Count the Cost

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Think about anyone who has done something great with his or her life. Think about a great athlete, a great artist, a great leader, a great inventor, a great businessman. What made that person great? There are many things. Natural talent, intelligence, education, opportunity, and sometimes what we would call luck. But usually there’s another key ingredient, something that separates that person from others who had similar backgrounds. And that something is a singular devotion to what they’re doing. To be great athletes, people have to center their lives around their sport. They have to sleep enough, eat a certain diet, train long hours. Their lives are devoted to what they do. Similar things can be said of great musicians, painters, and writers, and certainly of people who create technologies or products.

To be great in the kingdom of God, we need to center our lives on Jesus. To be a Christian—and not just a great Christian, but an average one—we need to have a singular devotion to Jesus. We need to put him above everything else.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Jesus’ life. We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a long time now, and today we see what Jesus requires of those who would follow him. He requires that those who follow him love him more than they love anything else, even their own lives. He urges those who are considering following him to count the cost, which is being willing to suffer and renounce everything else. And he says that those who lose their distinctive Christian character are useless and will be thrown out.

The words that Jesus utters are hard words. He didn’t sugar-coat things. Neither will I this morning. But this a message that we need to hear. It’s a clarion call to greater commitment to Jesus. But the good news is that he is worth following. The athlete’s career will not save him. The artist’s great works will not pay for her sins against God and against others. The inventor’s inventions will not bring him eternal life. But Jesus can gives all these things and more to those who are his disciples.

Today, we’re reading Luke 14:25–35. We’ll start by reading verses 25 and 26:

25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.[1]

Recently in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with the religious leaders of Judaism at this time. He was eating with some of them at the beginning of this chapter (Luke 14:1–24). But now Jesus is traveling, and a great amount of people are following him. We have seen that Jesus has attracted crowds wherever he goes. There is simply no one like him. No one has ever taught as brilliantly has he has. No one has ever been able to perform all the miracles that he has. So, it makes sense that he would get a lot of attention. But he wants people who are coming to him to know that it’s not enough for them to be fans. Jesus doesn’t want fans, he wants followers. He doesn’t want people who spectate, he wants students. (That’s what the Greek word translated as “disciple” literally means.)

So, Jesus says to the crowd something that might shock us. He says that anyone who could come after him must hate his or her own family and even his or her own life. Now, Jesus doesn’t literally mean that we must hate our family members. That would contradict the call to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. If we’re supposed to love all neighbors and enemies, how much more should we love our family members? The language of “hate” is a Semitic expression, an idiom. It means that our love for Jesus should so far outweigh our love for anyone else that it looks, in comparison, as if we “hate” them. But that’s not a literal hate. It means to love less.[2] Jesus demands ultimate allegiance.

There have been many times throughout history, in various places and cultures, when and where following Jesus has meant being distanced from one’s family. In the early days of the church, to be a Christian might mean being separated from one’s non-Christian Jewish family members, or from one’s non-Christian pagan family members. To become a Protestant, trusting Jesus alone for your salvation, might mean leaving behind the Catholic faith and, in some Catholic cultures, this could mean being distanced from family. In Muslim cultures and countries, being a Christian can mean being disowned from family. In some cases, becoming a Christian means putting your own life in danger.

The point is that we have to love Jesus more than anything else, even our own safety and security. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that our hearts are given to what we treasure (Matt. 6:21). He says that we can’t serve two masters, because our hearts will be divided (Matt. 6:24). We must serve Jesus, which means that we must give him not just obedience, but our hearts.

Jesus then goes on to talk about the cost of following him. We must be willing to give up safety and comfort to follow him. Let’s read verses 27–33:

27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Jesus says that if you are not willing to bear your own cross and come after him, you cannot be his disciple. He has already said something similar in Luke. This is what he said in Luke 9:23–24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” What does it mean to bear your cross or take it up daily? The cross was an instrument of shame, torture, and death. The Roman Empire used it to kill enemies of the state in a very public way. It was reserved for those who weren’t Roman citizens, and for the worst of criminals. Death by crucifixion was slow and agonizing—that’s why we have that word “excruciating.” And it was death in public, in view of passersby. It was a way of saying, “Don’t mess with Rome or this will happen to you!”

So, when Jesus tells those who would follow him that they must take up a cross, he means they must be willing to suffer, to even die if it should come to that. Now, most Christians will not be put to death because they are Christians. But that has happened throughout history, and it still happens in certain parts of the world. For most of us, it means being willing to be called names, or to be regarded as fools. Being a Christian often means having priorities that don’t line up with the prevailing culture. It means having unpopular views. Non-Christians will sometimes resent that we don’t bow the knee and pledge allegiance to what is popular. In the early church, that meant not regarding Caesar, the Emperor, as Lord, as the ultimate King. Being a Christian means that you believe Jesus is the ultimate authority, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Romans were expected to worship the emperor, but Christianity forbids us to worship anyone but the triune God. Today, Christians often have different views on controversial topics like sexuality and abortion, but also about how to use money, caring for the poor, and many other issues. In the past, Christians have been against slavery when others wanted it, and this put them at odds with the world.

To be a Christian means being willing to follow Jesus even when it’s hard, even when it brings suffering and shame. This doesn’t mean that being a Christian always brings those things. Christians also experience many joys and comforts in this life. But we must be willing to experience those things for the sake of Jesus.

And that is one of the costs of becoming a Christian. So, Jesus tells those who would follow him to count the cost. Be like that man who was going to build a tower, which would have been a watchtower or perhaps even a barn of sorts that could store produce and tools. If someone is going to build such a structure, he has to figure out how much it will cost. If he doesn’t, he won’t finish the project and he’ll be ashamed. Likewise, a king going to battle must count the cost of war. If he goes to war without considering whether he can actually win, it could leave to great disaster and shame.

These things happen in real life, by the way. When we lived in Washington and I served a church there, there was another church that was right across the street from ours. Before we arrived at our church, that other church had plans to build a new building. They had a large parcel of land and they had recently built the outside of the new building. Eventually, they even paved a large parking lot in front of it. But the cost of the new building was greater than they had anticipated, so they couldn’t finish the new building. It was empty and unfinished inside. It was useless. Likewise, a half-Christian, not willing to go the distance for Jesus, is useless.

Countries have gone to war without carefully considering what war will cost in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of human lives. And that always brings disaster. It ends in national debt, many lives lost, and futility. One could argue that our country’s wars over the last fifty or sixty years have been like that. So it is with someone who likes Jesus, who even sees his or her need to follow him, but doesn’t carefully think about what it will mean to follow Jesus throughout life.

Those who aren’t willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads are ultimately useless. That’s the point that Jesus makes in verses 34 and 35:

34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This saying about salt might seem odd. In the ancient world, salt had many uses, just as it has many uses today. It was used not only as seasoning for foods, but also as a preservative and a fertilizer. Today, we can buy all kinds of pure salt to use for cooking or to put on ice in the winter. But in those days, salt was often mixed with impurities like gypsum. Whenever the salt was dissolved in water, the other minerals were left behind. Salt had lost its saltiness and was therefore useless. According to Darrel Bock, “Bakers covered the floor of their ovens with salt to give a catalytic effect on the burning fuel, which was usually cattle dung. After a time, the effect wore off and the salt was thrown away.”[3] Obviously, you wouldn’t use that “salt” on your food, but it also couldn’t be used for anything else. Bock says, “Salt used for fertilizer wilted weeds and improved the soil at a deeper level, but useless salt was discarded.”[4]

A person who claims to be a Christian yet who doesn’t have a distinctive Christian character is useless. He or she isn’t really a Christian at all, and never was one. And he or she will be “thrown away,” or condemned.

For those familiar with the whole of the Bible, or at least the New Testament, you know that being a Christian isn’t a matter of self-identifying as a Christian. We can self-identify as many things, but that doesn’t mean we actually are those things. If I self-identify as Superman right now, that doesn’t mean I can fly, see through walls, or deflect bullets. In a similar way, self-identifying as a Christian doesn’t mean you actually love Jesus more than anything else. It’s easy to say you’re a Christian, but it’s another thing to actually be one. To be a Christian, you must love Jesus more than anything. You must deny yourself, which often means continually repenting, turning away from sin, from the things that God has forbidden because they are destructive, and turning back to God’s ways. It means being willing to suffer for Jesus. It means being willing to move, to change jobs, to sell possessions—if that’s what he calls you to do.

Now, Jesus doesn’t always call us to do those drastic things. He did call some of his disciples to leave their professions as fishermen or as a tax collector (Luke 5:1–11, 27–28). But often, Jesus doesn’t call us to leave jobs or situations. Instead, he asks us to live as Christians within those circumstances (1 Cor. 7:17–24). Peter, one of the disciples, left his occupation of being a fisherman, but he was married and wasn’t required to leave his wife. But we must be willing to leave everything to follow Jesus if that’s what he leads us to do. Similarly, I doubt that any of us will die for our faith, but we must be willing to do so.

For most of us, being a Christian will mean being obedient to Jesus because we love him. It will mean a life of being committed to a local church, reading the Bible, praying, telling other people about Jesus, giving to the church and to the poor. If you’re married, it will either mean loving your wife as Christ loved the church or honoring your husband as you honor Christ (Eph. 5:22ff.). If you’re single, it will mean refraining from sex and living as if Christ is your ultimate spouse (see 1 Cor. 7). If you’re a parent, it will mean raising your children with discipline and teaching them about Jesus (Eph. 6:4). If you’re a child, it will mean honoring your parents and obeying them (Eph. 6:1–3). It will mean lots of things like working hard, keeping yourself from lust and coveting and all kinds of destructive behavior. If you aren’t committed to these ongoing acts of faith, you aren’t really a Christian. You’re not really salt, but worthless trace minerals that will be thrown out.

To be a Christian is not to be fan of Jesus, to like what he did, but to realize that he is our only hope, that he is our King, to live under his rule so that you can receive his blessings. Jesus says that we should “come after” him. That language is used in the Bible to describe either coming after God, walking with him, or going after false gods (Deut. 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 11:2; 14:8; 18:21; Jer. 11:10; 13:10; 16:11; Hos. 2:5, 13).[5] All of us will make something or someone the ultimate thing in life. Some people may make their careers their ultimate object of trust and worship. They will sacrifice things in order to have a career. That’s often what “great” people have done. That means their careers were their gods, their true king. Some people will make money or power their god. Others will make a relationship—a husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a child—their god. Others will make comfort, safety, entertainment their god. What we trust the most, what we focus on the most, what we love and obey the most is the object of our worship, our true God. Jesus says that we must “go after” him. He is the God-man, the only way to God the Father, the one who gives us God the Spirit. And only he can do that.

The question for us today is, Are we really going after Jesus? Are we truly following him? Or are we just paying lip-service to Jesus? Are we doing our token rituals, like coming to church on Sunday morning? Do we really love Jesus?

When thinking about all of this, I think of the beginning of the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and it’s hard to understand because it’s full of symbols and fantastical imagery. But there are some clearer parts of the book. Jesus tells the apostle John to send letters to seven representative churches, all located in the province of Asia Minor, which is part of what we now call Turkey. This is what Jesus says to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev. 2:2–5).

The church had abandoned its love for Jesus. It wasn’t doing the things that it used to do for Jesus. And Jesus says that if they don’t change their ways, he will remove that church. And that happens. Churches often lose their passion for Jesus. Worship becomes a ritual. People mumble the words of hymns and songs instead of making a joyful noise. People stop telling others about Jesus. Churches like that eventually die.

Now, I want to say something very clearly to this church: If we don’t truly love Jesus, if we don’t obey him in all that we do, if we don’t do things here with passion and excellence, and if we don’t evangelize, this local church could easily die. Frankly, I think that’s what was happening in this church for a long time. We need to consider whether we’re truly following Jesus.

I want to say something else, this time for people who may not yet be Christians. Jesus’ call to be willing to suffer, to renounce all that we have in this life, and even to die for his sake may sound cruel and abusive. It may sound sadistic, even. Why would anyone do that?

There are at least two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus doesn’t just call us to suffer and die. He also promises people that if they follow him, they will receive priceless treasures. I just quoted Revelation 2, in which Jesus chastise a church. Consider verse 7: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” What that means is that Jesus will give his followers eternal life. They will live in a paradise with him forever. One day, when Jesus returns, he will recreate the universe to be perfect. There won’t be suffering or pain, loneliness or depression, natural disasters or wars. There won’t be any death. Everything will be right. Christianity makes the bold claim that those who follow Jesus will live forever. But it also makes the bold claim that only followers of Jesus will live in that perfect world. All others who don’t follow Jesus will be condemned by God. It won’t be heaven on earth for them, but an eternity of separation from God, which we call hell.

The second reason why Jesus can demand that his followers be willing to suffer and die is because Jesus first suffered and died. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed. Yet he added a second nature, becoming a human being, more than two thousand years ago. He did that to live the life that you and I don’t live, a perfect life of loving God the Father and worshiping him, loving him and loving others. Only Jesus lived a sinless life. He did that so that all who follow him could be credited with that moral perfection. And Jesus became a man to die in place of men and women, to take the penalty that they deserve for their sin. But Jesus didn’t die for everyone. He died for those who would love, trust, and follow him. Only those who realize that he is the Son of God, who are willing to come under his rule, who trust that his works are the only way to be right with God, will live with him in that paradise. Only they will have their sins forgiven. Only they will be adopted into God’s family. Only they will receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who comes to dwell in Christians and give them the power to follow Jesus. Jesus suffered and died to save us, and all who are saved must be willing to follow Jesus, even if it means suffering and dying. It will cost us to follow Jesus, but salvation doesn’t cost us anything. It cost Jesus everything.

There’s another letter in Revelation, to a church in the city of Laodicea, which was known for its wealth. It was a center of banking. It was known for producing black wool and garments. It was also a center of medicine, known for a certain salve that was supposed to help eye diseases. This is what Jesus says to that church, in Revelation 3:15–22:

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The church apparently didn’t see their need for Jesus. They didn’t realize that, in reality, they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” They trusted in their money, their clothing industry, their ability to cure eyes. But the truth is that none of those things made them right with God. None of those things could grant them eternal life. Jesus says they had become useless. They were neither hot, like the hot springs in the city of Hierapolis, which was six miles to the north. Nor were they cold, like the cold water that came from the city of Colosse, ten miles to the east. They were a mixture that wasn’t good for anything. They were salt that lost its saltiness, and Jesus was going to spit them out if they didn’t repent. But if they turned to Jesus for salvation, they would sit on his throne with them. They would dine with him. They would be at peace.

That is true for us today. If we don’t realize our need for Jesus and live for him, we will be spit out, cast out, condemned. But if we turn to Jesus and follow him, we will live with him forever.

Before I conclude, I want to say this to Christians: There are many ways we can lose our saltiness. One is a lack of commitment. That is one of the great problems of our age. We don’t commit to much of anything, other than ourselves. If you’re committed to Christ, you will be committed to a local church. You will show up each week unless you’re really sick or out of town. You will join the church, coming under the authority of its leaders and ultimately the whole congregation. You will serve the church.

Another way to lose saltiness is through lack of love for Jesus and for others. Selfishness and a lack of care for God and others will cause us to be hypocrites.

Yet another way to lose saltiness is anti-intellectualism. We won’t use our minds to love God. We won’t read the Bible and think carefully of how it applies to all of life. We won’t train our minds to learn to think about how to share the gospel, or how to work Christianly, or how to do marriage Christianly, or raise our kids Christianly.

Another way to lose our saltiness is materialism, loving stuff more than Jesus. Or Hedonism, seeking pleasure in created things instead of finding our greatest pleasures in Christ. We are drowning in entertainment and trivial pursuits, which cause our saltiness to erode.

And there are so many other ways to lose a distinctive Christian character. What is the best way to remain “salty”? We must fix our eyes on Christ. This is what Paul commanded Christians to do, in Colossians 3:1–4:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

We must be reminded of the truth, about who Jesus is, our need for him, about how this life is fleeting, and that we are called to love God and to obey him. If we don’t fix our minds on these things, we will be useless. This reminds me of something that C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous book, Mere Christianity:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.[6]

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and you will get God and paradise, and your life will be great. If you don’t live for him, you won’t get God, paradise, or greatness.

Notes:

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See Gen. 29:30–31; Deut. 21:15–17; Judg. 14:16.
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1290.
  4. Ibid., 1292.
  5. Ibid., 1287.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 134.

 

Count the Cost (Luke 14:25-35)

What does it mean to be a Christian? Taking up your cross and following Jesus. What does it cost us to follow Jesus? Nothing and everything, depending on how you look at it. Find out what Jesus says about following him and the cost of discipleship by listening to this sermon on Luke 14:25-35, given by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.

One Thing Is Necessary

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

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

The One Who Is Great

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

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

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

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

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

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

We’ll begin by reading verses 46–48:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s read verses 51–56:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

The One Among You All Is the One Who Is Great (Luke 9:46-62)

Who is the greatest? That’s a question we often ask of athletes, artists, entertainers, and many others. The disciples asked that question, and Jesus gave an unexpected answer. Find out how to follow Jesus, who offers true greatness to his people.

Follow Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

Follow Me (Luke 9:18-27)

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is the heart of true Christianity. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 9:18-27, on February 3, 2019.

The Case for Reading: Why Christians Should Be Readers

I believe, along with Jesus, that Christians should use all their minds to love God (Matt. 22:37). One of the best ways of loving God with all our minds is to read. I believe that all Christians should be, on some level, readers. The following is my argument for why we should be readers. Of course, there’s a danger in trying to convince people who don’t normally read to read, because in order to do so, those people have to read this article. If you don’t read much, please take a few minutes to read this article. I’ll try to be clear and brief.

God Gave Us a Book

The first reason why we should read is that God gave us a book, or an anthology of 66 books. Of course, I’m talking about God’s written Word, the Bible. Think about this: God could have ordered and arranged history so that, instead of the Bible, we had a collection of pictures to look at, or a set of DVDs to watch. But God didn’t do that. He gave us a book. God chose to reveal himself in specific ways through the written word. Yes, the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). Yes, creation points to a powerful, eternal, divine Creator (Rom. 1:20). Yes, even our consciences testify to the existence of God (Rom. 2:14-15). But those things don’t give us many details about who God is, who we are, what our problem is, and how that problem can be solved. If we want to know anything specific about God and how to relate to him, we need to read the Bible.

The fact that God has chosen to reveal himself to us through his written Word, the Bible, gives us a hint that there’s something about the written word that is important. God could have revealed himself to us in a series of pictures, or in a number of videos, or even through his audible voice (he could speak an individualized message to us each day). So what is it that sets the written word apart from pictures, audio, and video?

Why the Written Word Is Special

The written word is more specific than pictures. Sure, God could communicate to us in a series of pictures that, when put together, present a story. But a series of pictures would leave too much to our interpretation. We would have to guess at the meaning. We need God’s message to be clearer, more specific, and more precise.

Then why didn’t God give us audio or video? Wouldn’t it be great to see video of Jesus performing miracles? Wouldn’t it be great to at least hear his voice on a CD or on an MP3 recording? Well, yes, these things would be great. But I think the written word is even better for the following reasons.

One, when we watch videos, we are passively engaged. It’s very easy to watch TV, movies, or clips on YouTube without thinking too much. Video doesn’t require us to think critically. We sit back and the images wash over us. The same can happen when we listen to recordings. But when we read, we are actively engaged. Unless we force our eyes to continue moving and our brains to continue thinking, we won’t continue to read. Also, reading forces us to use our critical thinking abilities as well as our imagination. In order to follow an author’s argument, we have to think. Concentrated thinking is what we need in this age of distraction.

Two, when we read, we must pay attention to everything the author writes. Have you ever tried listening to an audio book while driving a car? How often do you “space out” and not pay attention? Have you ever spaced out (or nodded off) during a sermon? If you’re like me, your attention may drift. I’ve listened to audio books while driving, walking the dog, or doing yard work. Sometimes, I focus well. At other times, my attention wanders. When I catch myself drifting, I could try to rewind and go back to the place when I last paid attention. But that is difficult to do. (If we’re listening to or watching something live, it’s impossible to do that.) Also, when listening to an audio book, or sermon, or lecture, I will hear something that forces me to stop and think. Perhaps the author/speaker says something that I haven’t heard before, or something that requires me to chew on for a bit in order to process the information. When I’m listening to a recording, it’s not always easy to pause. But when I read, if I am to continue, I must pay attention. Every once in a while, I may find myself thinking about something else while my eyes glaze over the words on a page in front of me. But I catch myself and I can easily go back and re-read what I had been reading inattentively. If I read something that I need to think deeply about, I can re-read that sentence or paragraph. Or I can stop and think for a while and then continue when I’m ready.

Three, when something is written down, it’s easier to refer back to it. The written world is also public information. (That’s why the written word is better than some private, audible voice from God. If only we heard that, how could we prove to others that God spoke to us?) We can easily quote the Bible by providing the book, chapter, and verse. We can quote other books by referring to page numbers. And when we see something written, we can read it again and again. Think about Paul’s letters to Timothy. In his second letter to his younger colleague, he writes, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). How could Timothy think over what Paul said if he didn’t have Paul’s words written down? Sure, we can think when we hear or see something. But the written word demands thought. Paul’s desire to continue learning and thinking is demonstrated in his command to Timothy in that same letter: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Whether Paul had Scripture or other writings in mind, we don’t know. But it seems clear that he wanted to read while he was in prison.

Four, reading helps us to have a deeper understanding of an issue. News stories on TV and radio only go so deep. Sound bites and memes only go so far. If we want to learn more, we’ll have to read. Reading is simply the best way to gather information.

We Read to Sharpen the Mind

Now that I’ve given us some reasons to see why the written word is different from, and superior to, video and audio, let’s think about why we should read.

Let’s go back to the idea of loving God with all our minds (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In order to love God and live for him, we need to learn how to think well. We need to discern what is true and what is false. We need to learn the content of the Bible, how to interpret that content, and how to apply it to every area of our lives. That requires learning and thinking. It is through the renewal of our minds that we are transformed (Rom. 12:2). That transformation won’t occur unless we learn how to think Christianly. And learning how to think as Christians probably won’t happen apart from reading.

We Read to Know God’s Word

The most important book we will read is the Bible. The Bible is a long book, and it takes a while to read. The Bible has 1189 chapters. According to one count, there are 757,058 words in the English Standard Version.[1] There are about 550 words on this page. That means that if the Bible were printed with the type-setting you see on this page, it would be 1,376 pages. If you want to read the Bible in one year, you have to read 3.26 chapters per day, or 3.77 pages per day. That’s certainly possible. But you won’t read the whole Bible if you don’t read on a regular basis. And if you don’t know the Bible, you are essentially gagging God. He has spoken in his Word. Are you listening? If you want to know God, read the whole Bible, and when you finish, read it again.

We Read to Know How to Read God’s Word

I’ve benefitted enormously from reading other books besides the Bible. Yes, these books are not inerrant and infallible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from others. After all, Jesus has given the church, among other people, “teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:11-14). I have read a number of books that have taught me how to read the Bible. Besides being long, the Bible is complicated and was written in different times and cultures than ours. That means we have a bit of homework to do to read the Bible well. If you want to read the Bible well, you probably need to read some other books, too.

We Read to Know How to Apply God’s Word

In addition to knowing God’s Word and how to read it, we need to know how to apply biblical principles to all of life. We can benefit from the writings of those who have thought long and hard about how the Bible applies to marriage, raising children, politics, finances, work, and a number of other issues. The core message of Christianity is so simple that a child can grasp it. Yet its implications are so extensive that it takes a lifetime to understand how it relates to all of life.[2]

We Read to Know More about God’s World

As I indicated above, God has revealed something of himself in his world. So, the more we know about God’s world, the more we can be amazed at how great God is. When we learn about science, such as the complexity of the laws of physics or the design of our bodies, we can be in awe of God’s creative powers. When we read about history, we can wonder at God’s providence. When we read biographies of creative and heroic people, we see the image of God reflected in their lives.

We Read to Develop Our Imaginations

Reading fiction is important, because it helps us understand human nature better. The best authors of fiction force us to reflect more deeply on real life. And fiction also helps us to imagine what the world could be. However, we must read good quality fiction. Quality Christian fiction should cause us to reflect on God’s world in powerful ways. We can also learn from non-Christian fiction, too. The doctrine of common grace shows us that even non-Christians have a grasp of truth. (That’s why Paul can quote two Greek poets in Acts 17:28.)

What if I’m Not a Good Reader?

I don’t expect us all to read an equal amount. Some of us are faster readers than others. Some of us are more interested in reading than others. But I still think everyone should read. Think about this: We should all take care of our bodies. God gave us our bodies. They are good gifts to be used for his glory. Paul indicates that exercise is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8). We all know we should eat a healthy diet and exercise. That doesn’t mean all of us will be nutritionists and athletes. But we should still try to eat healthy food and get some exercise, even if it’s just walking. If we take care of our bodies, we can use our bodies to work for God’s kingdom. In the same way, all of us can read a bit, even if we’re not academics or pastors or Bible teachers. We can all use our minds for the work of God’s kingdom.

Some of us are better listeners than readers. Some of us are too busy to read a lot. In that case, I would recommend listening to audio books. You can borrow audio books from your local library or buy them through various retailers. Christianaudio.com sells audio books and they offer a free book in a digital format each month. You can download the files to a computer and put them on CDs, your smart phone, or your MP3 player. Christianaudio.com also offers an app so your audio books can be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet.

My last word of encouragement: If you don’t actively read something that is good for your mind, you will be shaped and affected by something. And most of the messages and information that comes our way is not Christian and not true. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated.”[3] But not all the world is Christian. Therefore, we have to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) and learn how to discern truth from lies. The unread mind is an unarmed mind.

What Should I Read?

Not all books are worth reading, so choose wisely. Feel free to ask me for book recommendations. We have a list of recommended books on our website: https://wbcommunity.org/reading. WORLD, a Christian magazine, honors what they believe to be the best books of the year.[4] The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association has annual award winners, too.[5] You can also look at the titles in our library in the foyer. I plan to write more about the library in the very near future.

Notes

  1. “Bible Statistics,” True Paradigm, August 26, 2012, http://bethyada.blogspot.com/2012/08/bible-statistics.html.
  2. One of my favorite theologians, D. A. Carson, puts it this way: “This massive worldview touches everything, embraces everything. It can be simply put, for it has a center; it can be endlessly expounded and lived out, for in its scope it has no restrictive perimeter.” D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 387.
  3. “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 58.
  4. https://world.wng.org/2016/06/2016_books_of_the_year.
  5. http://christianbookexpo.com/christianbookawards/winners2016.php.