percentage of her income each year and get nervous and be reduced to a bumbling idiot because we’re so in awe of her generosity. We are drawn to celebrities and we are in awe of them.

This happens within the church, too. We live in an age of celebrity pastors. There have been celebrity pastors for a long time. We might think of Charles Spurgeon, for example. Billy Graham was a celebrity preacher and evangelist. There are pastors of megachurches who are celebrities. It’s not wrong for a preacher to have a large audience. If he faithfully preaches the word with a great amount of skill, we might expect that he’ll gather an audience. Jesus gathered crowds. But there’s a danger there. Because we tend to be drawn to people who appear great, we may put them on a pedestal. And because we tend to crave power and popularity, celebrity pastors may be tempted not to serve God and the people who are under their care, but to build their own kingdoms. And this is happening now. Pastors have used their positions to become rich. They have used their positions to be celebrated, to appear before large crowds, to gain power. And a lot of people seem to buy into this. We elevate a man, thinking he is the anointed one, when in reality he may be not be serving others, but serving his own interests. Churches build additional campuses in which there isn’t a live preacher, but a celebrity preacher on a screen, as if there’s only one man who can preach. This just feeds into our celebrity culture. It’s not a good thing.

And it’s not terribly new. Of course, today there are many ways for one pastor to be broadcast to large audiences. But even before such technology, there were celebrity pastors of a sort. In the first century, there were some men who claimed to be preachers of the gospel. They claimed to be apostles of Jesus Christ. They probably dressed nicely and spoke in very eloquent, clever, and powerful ways. The apostle Paul, who probably wasn’t terribly impressive physically or even vocally, refers to these men ironically as “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11). The problem is that they weren’t preaching the same message as Paul. They weren’t preaching the true gospel message, the good news of Christianity.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about this issue, he urged them not be deceived by appearances (see 2 Cor. 11:1–15). Though he had to defend his ministry and remind them that he taught the truth, he said he wasn’t boasting in himself. He writes, “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:17–18).

Paul knew that what mattered most was not seeking to make one’s self look great in the eyes of other people. He knew that what mattered was not boasting in one’s self. He realized that people would view him differently. Some would love him, and some would look down on him. What mattered to Paul was being faithful to what God had called him to do, to be commended by God. We might say he was working for an audience of One.

Jesus commended this same practice. He taught that we should aim not be seen as righteous, but to aim to please God. In Matthew 6:1, he says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” One way of trying to be great is to do good works in order to be seen. I think that’s part of the human condition. There’s something inside of us that craves recognition. This isn’t entirely bad. It’s just that it’s misplaced. We should want God’s recognition, God’s approval. But even then, our motivation shouldn’t be to do something for God so that he will reward us. We should do things for God out of love and thanks and because it’s simply the right thing to do. We certainly shouldn’t do things to be seen to a good person.

Yet that’s so hard for us, to do what is good and right without calling attention to it. I’m sure many of us have been guilty of that. I’ve certainly heard people in this church boast in their own way about how they were doing good things. But that is one way of seeking greatness, even within the church. Another way of seeking greatness in the church is getting our way or maintaining our little positions of power. I think that’s why there is often conflict in churches. If we all focused on doing things the best way, doing what was right, and doing it in the most excellent manner, then we would have greater unity. But instead, we have our pride. We want to be the ones to do that thing, whatever it is, because we want recognition. If we all focused on pleasing God first, then many problems would be resolved.

Instead of seeking to draw attention to ourselves or seeking to have power, we should seek to serve, because that is the way of Jesus. As he told his disciples, “I am among you as the one who serves.” Jesus doesn’t say here how he serves. But we know from the other Gospels how he serves. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus says these words, we’re told something else. He says this in Matthew 20:25–28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus came to serve by giving his life as a ransom for many. He came to redeem people from sin. Sin is not just the wrong things we do. Sin is a power at work within us, a tendency to rebel against God, to do things our way instead of his way. And chief among the various sinful dispositions is pride. That was the sin of Adam and Eve, who wanted to be God. It’s the sin of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon who surveyed his kingdom and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). (Nebuchadnezzar was immediately humiliated by God until he came to his senses.) It’s the sin of Herod Agrippa, who was claimed to a be a god and who was struck down by the real God “because he did not give God the glory” (Acts 12:23). And it’s the sin of you and me. We want to be the center of the universe. We want to do life on our terms, not God’s. We want to be GOATs. But there’s only one GOAT, and it’s not you or me.

Because God is truly the greatest, and because this is his creation, he would have every right to condemn rebels, to remove them from his world. But God’s greatness includes his mercy and grace. Instead of destroying all rebels, he sends his Son to save many of them. The Son of God, who has always existed in glory and splendor, the one through whom God the Father created the universe, became a human being. He humbled himself to become a man (though he was and is still God). And he came not be like Nebuchadnezzar and Herod, to live in a palace and be served. No, he came to serve by laying down his life for his people. After living the perfect life, he was treated like a real goat, a scapegoat. The sins of his people were placed on him, and he died to pay the penalty for sin. He bore great physical pain on the cross. But he also endured the spiritual pain that is condemnation. He endured this so that his people could be spared that penalty and could be forgiven. He lowered himself so others could be exalted.

Jesus demonstrated this act of service by washing his disciples’ feet. Though Luke doesn’t write about this in his Gospel, John does. That is an interesting fact, by the way. You would think that Luke would write about that, because it would strengthen his point, that Jesus came to serve. But Luke doesn’t. John does write about. Now, since John’s Gospel was written later, some people who are skeptical might think that this story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was fabricated, a bit of fiction. But if that were so, it’s quite odd, because John doesn’t discuss the disciples arguing about who would be the greatest. When you read John, you don’t understand why it was that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. The reason is given in the other Gospels. The Gospels have several of these moments, which some have called “undesigned coincidences.”[2] Each Gospel is like a puzzle. The pieces fit together, but sometimes it seems like a piece is missing. That missing piece can be found in one of the other Gospels. Yet this fitting together of the Gospels isn’t done in any kind of obvious way, so that it looks like humans contrived to make up stories that fit together, the way that criminals might come together to make up an alibi. Instead, the Gospels read more like eyewitness testimony. Each witness focuses on certain things, perhaps what they remembered most clearly or what was most important to their story. But together, these eyewitnesses give us a greater picture of what happened.

At any rate, this is what happens in John’s Gospel. Here is John 13:1–5:

1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

In this time and place, people wore sandals. And they walked great lengths along dirty and dusty road. Their feet became quite dirty. When they ate at someone’s home, that host would have a servant wash the feet of his guests. Here, Jesus becomes the servant, washing their feet, because he loved his disciples “to the end.” He later makes it clear that his washing their feet symbolized his cleansing them of their sin. Those who belong to Jesus, who trust him and follow him, are made clean. Their sins are removed.

Then, after Jesus had washed their feet, he said to them:

Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:12–17).

We can’t remove the sins from other people. But we can serve them in many ways. This is the way of Jesus. He served and he expects his people to serve. Those who do this are blessed.

So, Jesus teaches his disciples to be humble and to serve. And, paradoxically, this is the way to be exalted. Look again at Luke 22:28–30:

28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jesus tells his disciples that their positions in the kingdom of God will be great. They will sit on thrones in the new creation, leading all of God’s people, a renewed and reconstituted Israel that consists not just of Jewish people, but of Gentiles, too. In fact, all of God’s people will reign with God forever (Rev. 22:5). But I think the apostles will have greater authority than we will, and that’s God choice. All Christians will be with God forever in the new creation, but not all will necessarily have the same role to play and the same status. And that’s fine.

The reason that’s fine is that’s the way it is in this life. Jesus does not teach here that the disciples were not to be authorities. Jesus isn’t teaching that there aren’t authorities in the church. The church needs leaders. Never does it say in the Bible that the church is a democratic society, where everyone decides what is right. Christians are called sheep, and they need shepherds. There are many Christians who don’t think the church should have real authority, that the pastors or elders of the church shouldn’t be strong leaders. I think that’s very misguided. Jesus isn’t teaching that at all. In fact, Jesus, though he came to serve, was a very strong authority. He spoke with authority. He delivered hard truths. But he did this for the right reasons. Being a leader who makes decisions, even unpopular ones, is one way of serving. Jesus’ point is that leaders should lead in a way that benefits the people. And what benefits God’s people is doing things God’s way. God designed life to function in a certain way. Because he loves us, he wants us to live rightly. Leaders are supposed to love people by pointing them in the right way, by making sure they stay on the right path. Leaders are not supposed to seek their own glory or build their own little kingdoms. And all of us are supposed to have the same kind of attitude.

The reality is that the true way of greatness is loving God and loving other people. The truth path to greatness is serving God and serving other people. Ironically, if he we strive after greatness, we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the GOAT. Those people who strive for greatness now will come to a harsh reality when the meet the true GOAT. They will have to stand before him in judgment, just as we all will. And the ones who failed to serve the GOAT will be the real goats. Their sins remain on them, and they will be punished for those sins. Those who trust and serve the GOAT are sheep, the people who will enter the new creation to live with God forever. (See Matt. 25:31–46.)

Seek greatness and you will never get it. But forget about greatness and serve the One who is truly great, and you will find it. What matters is not whether we appear great to other people. What matters is what God thinks of us. What matters is whether we’re faithfully serving God, doing what he has called us to do.

God has not called all of us to be in the limelight. He has not called all of us to be leaders. Some Christians will end up doing things that are far more public than others. But that doesn’t mean they are greater. The one who serves quietly and faithfully in the background may be the truly great one.

Wherever you find yourself today, seek to serve God. You must first see that you are not great. You certainly aren’t the GOAT. But Jesus is the GOAT. And he’s the only goat, the scapegoat, upon whom your sins can be placed and punished so that you don’t have to be punished. Trust that Jesus is the only way to be in a right relationship with God. If you’re not a Christian, humble yourself before God, confess your sins to him, and accept Jesus as his provision for your sin. As James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:8, 10).

Christians, faithfully serve Jesus in whatever situation you find yourself in. God has put you in a certain place and time to do what he wants you to do. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Don’t wish God had made you somehow differently. Accept the role that God has assigned for you, and faithfully serve in that role. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek out a different job, or to find some new position of service. If that’s God’s plan for you, it will happen. But I think one of the ways that we could all thrive is not to covet the supposed greatness of other people. I think we would be happier and healthier if we accepted the role God has given to us and served in that role according to his commandments. That is the only way to true greatness.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing, 2017).

 

The Greatest (Luke 22:24-30)

Who is the greatest? Many people think being the greatest means striving to be the richest, most popular, or most accomplished person. But Jesus says the path to true, lasting greatness is through humility and service. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 22:24-30 on January 26, 2020.

Him Who Betrays Me

This sermon was preached on January 19, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading below).

One of those questions people from all times and places have asked is: Why did this happen? We may ask that when someone we know unexpectedly dies at an early age. Why did she die so young? We may ask that when we look at the news and see a report of a war or a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Why do people kill each other? Why did such a devastating earthquake happen? We may ask a similar question if something bad happens in our life. Why did that happen to my child? Why did my spouse get cancer?

And if we believe in God, we inevitably draw him into these questions. We wonder why God would allow evil, which can be defined as whatever causes the world to be the way it shouldn’t be. We have a sense that something is wrong, and we start to ask why that such a wrong thing should exist. The problem of evil can be formulated in many ways, but it’s basically expressed in these kinds of questions: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and loving, why is there any evil at all? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and loving, why is there so much evil? If God is all powerful, if he knows how to prevent evil, and if he’s truly loving and cares, then why is there such horrific acts of evil? If God is real, why did this particular evil event occur? If God loves me, if he has all the power that’s possible, why did this evil thing happen to me? How we answer those questions has everything to do with what we believe about God and this world that he has made.

We’re going to think about such questions today as we continue to look at the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re going to consider some verses that talk about how one of Jesus’ followers, one of the twelve disciples, arranged to betray Jesus. Jesus was aware that this was going to happen. He said it was determined by God. Yet he also said that those who commit evil are responsible for their sin.

We’ll begin by reading the first two verses of Luke 22. As you turn there, I want to remind you that the Gospel of Luke is a biography about Jesus. Like the other Gospel writers, Luke spends quite a bit of time detailing the days leading up to Jesus’ death. That’s because Jesus’ death and the events that led up to it are so important. This is Thursday, the day before Jesus will die. Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem.

Let’s now read Luke 22:1–2:

1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people.[1]

Why do the chief priests and scribes, some of the most prominent Jewish leaders, want to kill Jesus? And why does Luke tell us that they feared the people? They wanted to get rid of Jesus because they didn’t like what he was teaching. In John’s Gospel, we find out that they had long wanted to kill Jesus because he was challenging their religious customs and, more importantly, because he was making himself appear equal to God (John 5:18; 8:58–59; 10:30–31). Jesus taught in many ways that he is divine, that he is in fact the Son of God. The Jewish people did not yet realize that God is triune, that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. They didn’t realize that God the Father sent God the Son to become a human being. They didn’t think this was possible. They thought Jesus was lying. They thought he might actually be demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48). They certainly knew that he was a threat, and that he had to go.

But the Jewish leaders were afraid of what the crowd might do if they arrested Jesus in public. Jesus continued to gather crowds to himself. No one ever spoke like he did. No one was able to perform all the miracles that he performed. There was simply no one like him. Many people found hope in Jesus. Some were just fascinated by him. Jerusalem was full of people during the time of Passover, as Jewish pilgrims came from afar to celebrate the feast in their holy city. If Jesus was arrested in the city, there would be backlash, probably a riot. A riot would likely lead to some terrible consequences. The Jews lived under Roman rule. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was charged with maintaining order. If a riot broke out in the city, Roman soldiers would put an end to it in a violent fashion. The Jewish leaders might be removed from their positions. So, they had to find a way to get Jesus killed without stirring up a riot.

One of the reasons why Jesus died is because people did not believe that he is God. They thought he was committing blasphemy. They rejected him. But there are other reasons why Jesus died. Another reason is that Satan, the devil, wanted to thwart God’s plans. Satan is a mysterious, shadowy figure. Jesus himself called him a “murderer” and “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We might call him the very embodiment of evil. He’s no match for God—he’s not omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient—but he’s more powerful than mere humans. Satan tried to stop Jesus by tempting him (Luke 4:1–13). But Jesus, the perfect man, never sinned. He resisted Satan’s temptation. Satan continued his attack through the Jewish leaders who tried to trap Jesus in his own words. Jesus called them the devil’s children (John 8:44). But Jesus resisted all their traps. And now, Satan sees another opportunity. He will get Jesus through one of his followers.

Let’s read verses 3–6:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

We’re told that Satan “entered into” one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Judas Iscariot. What does this mean? This kind of language, of Satan actually entering a person, is rare in the Bible. In fact, as far as I’m aware, this is the only time that we’re told Satan did this. We’re told that other people were demon-possessed while Jesus was on the Earth. But we’re not told that Satan himself entered into them.

While it’s not clear what it means for Satan to enter into Judas, it doesn’t mean that Judas was no longer responsible for his actions, as we’ll see. I don’t think it means that he went into some kind of zombie-like trance, becoming an entirely different person. Judas was still Judas, still responsible for his actions. But he was under the very strong influence of the devil in a way that is unique. In his own Gospel, John says that Satan “put it into [Judas’s] heart . . . to betray” Jesus (John 13:2). Satan likely thought that if Jesus were put to death, that would be the end of him, that God’s plans would be thwarted. But Satan didn’t know the future. He didn’t understand that God would use him for his own wonderful plan.

So, Satan strongly influenced Judas to conspire with the Jewish leaders. They gave him money, and he would tell them how to arrest Jesus “in the absence of a crowd.”

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the verses that come next, which discuss how Jesus prepared to have one final Passover meal, one “last supper” with his disciples. We also looked at the what happened at that meal, how Jesus said that the elements of the meal—the bread and wine—would represent his body broken and his blood shed in order to initiate a new covenant with his people. Jesus knew that he would soon be put to death. He had already predicted his death several times (Luke 9:21–22, 44; 18:31–33). Jesus knew that he, the Son of God, became a human in order to die for the sins of his people.

Right after the verses we looked at two weeks ago, which told of him eating this last, intimate meal with his followers, teaching them the meaning of his impending death, something strange happens. Jesus tells them that he knows that one of his followers would betray him. Look at verses 21–23:

21 But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22 For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23 And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

Jesus knew that one of them was his betrayer. Did Jesus know that it was Judas? Luke doesn’t tell us that, but John does. Well before he died, Jesus seems to indicate that Judas is “a devil.” (See John 6:70–71). It’s possible to believe that Jesus only knew that one of his disciples would betray him, and not specicially that Judas would betray him. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus clearly identifies Judas as the one who will betray him, and when Satan enters into Judas, Jesus turns to him and says, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:21–27). Jesus knew what would happen.

In fact, Jesus said that what would happen to him, the Son of Man, was ordained by God. He says that he “goes as it has been determined.” All that was happening to Jesus was God’s plan. But that doesn’t mean that Satan knew that, or that Judas knew that, or that the Jewish leaders or the Roman officers and soldiers knew that. They were all acting according to God’s plan, but they were still responsible for their sins. What God meant for good, they simply meant for evil (Gen. 50:20). Their purpose was to harm Jesus, not to bring about good through his death. So, Jesus says that though he would “go” according to God’s plan, “woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” That’s basically a way of warning that the person who betrays Jesus will be condemned.

How can it be that God has a plan that uses evil, and that those who commit evil are still responsible for their sins?

Well, we must realize first that many Christians wouldn’t agree with what I just said. They don’t think God planned everything. Some people think that God simply knows in advance all that would happen. But that’s not the language Jesus uses. He doesn’t say that the Son of Man goes as it has been foreknown. He says that he goes as it has been determined—determined by God. (That God is not mentioned is typical. This is an example of the “divine passive.” An action is put in the passive voice that we understand to be God’s action.

Other people think that God can’t truly foreknow the future because the future hasn’t happened yet. God knows everything possible, but it’s not possible to know something that doesn’t yet exist. But Jesus makes specific predictions about the future actions of people. He knows what Judas will do. Judas chose to do something, under the very strong influence of Satan, and yet still this was all part of God’s plan.

The way that we view these events has everything to do with the way that we understand God’s relationship to evil. And how we understand God’s relationship to evil has everything to do with what we think about God and what we think about the world he has made. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about the problem of evil, and I want to quote from one Christian theologian and philosopher named Paul Helm. This is what he writes:

When there is a theological or philosophical debate about God and personal evil and how it is to be addressed, it must not be taken for granted that there is agreement about everything else except the matter in question. . . . If one has a concept of God as a Mr. Fixit . . ., then that person’s approach to God’s relation to personal evil will necessarily be different from that of someone who thinks of God as the transcendent and yet immanent Creator, the ground of being whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. . . .

Similarly, someone who thinks that the universe is arranged principally for our benefit, or even for one’s own individual benefit, will necessarily have a different approach to the justification of personal evil than someone who believes about that “of him and to him and through him are all things” [Rom. 11:36]. . . . Someone whose attitude to personal evil presupposes that the death of our bodies is the terminus of life will necessarily approach the evaluating of that evil differently from someone who looks forward to the life everlasting.[2]

What he is saying is basically that our worldview shapes how we view evil. Is this life all there is, or does this life precede a life that never ends? Is there a God who is in charge of the universe? If so, what is this God like? Is he our cosmic butler, a doting grandfather, a “Mr. Fixit”? Or is he a God whose ways are not our ways, who has revealed himself yet who also has plans that are beyond our full understanding? Does the universe exist for primarily for us or for God? Is the goal of this life what we think of as happiness or is the goal of this life to know our Maker and to have a right relationship with him? How we answer these questions will shape how we view evil and God’s relationship to it.

The Bible clearly teaches that God is a transcendent God who is all-powerful, that he molds and shapes his creation in the way that he sees fit, according to his purposes. He has revealed much of his purposes, but not all. We know in part, not in full. There are certainly some mysteries about God and his ways. God made everything for his glory, to demonstrate his greatness. He also made everything because he simply is creating. God’s love knows no bounds, and it seems that his creation is an extension of his love. But the Bible presents God as one who is making a plan for his purposes, not primarily for ours. Yet since God is inherently good, his purposes are good. His overall plan is good. Yet, strangely, his plan contains evil. God doesn’t perform the evil, so he is not the author of sin. And there is only evil because evil is the only way to gain some greater goods, goods that aren’t possible without first there being any evil.

For example, we might say that things like bravery, overcoming adversity, and being victorious are all great goods. But they aren’t possible without there first being some kind of evil. If there’s no evil, no threat of harm and even death, there’s no bravery. If there’s no evil, there’s no triumph over evil. If there were no sin, the Son of God wouldn’t need to become a human being. The reason why Jesus came was to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). If the first human beings never sinned, and if all subsequent human beings never sinned, then Jesus wouldn’t need to become a human being. There would be no need for him to live the perfect life that we don’t live, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity, because we would already be living perfect lives. If we were living perfect lives, we would love God as we should. We would desire to know him and please him through the way we lived. If we lived perfect lives, we would love each other as we should. We wouldn’t be selfish and greedy. We wouldn’t hate other people. And we wouldn’t ignore or reject God. But the fact is, quite clearly, we’re not perfect. God desires to have perfect human beings. That’s his plan. And part of the reason Jesus came is to fulfill that plan.

Because God became a human being, God can better relate to his people. He knows what it’s like to be a human. That’s a great good that couldn’t come without sin. And because God became a human being, we can better understand what God is like. God isn’t some mysterious being that we can’t see or imagine. People who saw Jesus had a clearer picture of what God is like, because Jesus is the clearest revelation of God (Heb. 1:1–3). And we have access to what Jesus is like in the Bible.

But Jesus didn’t just come to live. He also came to die. He did that because God cannot tolerate evil actions. He can’t tolerate sin. As a perfect judge, he must have sin punished. You wouldn’t think highly of a human judge who had all the evidence before him, who could see that a certain person was guilty, and yet who swept all that evidence under the rug and let that guilty person go free. If you wouldn’t expect a human judge to do that, you shouldn’t expect the perfect divine judge to do that. So, God must punish sin. And sin is so heinously evil that it must be destroyed. It must be crushed. Sinners must be killed.

But God is gracious. He allowed for a substitute to come, someone to take the punishment that we deserve for sin. God the Father sent God the Son to die in place of all who would trust him. And God the Son came willingly to die, to lay down his life for his people. He takes their sin and receives the full penalty for that sin by dying on the cross. He was treated horribly, tortured and killed in a slow and painful way. But he also absorbed a spiritual punishment because what we can comprehend. Jesus takes the wrath of God, experiencing hell on earth, so that all who come to him in faith don’t have to experience that terrible reality.

And Jesus’ death—and his subsequent resurrection—are also great goods that couldn’t come without there first being evil. Obviously, it’s good for sinners to have a way to be forgiven. But Jesus’ death shows us how much God loves us. Jesus’ death teaches us the importance of sacrifice. And his resurrection is a great triumph. Without evil, there is no victory. There’s no great story of bravery and sacrifice. But with evil, there’s the greatest story ever told.

So, Jesus had to die. And someone had to kill Jesus. Many people had to plot Jesus’ death. The Jewish leaders, Judas, Satan, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who was too cowardly to release a man he believed to be innocent, the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus—all these individuals were part of God’s plan, though they didn’t know it. And we are part of God’s plan, too. Jesus died because our sin, the sin of all humanity, required it.

But just because we’re part of God’s plan doesn’t mean our sin isn’t evil, and that we’re not responsible for our sin. Verse 22 of this passage makes it clear that God is in charge of all that happens, but also that those who commit evil are held responsible for their sin. The reason that is so is because people willingly commit sin. Judas betrayed Jesus willingly, even if he was under the influence of Satan. And we all pursue our own desires and commit sins. It won’t do for us to complain to God that we can’t help it.

I want to drop an interesting footnote here. About fifteen years ago, a somewhat recently discovered ancient manuscript, the so-called Gospel of Judas, was finally translated into English. This Gospel portrays Judas as a hero, Jesus’ favorite disciple. Jesus secretly approached Judas and told him to betray him so that he would die. However, this is not the truth. This so-called “lost gospel” wasn’t really lost. It was most likely written in the second half of the second century, a hundred years or more after Luke wrote his Gospel, long after all those who witnessed Jesus had died. In the year 180, the Christian theologian Irenaeus dismissed the Gospel of Judas as fictitious history.[3] Strangely, there was a group of people called the Cainites who wrote stories about the villains of the Bible, like Cain and Judas. These people claimed that these villains were actually the real heroes of the Bible. After the Gospel of Judas was published in English translation in 2006, Adam Gopnik wrote a review of it in The New Yorker. He said that these gospels “no more challenge the basis of the Church’s faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.”[4]

So, Judas was not a hero. He did evil. In fact, we can say he participated in the greatest evil, killing the Son of God. I know many people would say that there have been greater evil’s than Jesus’ death. We have to admit that it’s hard to weigh acts of evil. How can we compare the Holocaust with the institution of slavery? Or, how can we compare the Holocaust with the abortion of tens of millions of preborn human beings each year? Even in America, there has been approximately 60 million abortions committed over the last forty-seven years, since Roe v. Wade was decided. We know scientifically that what is in the womb, whether it’s called a baby or a fetus, is a human life. That being is alive, and he or she has his or her own DNA and body, regardless of how small, how underdeveloped, and how dependent he or she is on the mother. We know these things from science, and yet we still allow the great evil of abortion to occur. At any rate, there are many evils that have been committed throughout history, and some of them quite grave, yet I think a case can be made that the greatest evil was the murder of Jesus. He was truly innocent, in a way that no other human being was innocent, because he never sinned. And he was and is truly God. If God is the greatest being, if all of reality is God-centered, then putting the God-man to death is the greatest evil.

And, yet, we know that Jesus died according to God’s plan. That is made clear also in Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts (see Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27–28). So, if the greatest evil went according to God’s plan, and if God works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11), even determining the outcomes of what we would consider chance events (Prov. 16:33), then we can see that no evil is outside of God’s plans. Yet he works evil for good. Out of evil come things like bravery and victory, but also humility and spiritual growth, and many other things besides.

I know that all of this is hard to accept. Yet if we stopped and thought about it, all of us should be thankful for evil. I got this idea from another Christian philosopher, William Hasker.[5] Basically, he says that most people are glad that they exist. Yet most of us likely wouldn’t exist were it not for great evils in the world. War is a great evil, and many people die in wars. That is certainly true of World War II. Millions of people died in World War II, including over 400,000 Americans. My parents were born in New Jersey, rather close to New York City, shortly after the war ended. My mother was born at the end of 1946. My father was born in the middle of 1948. They met in high school, started dating, went to college together at Gordon College and married before they graduated. And I owe my existence to them. But it’s easy to imagine that if there were no World War II, I might not be alive. Both of my grandfathers served in the military during the war. They were married to my grandmothers before the war, and then they came back home and made babies. I imagine that there were men from that part of New Jersey who went off to war and were killed. They might have been married already, or perhaps might have married after coming back home, but they died. What if there was no war, and those men who went and died married and had children who were approximately the ages of my parents? What if that man had a son my mother’s age, and what if my mother met that son and fell in love with him instead of my father? Or what if that man had a daughter who met my father and married him? Or what if both happened? If any of that occurred, my parents wouldn’t have married each other. They wouldn’t have had my brothers and me. And I wouldn’t exist.

Now, that’s just one war. Imagine if World War I didn’t happen, and the Civil War. Imagine how different the population of American would be, not just in size, but in composition. Now think about all kinds of wars and genocides and natural disasters. If those didn’t occur, many people who now are alive wouldn’t exist. Other people would be alive, perhaps far more people, but we wouldn’t be here.

That’s not a full answer to the problem of evil. But it gives us a different perspective on it. The reality is that every event that occurs is interconnected with every other event in ways that we don’t understand. This is basically what is called “the butterfly effect.” Since we don’t understand how evil leads to good doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It has happened. And the greatest example of God using evil for good is the death of his Son.

So, though we may not understand why evil has occurred, we can trust that God is in control, and that his purposes are good. The greatest example of his goodness and his love, even in the face of evil, is the death of Jesus. Though evil people plotted against Jesus, and though the devil helped bring it about, it was God’s plan. In fact, we can say that it was through the death of Jesus that God trapped Satan. Satan was hanged with his own noose. God brings about the death of evil through evil.

The death of Jesus shows us that though God is in control of evil, he isn’t cold and distant. God knows what it’s like to experience evil firsthand. The Son of God was mocked, srejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. Jesus knows what it’s like to be born, to grow up, to be hungry and thirsty and tired, to have people ridicule him, to have his friends desert him. He knows what it’s like to be lonely and forsaken. And he knows what it’s like to die. God can relate to us in our suffering because he has suffered. And even this was all part of God’s plan.

The lesson for us is to know that God is in charge, and to know that he has a plan that includes evil and defeats evil. That center of that plan is Jesus. The plan hasn’t been completed just yet. There’s obviously still evil in the world. When Jesus comes again, evil will be pulled up by its long roots and destroyed. In the meantime, we must trust God. We don’t have to understand all the mysteries of evil. Only God knows them. But we must trust God. When evil comes our way, it is intended for our good. We don’t have to like evil and suffering. No one does. But we must cling to God and trust he has a reason for it. If possible, we must work against evil. The fact that God is in charge doesn’t mean we should be passive. He teaches us to fight against oppression, to expose evil, to help those who are suffering. Our fighting against evil is also part of God’s plan, and it helps us become the kind of people that God wants us to be. But our best efforts will not destroy evil. Only Jesus can do that. And Jesus died to destroy the evil that lurks within us, to take it upon his shoulders and crush it. A God who is in control, and a God who would sacrifice himself for us, is a God worth trusting, even when we don’t understand.

I urge us all to trust Jesus. He is the only way to escape evil. And if we trust in Jesus, we can trust that every evil we’ve experienced will turn out for our good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Paul Helm, “God’s Providence Takes No Risks,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 345–46.
  3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.31.1.
  4. Adam Gopnik, “Jesus Laughed,” The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/17/jesus-laughed (accessed December 13, 2014).
  5. William Hasker, “On Regretting the Evils of This World,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

 

 

Him Who Betrays Me (Luke 22:2-6, 21-23)

Jesus knew that one of his disciples would betray him. This was determined, yet Judas, the betrayer, was responsible for his sin. This gives us an insight into the problem of evil (why there is evil if God is all-powerful and good). Brian Watson preached this sermon on January 19, 2020.

Do This in Remembrance of Me

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 5, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading).

When I was a child, there were many things that I did not understand about life, about God, and about church. One of those things was the Lord’s Supper. I remember going to church, where once a month some broken pieces of bread were passed around on shiny plates and thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice were distributed. The pastor would say, “The body of Christ, broken for you. Take and eat,” and, “The blood of Christ, shed for you. Take and drink.” I had no idea what he meant by eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, but I went along with the program and I didn’t ask any questions.

Now that I’ve matured, I understand the Lord’s Supper better and I hope that you do, too. Yet I think that the taking of the Lord’s Supper isn’t understood by many. And this practice probably seems very bizarre to non-Christians. What are we doing when we take this little bit of food and this little bit of drink? Why do we do it? What does it all mean?

What is the Lord’s Supper? It’s one of two ordinances, sometimes called sacraments, that the church observes. The other is baptism. According to the Puritan, Thomas Watson, “The sacrament is a visible sermon. . . . The Word is a trumpet to proclaim Christ, the sacrament is a glass to represent him.”[1] Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are visible sermons, pictures of what Jesus has done for us.

The Lord’s Supper presents a visible picture of the gospel, specifically Jesus’ substitutionary, atoning death. He died in our place, as our substitute, to atone for our sins. Yet there is more to the Lord’s Supper than this. The Lord’s Supper is based on the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. At this meal, all the great themes of the Bible coalesce, for the Last Supper had associations with the past, present, and future. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is rooted in history; it affects our present; and it contains promises for our future.

Today, we’re returning to the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. We’re beginning chapter 22. Today, we’re going to look at the passages related to Jesus’ last Passover meal that he shared with his disciples before he died on the next day. Then, in the next sermon, I’ll look at the verses related to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

So, we’ll begin with Luke 22:1, which says, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”[2]

What was the Passover? Let us review some Old Testament history.

In Genesis, God chose Abraham and his family as the people he would use to bless the world. At the end of Genesis, this family ends up in Egypt, where Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, is second in command. At the beginning of Exodus, something has changed. About 400 years have passed by and the Israelites have multiplied greatly, but they no longer find favor in the Egyptians’ eyes. Instead, the Egyptians oppress and enslave them. God looks upon them with compassion and, because of his covenant with Abraham, he prepares to deliver them through the ministry of Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses because of the hardness of his heart, so God hits the Egyptians with nine plagues. Pharaoh still refuses to let the Israelites go, so God sends a tenth and final plague.

This time, all the firstborn in Egypt will die. The first nine plagues did not affect the Israelites, but this time, in order to avoid the tenth plague, they must do something. They are to take male, year-old, unblemished lambs, slaughter them, and place some of their blood on their door frames. When God comes to kill all the firstborn in Egypt, he will pass over the houses of the Israelites because of the blood. God tells them to commemorate this occasion by roasting the meat of the lambs and eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are to do this with their belts fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staffs in hand, because they will soon leave Egypt, for Pharaoh will now let them go. God tells them to keep this feast once a year to remember the event. The Passover is so important that God even tells them that the month of this event will now be the first month of their calendar year.

So, that’s what the Passover was. Now, I’m going to skip to verse 7. We’ll come back to verses 2–6 in the next sermon in this series. Here are verses 7–13:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” 10 He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

Jesus is about to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. He sends two of his closest followers, Peter and John, to prepare this meal, which had to be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem.

It seems that Jesus has made prior arrangements to have the meal in an upper room. Peter and John would have had to prepare a lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, the elements of the original Passover meal. Other elements were added over the years: a bowl of saltwater, a fruit puree or sauce, and four cups of diluted wine. Each element was very symbolic. The lamb reminded them of the sacrifice needed to be saved. The Israelites were sinners like the Egyptians, and the only way to be spared God’s judgment against sin was for someone to die in their place. The unleavened bread reminded them of God’s swift deliverance of his people—there wasn’t time for the bread to rise. The herbs reminded them of the bitterness of their slavery. The saltwater reminded them of tears shed in captivity as well as the Red Sea. The fruit paste reminded them of the clay used to make bricks for the Egyptians. And the four cups of wine symbolized the promises found in Exodus 6:6–7, that God would deliver them from slavery, that he would judge the Egyptians, that they would have a special relationship with God (“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”), and that they would know that he is “the Lord your God.”

Normally, a family would eat this meal together. Jesus chose to share it with his disciples. They had become his family. During the Passover meal, there would be a time when the host of the meal recalled the Passover narrative, explaining the redemptive history behind the feast and expressing thanksgiving. Listen to this statement from the collection of Jewish oral traditions known as the Mishnah. The parallels with our redemption should be obvious:

Therefore are we bound to give thanks, to praise, to glorify, to honour, to exalt, to extol, and to bless him who wrought all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us out from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption, so let us say before him the Hallelujah.[3]

The celebration would include the singing of Psalms 113 through 118. After the fourth glass of wine, the meal would end, and the guests were supposed to spend the night in prayer.

Before we look at verses 14–20, allow me to make an observation. It is no coincidence that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. The Passover and the whole Exodus form the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament. There are numerous references to this event in the Old Testament as well as the New. You can find it mentioned throughout the historical books, there are several Psalms devoted to it, and the prophets refer to this event repeatedly. In short, the Exodus proved that God does mighty acts to save his people.

By connecting the Last Supper to the Passover, God is showing us the relationship between the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament and the greatest act of redemption. He is showing us how his plan of redemption spans across the Old and New Testaments.

God is sovereign over history. He can make history do what he wants. Throughout history, he revealed himself and his plans gradually, through not only his word but also through people, events, and institutions that we find in the Old Testament. Certain events in the Old Testament anticipate greater events in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, we see certain types, or foreshadows, that anticipate the work of Jesus. We see certain people in the Old Testament that resemble Christ, but they are imperfect saviors, prophets, priests, and kings. We see acts of redemption in the Old Testament, but they do not conquer sin and death. We also see acts of judgment in the Old Testament, often coupled with those acts of redemption, though they are not the final judgment that will occur when Jesus returns to Earth. These types in the Old Testament taught the people of that time about God and gave them clues that greater events were going to occur in the future. For us, on this side of the cross, they provide a context for Jesus’ ministry, so that we can see how he fulfilled all the promises of God in the Old Testament.

Here are a few things we can learn, as Christians, from the Passover. One, it anticipated Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We know this because the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter tells us that we were ransomed from sin “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). The redemption of the Israelites out of Egypt was accomplished through a blood sacrifice. Though they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians, the Passover did not deal with their slavery to sin. No animal sacrifice could atone for human sin. Therefore, the Passover was an incomplete redemption and a mere foretaste of Jesus’ greater, perfect redemption.

Two, the Passover and the Exodus show us that God is powerful, that he performs amazing acts of redemption, and that he is to be feared. For those of you familiar with the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the image of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, you know how powerful and frightening God can be. God is still a holy and jealous God. He is still a consuming fire. It is important that we still have that image of God.

Three, we see that God graciously saved his people even though they were sinful. The Israelites were often not any better than the people of other nations. God simply decided to be gracious to them. Their salvation was not based on their obedience and their goodness, and neither is ours.

Four, in Exodus, there is a phrase that God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 7:15; 8:1, 20; 9:1). God freed the Israelites from the yoke of slavery to the Egyptians, but they were not rescued so that they could live for themselves. If you have faith in Christ, you are freed from slavery to sin, but you still have a master. Jesus says, “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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). We are freed from the yoke of sin in order to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.

It’s important to understand the Passover and what it means for us. Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus shares this meal with his disciples. Let’s read verses 14–20:

14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Jesus wanted this last opportunity to teach his disciples the significance of his impending death. He knows he is about to die, and yet he is in complete control. In fact, his vague directions to Peter and John in the previous section were probably intentional: he wanted to make sure that Judas did not know the address of this upper room so that the meal would not be interrupted by a premature arrest. (We’ll talk more about this next time.)

Jesus is acting as host of the Passover meal, yet instead of recounting the Exodus story, he starts to teach them about the theological significance of his death. Jesus tells his disciples that he will not eat this meal again until “it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” He will not share in such a meal until the kingdom is consummated, when he returns.

Then, Jesus takes one cup and gives it to his disciples. This is probably either the first or second of the four cups of wine of the Passover meal. It is a common cup that he shares with his disciples, just as it is a common loaf of bread. This meal scene is one of intimacy and unity. It seems completely natural to read about people eating, but we must remember that Jesus is not just a man; he’s also God. God is eating with humans! God dwells among us and desires close fellowship with us. What an amazing idea!

In verse 18, Jesus says he “will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” The kingdom was inaugurated with Jesus’ first coming, but it will not come in its fullest form until he returns and recreates the universe to be Paradise. In this passage, Jesus twice refers to a future fulfillment of the kingdom of God. He wants his disciples to know that, even though he will die, death will not have the last word.

Then, Jesus takes the bread and gives it to his disciples. Here, Jesus begins to reinterpret the elements of the Passover meal in a radical way. The bread and the wine of the Passover meal will correspond to Jesus’ death.

Jesus takes the bread, a symbol of life and sustenance, and makes it a symbol of his death. Elsewhere, Jesus had called himself the bread of life (John 6:35, 48) because he is the source of eternal life. In order to impart that life to those who have faith in him, his body would have to be broken. Animals die so we can eat their flesh. Grain is crushed so that we can live. Even grapes were crushed so that their juice could be extracted and fermented. It is possible that the references to bread being broken and wine being poured out are references to a famous passage in Isaiah 53, one that we looked at two weeks ago. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” A few verses later, we read, “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” (Isa. 53:10). God the Father had to pour out his wrath on someone, for sin must not go unpunished. God is a perfect judge. He cannot let evil go unchecked. But God is also gracious. He gave his Son to take the punishment that his people deserve. And willingly Jesus took that punishment in our place. He was crushed so that we don’t have to be. That was God’s will. It was always his plan.

Notice that Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Israelites were supposed to remember the Passover, but when they did, they didn’t just bring a past event to mind. Rather, they saw themselves as participants in the Exodus. In that way, it affected their present life. They also anticipated a future redemption that would come through the Messiah. For us, we should remember Jesus’ death, not in order simply to review history, but in order for our lives to be changed. We, too, should also look forward to Christ’s return, when he makes all things new.

We should also notice that, in saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus isn’t saying, “Do this in order to be saved,” or, “Do this to receive more grace.” Catholics believe that the eucharist (their word for the Lord’s Supper) imparts grace and is a key part of salvation. But Jesus doesn’t say anything like that.

Finally, Jesus distributes the cup, which commentators agree corresponds to the third cup of the Passover meal. He says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The “pouring out” likely refers to Isaiah 53:12: “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.” In the Bible, blood represents life (Lev. 17:11). In order to bear the sins of many, Jesus had to die in the place of many. Because of our sin, we should die eternally, yet Jesus took our sin and nailed it to the cross, so that we could be credited his righteousness. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

We also come to the important idea of the covenant. A covenant is a bit like a contract. It is a binding commitment that is made unilaterally, which is to say there is no negotiating. God sets the terms of the agreement and he faithfully keeps his end of the arrangement. There are many covenants in the Bible: ones made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as the new covenant. The two covenants in view here are the “old covenant,” the one made through Moses at Mount Sinai, and the new covenant.

After God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them. He said that if they obeyed him, then they would be his “treasured possession among all peoples” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (see Exod. 19:4–6). God then gave Moses and the Israelites the Ten Commandments as well as many other laws. This covenant was based on a condition: if the people obeyed those laws, then they would be God’s treasured possession.

After the law was given, a ceremony was held to inaugurate this covenant. In Exodus 24, Moses and the people offer animal sacrifices and Moses reads them the law. The people said they would obey the law. Then something very strange happens: Moses takes some of the blood of those animal sacrifices and threw it on the people. There are two important ideas behind this strange event: One, the people of Israel were God’s people because they were made clean from a blood sacrifice. Two, if they failed to obey the terms of the covenant, the result would be the shedding of blood—their blood! Most covenants began with blood, a reminder of the consequences of breaking that contract. And if that contract was broken, blood would be shed.

We know from the Old Testament that Israel was not perfectly obedient to God. In fact, they were often wildly disobedient. The same is true of all human beings. We often ignore God instead of living for him. We fail to love God as we should. We fail to love one another. We don’t do life on God’s terms; instead, we act as if were gods.

In the end, the old covenant simply didn’t work. There’s no way that mere human beings could obey its terms. Therefore, God would establish a new covenant. This was promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34, but there are other passages in the Old Testament prophets that speak of a new covenant. In short, the new covenant promised that all of God’s people would be forgiven of sin, would truly know God because they have a right relationship with him, and would have God’s laws written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God.

The new covenant is better than the old covenant. But that was by design. God’s plan is perfect. He knew his people could not obey the old covenant. God’s intention was to show that only one son person could ever obey that old covenant, and that person was Jesus. The only way the old covenant could be fulfilled was to have God become man and live a life of perfect obedience. He fulfilled the terms of the old covenant. But—and this is the amazing part—though he alone fulfilled those terms, he took on the penalty that covenant breakers deserve. He died on the cross to take away the penalty that we all deserve for our sin.

What Jesus is saying at this Last Supper with his disciples is basically this: “What I’m about to do is the key to God’s eternal plan of redemption. My blood sacrifice will pay the penalty of the old covenant for you, and my blood will usher in a new, fulfilled covenant. People who are part of this covenant will never pay for their sins. Your sins will be forgiven, and you will have new hearts.”

The fact that Jesus asks his disciples to do this in remembrance of him means that he expects that they will take it regularly after his death. We understand that the Lord’s Supper, which we take here once a month, is based on this Last Supper. It is a time to remember that Jesus died for our sins.

What does all of this mean for us? How does this affect our view of the Lord’s Supper? First, we should see how great Jesus is. I hope you now have a deeper understanding of just how central his life, death, and resurrection is to all of history, to God’s plans, and to your life. Jesus is the greatest. He is truly the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of history, and the author and goal of our faith.

Second, food in the Bible is often a symbol for spiritual sustenance. Of course, we need to eat food regularly to live. But we also have spiritual hunger and thirst, a longing for something that the things of this world cannot satisfy. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy the deepest yearnings of your soul. In John 6:27, Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Are you trying to fill your spiritual hunger with Jesus or something else? No money, no job, no other relationship, no amount of pleasures and entertainments will satisfy that spiritual hunger and thirst.

Third, though we’re not told this here, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for God’s people. It doesn’t automatically give you spiritual life. Only faith in Jesus gives you that. And faith in Jesus is trusting in him. That faith should lead to love of Jesus and obedience to him.

Fourth, we’re also told that elsewhere that the Lord’s Supper is a time to examine our lives. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It’s a time for us to ask certain questions, like, “Do I know God? Am I living as his servant? Are there ways that I’m disobeying him? Do I have sins I need to repent of?” If you are not a Christian, I urge you to trust in Jesus. Faith in Jesus is the only way to be spared God’s judgment against your sin, your failure to love and live for God. If you’re not yet a Christian, I would love to talk to you personally about following Jesus. If you’re struggling with sin, I would love to help you in any way I can.

Fourth, the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper call us to be a community. Jesus shared a common cup and a common loaf with his disciples. Though we come to faith in Christ individually, when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we enter the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Are you an active part of the body of Christ? Are you using your spiritual gifts to serve the church? Or do you just come to consume a spiritual product and live life alone? God meant for us to be in relationship with him and with each other. I would encourage all of us to be more involved in the life of this church, to be more committed, to become members. Take ownership of this church. Regard it as your family.

My fifth and final point is this: The Last Supper looked backwards to the Passover. And it looked forward to when Jesus would not only die for his people, but also to when he would return to complete the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. The Lord’s Supper looks back to when Jesus died for us, but it also looks forward to when Jesus will return to make all things right. And when that happens, we who are Christians will eat a meal with God.

There are several places in the Bible where this new creation is pictured as a great meal. We read one of those passages, Isaiah 25, last week. God promised that in his new creation, there would be the finest of feasts. That could be a literal meal—which might be a comfort to those of us who love to eat—or it could symbolize the kind of fellowship that we cannot imagine right now. Either way, God will make all things new, he will eradicate death, and he will offer us the very best food and fellowship that we could ever hope for. At that time, we will commune directly with God. All his people, those who know him, those who have been forgiven of sin, those who have been given the Holy Spirit, will live forever in God’s house.

When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we remember what Jesus did for us: His body was broken and his life drained out so that we don’t have to be broken, so that we can live. And when we take the Lord’s Supper, we experience a foretaste of what will come in the future. We will eat and drink together in the presence of God. We can take the Lord’s Supper with seriousness, remembering that it cost nothing short of the death of the God-man, Jesus Christ, to rescue us from sin and eternal death. But we can also take it with thanksgiving and joy, knowing that God loves us so much that he gave us his Son, and that the Son laid down his life willingly for his people, to bring them back to the table in his house.

Notes

  1. Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (1665; repr., Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2004), 1-2.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Pesahim 10.5, quoted in I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (1980; repr., Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2006), 22.

 

Do This in Remembrance of Me (Luke 22:1, 7-20)

What is the Lord’s Supper, or communion? Why do we take bits of bread and juice (or, in some churches, wine) and say that these are the body and blood of Christ? Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 22:1, 7-20 on January 5, 2020.

The Gospel according to Isaiah: A New Earth

All of us long for a good ending to our lives. We want to live in a better world, one that doesn’t end, one that doesn’t have evil, decay, and death. The good news is that the Bible promises such a world for those who have fixed their minds upon God. Brian Watson preached this message, based on various passages in Isaiah, on December 29, 2019.

The Gospel according to Isaiah: God with Us

A child, born of a virgin, is a sign that God is with his people and will save them. This Christmas Eve sermon, based on Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1, was given by Brian Watson on December 24, 2019.

My Servant

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 22, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading).

“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.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

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:
“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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.[1]

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.
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.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
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.”

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—
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:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

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?
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.
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:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
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.
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.”[2] 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:

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.
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?
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?”[3]

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.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
  3. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75.

 

A Son Is Given

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

Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.

Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.

It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.

Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?

I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.

Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.

Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.”[1] You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.”[2] We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?

And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.

But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.”[3] There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer.[4] How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?

And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.[5]

We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.

This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.

If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.

This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.

The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.

Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:

1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.

The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.

The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.

He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.

He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.

Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.

Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.

This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.

The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.

If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.

We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?

Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.

These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.

We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.

At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.

Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.

And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.

And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.

You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year.[6] You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.

The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.

But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.

But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.

The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.

Notes

  1. https://ergofabulous.org/luther.
  2. After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41.
  3. Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2.
  4. Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian.
  5. Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny.
  6. See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah: A Son Is Given

The prophet of Isaiah foretold the coming of a special child, a son who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This person would make all deliver his people and bring about righteousness, justice, and peace. Jesus is the fulfilment of these promises. Find out how Jesus is the leader we want and need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 15, 2019.

The Gospel according to Isaiah(P

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

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

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

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

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G. K. Chesterton[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now look at verses 21–23:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 55:1–7 says,

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

The Gospel according to Isaiah, Part 1

During times of turmoil and uncertainty, we need to recover a “big view” of God. The prophet Isaiah tells us who God is and why he created us. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on December 1, 2019.

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

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

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

Beware of the Scribes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s now turn to Luke 20:45–47:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Proverbs 16:18 says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:8–9).

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

Beware of the Scribes (Luke 20:45-21:4)

Jesus condemns the hypocritical, supposedly religious scribes and commends a faithful widow. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4 on November 10, 2019.

God of the Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll begin by reading verses 27–33:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

Render to Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let’s turn to Luke 20:19–26:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

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

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

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.

And in Titus 3:1–2, Paul writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

Render to Caesar (Luke 20:19-26)

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