Shrewdness

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 14, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Several months ago, as I was scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I saw a meme that a friend of mine, someone I took a couple of seminary classes with, had posted. I’m sure many of us know what a “meme” is, but in case you don’t, a meme is something that is copied and shared. It’s often a picture with a quote or some caption that is funny or pointed. This meme said at the top of the picture: “A LIST OF THINGS THE CHURCH CAN LEARN FROM THE WORLD.” The picture was of a blank piece of paper. The point was that the church can learn nothing from the world. If you’re not familiar with the Bible and Christianese, the “world” is often used to describe the prevailing non-Christian culture, the culture that, as we see it, is opposed to God. So, the meme was saying that Christians can’t learn anything from non-Christians.

But that’s wrong. It’s wrong because even non-Christians know many true and valuable things. Your doctor doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn something from him or her about your health. Your mechanic doesn’t need to be a Christian for you to learn that something in your car needs fixing. We learn from non-Christian scholars, teachers, authors, friends, and neighbors. And the reason this is so is because of something we call “common grace,” that God gives gifts even to those who don’t seek him and love him.

But the other reason we know that the church can learn from the world is because Jesus says so. We’re going to see that today in a bit of an odd parable found in Luke 16. If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of the four Gospels found in the Bible. Each Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They’re theological biographies. And like different biographies written today, each Gospel has its own themes, its own particular perspectives on Jesus that are developed in unique ways. They all tell the same basic story, emphasizing different points. Of the four Gospels, Luke shares the most of Jesus’ parables, little stories that are designed to teach powerful truths. Luke also gives us a great deal of Jesus’ teaching son money. We’ll see all of that today in Luke 16:1–15.

So, without further ado, let’s look at Luke 16:1–9:

1 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.[1]

The story itself, from verses 1–7, is pretty clear, but I’ll explain it a bit. A wealthy man had entrusted his estate to a servant, a manager who was responsible for his business affairs. In fact, the servant could be a slave. Slavery existed in Israel and the Greco-Roman world, and while slavery is never a great thing, it was very different in that ancient world than it was in America prior to the Civil War. Slaves could have professions, they could own property, and they had the ability to earn or buy their freedom. At any rate, this steward or manager was the one who took care of another person’s wealth.

The wealthy man finds out that manager was wasting his possessions. Last week, we looked at Luke 15, which includes the famous parable of the prodigal son. The verb translated here as “wasted” is the same verb used to describe how the prodigal son “squandered” his inheritance (Luke 15:13). We’re not told how this manager wasted his master’s wealth, but we can assume it was done unethically in some manner. What’s important is that the manager is about to lose his possession. The wealthy man tells the manager to turn in the financial records of his estate.

The manager knows he’s in trouble. He claims that he is not strong enough to dig. Perhaps he’s older, or perhaps he’s been so accustomed to non-physical labor that he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. And, as opposed to the Temptations and the Rolling Stones, he is too proud to beg. So, how is he going to make money? How will he survive?

The manager then has a light-bulb moment. “Aha,” he thinks, “I know what I can do to get a new position. I’ll tell the people who owe my master that they owe him less, and that way, they’ll be grateful to me and they’ll take care of me. They’ll ‘receive me into their houses.’” So, he meets with the people who owe his master.

We’re told about two representative people who owed the master olive oil and wheat. The wealthy man probably loaned them money in exchange for future goods. The person who owed the master olive oil owed him one hundred baths, or approximately 900 gallons. That’s a lot of oil. In that economy, that could be about three years’ worth of wages. It’s a significant sum. The manager asks this person how much they owed the master. He already had the financial records, so he knew, but he wants to make sure the debtor knows what the manager is doing. So, he asks, and when told the amount, he says, “Let’s change the figure. Now you owe fifty measures,” which would have been about 450 gallons of oil, a fifty percent savings. He does something similar with the person who owed the master wheat. This person owed one hundred measures, or cors, of wheat. One cor was equivalent to 10–12 bushels. One hundred measures could have been worth anywhere between one to ten years’ worth of wages. Again, it’s a large sum. This time, the manager only knocks the debt down twenty percent.

It’s debated what this manager is actually doing. Is he cheating his master? If these people owed the master a certain sum and he’s cooking the books so that they pay the master less, he’s doing the master a disservice. Of course, he’s doing that to curry favor from these debtors. If that’s the case, he’s been very dishonest, robbing money from one rich man to get into the good graces of others. But some commentators think that perhaps he’s helping his master while also helping himself. Perhaps the people owed the master what they thought they owed, but the manager is trying to make the master look gracious, forgiving part of the loan. Others think that the master had loaned money to these debtors at interest, which was against Jewish law (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:35–37; Deut. 15:7–8, 23:19–20). In this case, the master had acted wrongly, and the servant was righting this wrong while also making himself look good. Finally, some other commentators believe that the manager had originally added a commission to what the debtors actually owed the master. The first debtor actually owed fifty measures of oil to the master, but he didn’t know that. The manager told him he owed one hundred, and he was planning to pocket the difference. Now, he erases his own commission so that he could have a financial security in the future.

It seems like the most likely scenario is that the manager is cheating the master, though that last option is possible. Perhaps he was adding to the figures of what people owed in order to make himself rich. Perhaps that’s part of why he was getting fired in the first place. At any rate, this manager is shrewd. He knows that if he doesn’t do something clever, he’s going to be out of luck in the future. So, he takes the opportunity to do something to secure himself a better future.

So, in verse 8, we’re told, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” This is another part of the parable that’s debated. Is the master the wealthy man of the parable? If so, and depending on what the manager was actually doing, he finds out about what has happened, and he commends the manager for his cleverness. But “the master” might refer to Jesus. The Greek word translated as “master” is usually translated as “Lord” and it usually refers to Jesus, the true Master and King. So, perhaps here Jesus is commending the manager of the story. In either event, Jesus does commend the manager, because he says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”

Now, if the manager was being dishonest, cheating the master out of the money he was owed, Jesus is not commending the man’s dishonesty. Jesus does not say that the ends justify the means, so do whatever you can to improve your life. The Bible does not teach us to be dishonest and underhanded in any kind of way. God does not want us to cheat and lie and steal to survive. There may be very exceptional cases in which telling a lie is better than telling the truth, like if you were living in Europe eighty years ago and Nazis come to your door to ask you if you’re harboring any Jews. But most of us won’t ever be in those situations. This manager wasn’t. So, Jesus is not commending the manager’s dishonesty. But he is commending his cleverness. The man was in trouble and he took the opportunity that he had to provide for his future.

Jesus says that “the sons of this world” are better at doing this thing than the “sons of light” are. As I said earlier, “the world” when used in the Bible often refers to humanity apart from God. The truth is that there is a great chasm that separates people from God. That’s how we all start out in life, as sons and daughters of the “world,” the fallen, sinful realm of humans who are rebels against God. Ever since the first humans walked the earth, people have rejected God. God made us to love him and live life on his terms, to have good lives full of responsibility and authority but also service to God. He made us to come under his authority, to obey him and his commands because he is good, because he designed life to function in a certain way, and he knows better than we do. Yet we don’t trust that God is good. We don’t seek after him. We don’t love him the way we should. We ignore him at best; at worst, we know what he wants of us and we knowingly disobey his commands. We don’t start out as children of God, children of the kingdom of light and life.

But there are people who become “sons [and daughters] of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5). God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only true Son, who has always existed with God the Father in the realm of light. He left that heavenly world of light to enter into a dark, fallen world. When the Son of God became a human being, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. And he alone lived a perfect life. He alone loved his heavenly Father as we should. He alone always worshiped God, always obeyed God, always loved other people. He wasn’t greedy, scheming, lying, selfish, or any of the other qualities that we often find in ourselves. And though he lived a perfect life, he was rejected, treated like the worst of criminals, and put to death. This wasn’t just because people are evil. Ultimately, it was God’s plan. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live so that all who come to him and trust him as God and King, as Savior, can be credited with that perfect life. When God looks at Christians, it’s as if he’s looking at Christ, regarding Jesus’ perfection instead of our mess. And Jesus came to die to bear God’s wrath. He came to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sins. If we come to trust Jesus, to put our faith in him and have a right relationship with him marked by love and obedience, then we have already had our rebellion against God forgiven. We’ve been transferred from a kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Col. 1:13–14).

Yet Jesus says that the children of light can learn from the children of the world. People who aren’t Christians often work harder to provide for themselves a decent future in this life. Non-Christians hustle. They use whatever opportunities they have, whatever gifts God has given to them, to secure a future that ultimately won’t last. I can think of lots of examples. There are all kinds of people who hustle online to make money. I just read a story about an 18-year-old young woman who already has eight million subscribers on YouTube. She has millions of followers on Instagram, she has a podcast that his hugely popular, and she’s making perhaps as much as two million dollars a year.[2] I watched parts of a couple of her YouTube videos and couldn’t figure out why she’s popular. But apparently people with little talent and a bit of personality can be millionaires online by hustling. She’s out there selling her product, working hard to build an audience.

We can think of many people who exploit whatever talent and resources they have to make money, so they can achieve fame and fortune in this life. And they often outwork us. I saw a video of Tom Brady running a 40 yard-dash this week. He’s never been fast, but the story was that he ran the 40 faster this year than he ran in 2000, when he was drafted by the Patriots. Not many 42 year-olds can outrun their 22-year-old selves, but Brady is still working hard, even after six Super Bowl rings. He’s working for fame and fortune that won’t last.

But what about Christians? What are we doing? We have a future that is eternal. Jesus promises us true, eternal riches. Jesus promises us the only notoriety that really matters, having a good name in God’s eyes. And yet Christians often don’t work hard. We aren’t as clever as non-Christians in leveraging what God has given to us to help the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us we should work for things that last. And we should use our financial resources to help build up God’s kingdom.

That’s why Jesus says, in verse 9, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” It’s a bit of an odd saying, for several reasons. Is Jesus telling us to buy friends? Why is wealth called “unrighteous”? Can we really use money to buy a home in “eternal dwellings,” in heaven?

Jesus isn’t saying that we can buy friends. But he is telling us to use our money wisely. The reason why wealth here is called “unrighteous” is not because money or possessions are inherently evil. The Bible does not say the money or wealth is a root of all evil. It actually says, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). When we put our trust in money, it’s wrong. We often trust money because we’re led to believe that money can provide us with security and comfort. That’s even reflected in the word translated as “wealth.” If you are familiar with the old King James Version, you might know the word “mammon.” This is an Aramaic word. It’s probably related to a Hebrew word that means “to trust.” In other words, what’s unrighteous is putting so much trust in money. Because money will fail us. Money can’t buy us everything. It can extend our lives a little bit, but it can’t buy off the Grim Reaper. Money can’t erase our sins. It can’t forgive us and bring us into the kingdom of light.

And it can’t really buy us friends. But—and this is really important—we can use our money, as well as our time, our energy, and whatever resources we have, to help others. We can use what God has given to us to care for other people, to help comfort them and to help ease their suffering. And if we really care about comforting others and helping them avoid suffering, if we really love them, and if we really love bringing glory to God, we will use whatever resources we have to tell people the good news about Jesus. We will tell them there is a way to be reconciled to God, to have forgiveness of all that we’ve done wrong, to be adopted into God’s family, and to live in God’s kingdom of love, light, and life forever.

There are many ways that we can help advance the gospel. Telling others personally is the best way. But we can use our money to support the church, to support missionaries, to buy Christian books and Bibles for friends, to support translation of the Bible into languages that don’t yet have a Bible translation. We can use our time to tell people about Jesus, to offer to read the Bible with them. We can use our online platforms to tell people about God and invite them to church. I have asked people to like and share the church’s Facebook posts and only a handful of us have ever done that. Are we really using what God has given us to advance the gospel? The world outhustles us. They are more clever at using every opportunity to sell a product, to turn the conversation to something that is infinitely of less value than the message of Christianity.

I’m reminded of another example of how the world uses every opportunity to advance their goals. Years ago, I used to watch more television than I do now. Usually, I tuned into late-night talk shows. I remember watching an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was interviewing Jim Belushi, the younger brother of John Belushi. John Belushi was the one who was on Saturday Night Live, the one who starred in the movies Animal House and The Blues Brothers. John Belushi also died at the age of 33, due to a drug overdose. Jim, John’s brother, appeared in several movies and, at the time of this interview, was on his own sitcom, According to Jim. At one point in the interview, Conan O’Brien asked Jim about his friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently became governor of California. Jim and Arnold appeared in a movie together called Red Heat. Jim said he learned a lot from Arnold, including marketing. Conan was curious about this. He learned marketing from Arnold Schwarzenegger? Jim said Arnold was great at marketing movies and he taught him how to turn every question into an opportunity to sell his movie. Arnold asked Jim what question he hated the most when he was being interviewed. Jim said interviewers would often ask him if he missed his brother John. So, Arnold says, “Ask me that question and I’ll show you how to answer.” So, Jim, acting as a reporter, says, “Do you miss your brother John?” And Arnold, acting as Jim, says, “Yes, of course I miss my brother . . . but not as much as he’s going to miss my new movie, Red Heat.”[3] We Christians could learn from the world how to turn our conversations into gospel conversations. Remember what the apostle Peter says about why God makes Christians his people: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Jesus’ point is that we should use what we have in this life to make sure that other people can join us in the next life. And we should use our money that way. The things that we pour our money into won’t last. Our houses, our clothes, our gadgets, the experiences that we get from vacations and going out to eat won’t last. It’s not wrong to have those things, but we should consider putting less into those things and more into supporting the church, supporting evangelism and discipleship and Bible translation and anything that helps people understand God better. If we do that, perhaps we’ll be greeted in heaven by people who will say, “Thank you for helping me get here.”

Jesus goes on to say that if we’re faithful with how we use even the little things that God has given to us, he will entrust more to us. And he warns us that our loyalties cannot be divided between our love of money and our love for God. Let’s read verses 10–13:

10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

We may wish that we would have more money, or a better job, or something else along those lines. But we should ask ourselves, “Am I faithfully using what God has already given to me to serve him?” If we’re not being faithful with a little, why would God give us more? If we’re not faithfully using whatever God has given to us, why would he give us eternal responsibilities in the new creation, in which we rule and reign with him forever? All that we have is a gift from God. Our talents, our abilities, and, yes, our money are entrusted to us by God. God has given us all of those things to manage for him. Are we going to waste these gifts or will we use them shrewdly?

What often keeps us from using our money for God’s glory is our love of money and the love of all that money gives us. Because we believe money will give us comfort, we spend it on entertainment and pleasures. Because we think money will bring us security, we surround ourselves with possessions and things we think will make us feel safer and more secure. Where we spend our money reveals where we have placed our treasure. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t treasure God and treasure our stuff. We can’t serve God and serve money. Which will you put your trust in?

When Jesus was teaching these things, he was still in front of not only his followers, but also the religious leaders of his day. When they heard what Jesus said, they didn’t follow his advice. Instead, they made fun of him because they loved money more than God. Take a look at verses 14 and 15:

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

I’ll probably read these verses again next time I preach. But I read them now because I want you to see how not to respond to Jesus’ message. It would be easy to dismiss what Jesus says here. It would be easy to say, “I’ll spend my money, my time, and my energy how I want, thank you very much.” But if we do that, we’re just showing what we truly love, what we truly trust and obey. The Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders, loved money more than God, so they rejected Jesus. The tried to justify themselves, to make themselves right, in the eyes of other people. They didn’t care what matters most, which is being right in God’s sight. They exalted themselves, and their pride and greed were an “abomination” in the sight of God.

The children of the world exalt themselves. And this is where they aren’t so clever. All the social media stars and so many of the rich and famous are trying to make themselves great. I suppose a few are Christians and use their platforms to honor God. But most are in it to make themselves great. And this is foolish. Their fame and money won’t endure. It will last for a short time, and it will then be gone. They will have to stand before God in judgment and given an account for their lives. And I’m sure God will ask why they didn’t use what he had given to them to honor him.

Today, I urge us all to think about eternity. Everything you have is from God. How will you use it for things that matter for eternity? How will you glorify God with your money? How will you help others know God with the way you use your money? How can you use what you have to make room for friends, for brothers and sisters, in the eternal dwellings?

Imagine what it will be like to go to heaven and to live in the new creation with God forever. We won’t just see Jesus face-to-face. We will also see a multitude of other children of light, people who have been redeemed. And if we are faithful with what God has given to us, imagine the reception we will have from others who might say something like this: “Thank you for giving to that church, who helped me come to know Jesus. Thank you for helping support missionaries. That missionary that your church supported told me about Jesus. Thank you for taking time to share the gospel with me. I know you thought I would never come to faith, but I did many years later. Thank you for giving to that ministry that translates the Bible; because you gave, I could finally read God’s word in my own language.” Friends, if you’re not a Christian, turn to Jesus now. Everything else will fail you. Christian friends, use your money and everything else you have so that others can know Jesus, too.

As Charles Studd wrote:

Only one life ’twill soon be past.
Only what’s done for Christ will last.[4]

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Taylor Lorenz, “Emma Chamberlain Is the Most Important YouTuber Today,” The Atlantic, July 3, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/07/emma-chamberlain-and-rise-relatable-influencer/593230.
  3. The interview can be seen here: https://youtu.be/BnLYwe_qZR8. I changed the wording of the dialogue to make the point clearer—and funnier.
  4. Studd’s poem can be found at http://cavaliersonly.com/poetry_by_christian_poets_of_the_past/only_one_life_twill_soon_be_past_-_poem_by_ct_studd.

 

Shrewdness (Luke 16:1-15)

Jesus says that Christians can learn something from the world: we can learn to be more shrewd with what God has given to us. We should use our money (and everything else) to honor God, to love others, and to point other people to Christ, so that they would enter his kingdom. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 16:1-15 on July 14, 2019.

The Harvest

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Imagine something with me. Imagine that someone tells you they have developed a new medicine that will cure every major medical problem. In fact, he says it’s the only way to cure some diseases. For the sake of this story, let’s say it requires a lot of commitment to take the appropriate dosage—you have to take several large, bad-tasting pills at specific times each day. Also, the medicine works slowly. You don’t see results immediately. But the promise is that it really works. And here’s good news: it’s free. You just have to commit to taking it. Suppose you’re in bad shape and desperate for a cure, or the person who has developed this medicine has proven himself to be trustworthy, so you take the medicine.

Over time, you start to feel better. You’re not 100 hundred percent sure if it’s the medicine working. Perhaps it’s a placebo effect. But you believe it’s working. Then, the person who makes the medicine says, “We have to get word about this drug to others. Go tell others about it.” There’s no money in this drug, because it’s free. Mass advertising won’t work. If big pharma hears that a wonder drug is being given away for free, they’ll try to shut this movement down. It’s not FDA-approved. The person who makes the drug explains that the best way to get the word out is to do this personally.

He says that if you go out and tell people about his life-saving cure, there will be people who trust that it will work, and they’ll take the medicine. And then they’ll tell other people, and so on. He says that though you’re not selling the medicine, people will be grateful and they’ll give you some money. At the least, they’ll feed you and, while you’re traveling, they’ll let you stay in their homes.

But he also promises that there will be opposition. Some people will think you’re a fool. They’ll want nothing to do with you. And the major drug companies will try to sue you, to get the government to arrest you. However, getting this drug to people who need it is worth the risk. And he promises that, in the end, you will succeed. You’ll have helped many people get healthier. And, when you reach retirement age, regardless of how many people took your offer, you will be financially secure. You’ll never have to worry about money again.

That may seem too good to be true. Or, it may seem too strange to be true. But Christianity says something similar. It says that God has something for us, a priceless gift that will fix all our major problems. Though it’s priceless, it really is a gift. It’s not for sale. But it requires commitment to take it. And since it’s so helpful and so valuable—the only way to truly fix what ails us—we must tell others about it. Some will trust us, but many—probably most—will reject us. Nevertheless, we’re promised that God will be with us, that no one can ultimately harm us, and that we should rejoice that we will live with God forever.

We’re going to see this in the passage that we’re studying today. We’ve been reading carefully through the Gospel of Luke, one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible. So far, we have seen that Jesus has taught about the kingdom of God and performed miracles. He also called twelve men to himself to learn from him, to witness who he is and what he has done. They are called disciples, students who follow him. Earlier, he had sent these twelve men out to tell other people about God’s kingdom—that the King has come, that people can be right with God if they would turn to the King and trust him, and that this leads to eternal life. Now, Jesus sends a larger group out to tell more people this good news.

We’re going to read Luke 10:1–24. We’ll start by reading the first twelve verses, which describe this mission and how people will respond to Jesus’ message.

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.[1]

Jesus sends a group of seventy-two out to gather “the harvest.” These people are to give a message of peace to those they meet. If people receive this message of peace, Jesus instructs them to heal the sick and to tell them that the kingdom of God—or the rule and reign of God—has come near them. But there will be people who want nothing to do with them. Jesus tells them not to waste their time with those people.

Our translation says there were seventy-two people sent out. There are some manuscripts that say seventy were sent out. (Some translations, like the KJV and NRSV, say “seventy.”) Does this number have any significance? Perhaps it does. In the Old Testament, in Genesis 10, we’re given a list of seventy nations that descended from Noah. The Hebrew Bible has seventy names, but when it was translated into Greek, the number became seventy-two. Perhaps the idea here is that this message that Jesus gives the disciples is meant to go out to the whole world. Earlier, Jesus had sent the twelve out (Luke 9:1–6). Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus told them to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel. If seventy-two or seventy represents the nations of the world, this larger group, while not going out to all the nations yet, foreshadows a day when the gospel, the good news of Jesus, will be sent to all peoples.

Jesus likens this mission to a harvest. It’s an idea found in both the Old and the New Testaments (Isa. 27:12; Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13; Matt. 9:37–38; John 4:31–38; Rev. 14:14–20). It’s a metaphor that says that there are people who are ready to be gathered into God’s kingdom, which, according to one author, can be defined as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] The Bible tells us that God is a perfect being who created the universe. He created us to know him, to love him, to worship him and reflect his greatness. We exist for God, not the other way around. But from the beginning, we have acted as if God doesn’t exist, or is there to serve our needs. We act like we’re the kings and queens of the universe. Therefore, there’s a broken relationship between God and humanity. That broken relationship is the reason why anything bad happens in the world: diseases, natural disasters, our seemingly natural ability to screw things up, and death itself.

But God sent Jesus into the world to reconcile people to himself, to bring them back into the fold. He is gathering people to himself, into his kingdom, the way a farmer gathers grain. And he does this through people, who bring a message that we can now have peace with God.

So, that’s what Jesus is doing here. Luke tells us that Jesus is Lord. Jesus tells his workers to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send more workers. That’s a subtle way of putting Jesus on the same level as God the Father, something we’ll see again later in this passage. It shows that this harvest will be gathered through prayer and through more people bringing this message of peace to more and more people. The answer to the prayer for more workers will come as more people hear good news from God and decide to work for him.

Jesus tells this larger group that the task won’t be easy. They’re being sent as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Matt. 10:16 says they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” because of the danger.) He also tells them to take no supplies: no moneybag (which was something that traveling philosophers used, because they sold their teaching), no knapsack, and no (extra?) pair of sandals. They should go with a sense of urgency, not pausing to chit-chat with others (cf. 2 Kgs. 4:29). They should trust that God will provide for them.

Jesus says that they should say “peace” to people. This isn’t a casual greeting. The idea is that God is offering peace, or wholeness, to others. People can be at peace with God, forgiven for doing wrong, for ignoring God and breaking his commandments. If people receive this message of peace, they will invite Jesus’ followers into their homes and feed them. The disciples should then heal their sick. Jesus has given them authority and power to perform miracles. In a sense, Jesus is telling them that there will be people who accept this offer of peace.

But he also says that if people don’t receive this peace, then the peace offered doesn’t go to them. And Jesus implies that the disciples shouldn’t heal those who reject this offer. Healing only comes to those who accept God’s offer of peace, who want to come under God’s rule and blessing and therefore become part of God’s kingdom. Those who reject the King will have no peace and no healing. If a town rejects the disciples, they should “shake the dust from their feet,” an act that says something like, “We’re done here, we don’t even want to take your town’s dust with us” (cf. Acts 13:51). The disciples should move on, warning the town that though they have rejected the King, his kingdom has still come. The King won’t disappear simply because certain people don’t want to hear about him.

Jesus then talks of “that day,” when the King comes to call all people to account for how they have lived, to sort people into two categories: those who have entered the kingdom and those who haven’t. This is judgment day. Jesus says it will be more bearable for the people of Sodom on that day than it will be for these people who have rejected Jesus’ messengers. This is shocking, since Sodom is known as a wicked city, one that wanted to rape two angels sent by God (Gen. 19:1–28; see also Isa. 13:19; Ezek. 16:48–50). The wicked people of Sodom won’t be judged as harshly as these people who reject Jesus’ messengers.

Jesus then gives a warning to a few cities. The idea is that these cities are without excuse. They will be judged harshly because they had experienced Jesus’ power and yet still rejected him. Let’s read verses 13–15:

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were towns in Galilee, Jesus’ home region. They had witnessed Jesus’ miracles. (Capernaum is mentioned specifically in Luke 4:23, 31–37; 7:1–10.) Jesus had shown them his identity, as the Son of God who also became a human being, who came to bring people into God’s kingdom. And they rejected Jesus. Jesus says that on the day of judgment, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon. These were two cities to the northwest, on the Mediterranean coast, cities in Gentile territory. (Sidon is actually one of the seventy-two nations mentioned in Genesis 10.) Tyre and Sidon were known for their pride and wickedness (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26–28). They’ll do better on judgment day than people who rejected Jesus. This would be shocking for Jewish people to hear, because they assumed they were superior to Gentiles.

Why are Jesus’ words so harsh? Look at verse 16: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Those who listen to Jesus’ messengers, who receive their words, are actually receiving Jesus. It’s not Jesus’ followers that they’re believing, but Jesus himself. Likewise, those who reject Jesus’ followers aren’t rejecting them; they’re rejecting Jesus. And Jesus says that those who reject him are rejecting the one who sent him. That is, they’re rejecting God. God’s message comes through Jesus and through people who talk about Jesus. If people are telling the truth about Jesus and their message is believed, taken to be true and trusted to be what people need, then that person has a relationship with God. If people reject that message, they’re not rejecting the messenger; they’re rejecting the one who is the subject of that message. They’re rejecting the one who wrote the message.[3]

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus has sent his followers out into a hostile word to offer peace to other people. There will be those who receive this message of peace, who welcome good news from the King. Others won’t. There will be “wolves” that are hostile to this message. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about them, but to shake the dust from their feet and move on. In the next paragraph, we see that the disciples come back from their mission. They have had some measure of success. They are full of joy. Jesus assures them of ultimate victory. Let’s read verses 17–20:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The seventy-two return with joy. They claim that even demons, evil spirits, are subject to them—that is, in Jesus’ name. That means that because of who Jesus is and the authority he gave his followers, even demons were subject to them. They probably drove out demons from people, something that Jesus himself did. This causes Jesus to say something stunning: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Some people believe this happened long before Jesus came to Earth. But in the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is pictured as being in heaven (Job 1–2; Zech. 3:1–5). Other places in the New Testament say he was thrown down from heaven at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave (John 12:31; Rev. 12:7–12). I think what Jesus is saying is that as demons are driven away by the work of his followers, he can already foresee the time when Satan is cast out of heaven. He is anticipating Satan’s defeat. Satan will be thrown down because Jesus, though killed by evil people under the influence of Satan, triumphed in his resurrection. And one day, when King Jesus comes back to Earth on “that day” of judgment, Satan will be cast out forever. Jesus knows Satan will lose.

His point is that neither Satan and his demons, nor anyone else, can ultimately harm his disciples. He has given them “authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” I think this is symbolic. I don’t think Jesus means we should go around stepping on poisonous snakes with our bare feet. Serpents and scorpions often represent evil in the Bible (Deut. 8:15; Ps. 91:13; Rev. 9:10, 19). The forces of evil can harm Jesus’ followers in the short-run. Some people who have been missionaries have been killed. But no one can harm Jesus’ followers in the long-run.

And Jesus tells his followers that they should rejoice, though perhaps not for the reasons they’re rejoicing. They might have let their success go to their heads: “Look at us, we did great things!” Jesus tells them not to rejoice in that. After all, some Christians won’t experience that kind of success in this life. He tells them to rejoice that their names are written in heaven. The Bible often talks about a book of life, or a list of names that are registered in the divine census. These are the names of people God chose to save, to reconcile to himself.[4] Jesus is saying that they should rejoice that they have been chosen to receive this message of good news. They should rejoice that they will live with God forever. The reward for a Christian life isn’t success in this world. The reward is being part of God’s kingdom forever, living under the rule and blessing of the King. That is what should bring us the greatest joy. No one can take that away from you if you know Jesus. If you have that gift, praise God that he chose to give it to you.

And this leads to the final words of Luke 10 that we’ll look at today. Jesus began his teaching with a word about prayer, and now we see that he prays to his Father, thanking him that he chose to reveal this message of salvation to the disciples. Let’s look at verses 21–24:

21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

Here, we see that God chooses to reveal himself to certain people. The Bible says that all of us know there’s a God because we live in the world he created (Rom. 1:18–20). But we have har hearts and darkened minds, so we tune out that truth. And creation’s general message that there is a God is not specific enough to tell us how to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God. God has given us his word, written down in the form of the Bible, which tells us a lot of specific information about him and what he expects of us. Anyone can read it. But not everyone will understand it and believe it to be true. Only those to whom God has chosen to reveal this message will receive it.

Jesus says that God the Father has given him all authority (John 3:35). He says that only God the Father truly knows who God the Son is. And only Jesus, the Son of God, truly knows who God the Father is. How can anyone else understand the Father and the Son? Jesus says that those to whom he chose to reveal this information will know. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that the Father has drawn people to the Son (John 6:44, 65; 17:2, 25). Here, he says that he has given understanding to people. What the Father does, the Son does. What the Son does, the Father does. They are not the same person, but they are the same God. They do everything in perfect unity.

God has not chosen the wisest, or the richest or the most powerful, to receive the gift of salvation. He has chosen “children,” or quite literally, “babies.” It’s true that people who are wise and rich and powerful do come to faith in Christ. But they don’t come to Jesus because they’re smart and powerful. They come because they know they need Jesus. They rely on him the way that a baby relies on a parent. If we realize our complete dependency on God, we’ll receive his message of salvation. If we think we can fix ourselves, we won’t.

Another point is that true knowledge of God only comes through Jesus. You can’t have a right relationship with God if you reject Jesus. That’s why Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23), and, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (John 15:23). I’ve been studying Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke, and he says, “No one can really understand the Father or what God is about without listening to the Son and his revelation.”[5]

Jesus says that his followers are blessed because God has given them eyes to see what they are seeing. Many in the past, both prophets and kings, looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, but they died before that day arrived. To know Jesus is a tremendous privilege. It’s a gift that comes from God. And if you have it, you are blessed.

Now that we have looked at this passage, what does it have to do with us? It may seem that some of this doesn’t relate to us. Are we really called to go out into the world and take part in this harvest?

I don’t think all of Jesus’ instructions here are normative. We’re not told in the New Testament that all of Jesus’ followers must travel, and that they must do so without supplies, in order to reach those who don’t know Jesus yet. But we’re all called to be ambassadors of Christ, witnesses who represent him, who tell other people the good news of how to be reconciled to God. Some people will be missionaries, traveling to foreign lands. Some people will be pastors and evangelists. But all are called to take part in God’s mission. Are you part of that mission?

I think that many people who call themselves Christians are not part of that mission in any way. And I think the reason we are not is because we don’t truly believe the gospel. If we believed that the only way to be made right with God was to trust Jesus, and that without that relationship, people were going to hell, we would do more to tell other people the good news. If you knew that by consuming a certain pill each day, people would be made well, you would tell them about it. Why don’t we tell people about Jesus? Why don’t we view this with a sense of urgency?

I suppose because we either don’t think it’s that important or we’re afraid of rejection. Perhaps it’s both. But if we don’t take it upon ourselves to tell others about Jesus, who will?

If we care about souls, if we care about God and his glory, we should want other people to know Jesus. We should view ourselves as part of God’s mission. We should pray that God would send more workers into the field. Pray that God would raise up more evangelists and pastors and missionaries. But we shouldn’t just pray. We need to act. The way that God raises up more workers is by using people like us to tell others about Jesus.

That’s one thing to keep in mind. Another thing is that when we tell others about Jesus, some will receive us and others will reject us. Jesus is quite clear about that. He acknowledges that people will be hostile. The world is full of “wolves.” But we need to keep in mind that when people reject our words, they are not rejecting us. They are rejecting Jesus. They are rejecting God. We’re just messengers. But some will receive our message, which means they are received by Jesus and by God.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us

Those words were written by Martin Luther about five hundred years ago.[6] Another point we should see is that though there is evil in the world, and though we may be persecuted because we dare to speak about Jesus, nothing can ultimately harm us. The worst that someone can do to us is cause us physical pain and kill us. But even that can’t separate us from God (Rom. 8:31–39). Jesus said that nothing would harm his disciples. He didn’t mean they couldn’t feel pain and die. Jesus felt pain, both emotional pain and physical pain. Jesus died. But pain and death were not the last word for him, and they are not the last word for his followers. We are never told to fear death or other people, or even Satan himself. We are told to fear God, who has the power to give us life or to condemn us (Luke 12:4–5). And if we are united to Jesus by faith, we will never face condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

That’s an important point related to our message about Jesus. We can warn people about God’s judgment, but we don’t condemn people. We can say certain things are right and wrong, but we don’t sit on God’s throne, judging others in that final, decisive way that he can. We simply tell people the truth and leave the results to God. And God is in control.

Jesus says that God is the one who chooses to reveal the truth to certain people. God opens up the eyes of the spiritually blind to help them to see. We don’t know who will receive the message. In faith and in obedience to Jesus, we tell others about him. From our perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that many people will believe. But God is in control. He has chosen certain people to believe. He will bring his word into their hearts and minds and use it to bring them to spiritual life. But we must cooperate with God. The fact that God will bring people to faith doesn’t mean we don’t have to act.

If we realize that we are blessed because we know Jesus, because our names are written in heaven, we will tell others. If you know who Jesus is, you have been given a priceless gift. If you have a Bible, you have been given something that people in other parts of the world wish that they could have. If you have faith in Jesus, you are blessed beyond measure. You are more blessed than the rich. Billionaires have a lot of money, but that doesn’t fix their biggest problems. And I’m not sure any of us would want to trade places with Bob Kraft this morning. But if you’re a Christian, you have been given the greatest treasure. Share it with others.

If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to do everything you can to learn about him, to put his teachings into practice, and to trust him. Jesus makes this harvest possible. In John’s Gospel, he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus died to give us eternal life. No one else can offer that to you. Receive Jesus and you receive all of God’s blessings.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. Jesus’ words in Luke 10:16 sound like things he says in John 13:20; 15:23.
  4. A list of passages that deal with this topic is quite long: Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1012.
  6. They come from his famous hymn, “A Might Fortress Is Our God.”

 

The Harvest (Luke 10:1-24)

Jesus sends his disciples out to tell the good news of the kingdom of God and to heal people. Though they will be met with opposition, some will receive their message and experience peace. Jesus promises that nothing will ultimately harm his followers and that they are blessed beyond measure. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 10:1-24 on February 24, 2019.

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).

 

They All Ate and Were Satisfied

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

What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?

What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?

How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?

There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.

There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.

I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.

We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.

So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:

1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.[1]

So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.

Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.

So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.

So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.

As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.

Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.

But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.

Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.

Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).

Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.

The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.

Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.

I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.

I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:

26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

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

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.

How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.

This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.

But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.

And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?

God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.

And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.

Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.

The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.

Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December.[2] As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.

Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:

Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.[3]

Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?

If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.

Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.

Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible.

  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222.

 

They All Ate and Were Satisfied (Luke 9:1-17)

Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible, and both Jesus and his followers faced (and still face) opposition. Yet the good news it that Jesus makes the impossible possible. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 9:1-17 on January 27, 2019.

Let Down Your Nets (Luke 5:1-11)

Who are you? What is your identity? If our identity is found in our jobs, feelings, desires, accomplishments, or relationships, then our identity won’t be stable and it can be crushed. But our identity can be found in one who never fails. Jesus takes sinful people, losers and failures, and turns them into his people. Find out why Jesus gives us great hope. Pastor Brian Watson preaches this message based on Luke 5:1-11.

Let Down Your Nets (Luke 5:1-11)

This sermon was preached on March 11, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Who do you think you are?

That’s an important question. I don’t mean, what are you? The question of what human beings are is an important one, to be sure. But I have something far more personal in mind. Who are you? What is your identity?

The question of identity is an important one. It concerns how we think of ourselves and how we think of others. Think about what happens when you meet someone new. You start to identify that person by categories. We think of what a person looks like, his or her gender and age and looks, how that person is dressed, how they speak and act, and so on. When we get to know people, we often ask, “What do you do?” We mean, “What do you do for work?” or, “What do you do for a living?” That’s another way of identifying someone. We may ask, “Where are you from?” That, too, is a way of placing that person in a certain category.

The question of identity has also come front-and-center in many important political and cultural debates. The term “identity politics” addresses the issue of how people’s identity affects their politics. As far as I can tell, this began as an attempt to organize minority voices, which isn’t a bad thing at all. If, say, people who have a certain skin color and/or ethnicity aren’t getting their voices heard in the public square, it’s good for them to band together and make their views known. But what has happened is that now we pigeonhole people according to gender, skin color, religion, and sexual orientation, among other things. Instead of evaluating people according “to the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it,[1] we assume that if people are white male Christians, they must think this way, or can’t possibly have anything to say to that issue. It seems that instead of getting less prejudiced, we’re getting more prejudiced, putting everyone into camps before we even know what each person is really like.

Today, many people identify themselves according to their desires, and this creates new classes of people. People who are transgender have a biological sex, yet they self-identify as having a different gender, the one usually associated with the opposite sex. So, a transgender man is a biological woman who feels that she is a man. People who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual identify themselves according to sexual desires. These identities are not rooted in biology, but only in desire. Imagine if you self-identified according to other dispositions, like pride, anger, lust, jealousy, and covetousness.

Our identities can also be based around our accomplishments or failures. We can find our self-worth in our jobs, our awards, our degrees, the amount of money we’ve made, or the way that people view us. Or, we can think of all the jobs we’ve lost, the awards we failed to earn, the degrees we never earned, the money we’ve lost, and the relationships we’ve lost.

What is your identity? Is it based on what you do for a living? Your political views? Your ethnicity? Your looks? Your desires? Your achievements? Your failures? When you think of yourself, what comes to mind? Who are you?

I ask this question because today we’re going to look at a passage of the Gospel of Luke that deals with identity. We’ve been studying this biography of Jesus for about three months, and we’ve seen that Jesus has recently begun his public ministry. He has preached a message of God’s kingdom and he has healed people. Now, he gathers some coworkers to himself. The story is rather simple: Jesus calls Simon Peter and a couple of associates to be his followers. They were fishermen, but Jesus gives them a new vocation: instead of catching fish, they will now catch people. (Don’t take that literally—I’ll explain what that means in a bit.) At the heart of this story is identity. Peter saw himself as a humble fisherman and, besides that, a sinful man. Yet Jesus summons Peter to take on a new identity. We might read this story as just a bit of religious history, but it’s much more than that. Jesus is still in the habit of calling sinful people to himself, giving them new identities and new roles to play.

So, with that in mind, let’s read Luke 5:1–11:

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.[2]

As I said, the story is fairly simple, but I’ll give us a few details to explain. Jesus is at the “lake of Gennesaret,” which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been gaining a following, so there were people there who wanted “to hear the word of God.” Jesus’ words are God’s words. The crowd must have left little room for Jesus to preach. We don’t know exactly where Jesus was, but it was possible that he was at a location south of Capernaum where there was a bay that formed a natural amphitheater. “Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.”[3] To get an appropriate place to speak to this crowd, Jesus gets in a fishing boat and has its owner, Simon Peter, sail out a little way from the shore. Jesus then preaches from the boat.

Again, Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was preaching. We’ll hear a lot more of Jesus’ preaching as we go through the gospel. Luke is more concerned with what happens next. After Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Simon to try to fish. Now, we’re told that Simon and the other fishermen were washing the nets. This was probably a trammel net, which created a vertical wall of three layers of netting that caught fish. Because of the complexity of the nets, they needed to be washed after use. (I suppose the nets trapped weeds as well as fish.) The fact that the fishermen were washing the nets meant they were done fishing.

Simon’s response to Jesus in verse 5 is a bit skeptical, but it also shows his faith. He says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” It’s as if he’s saying, “Jesus, why are you telling us to fish. We’ve been fishing for hours and haven’t caught a thing!” But Simon also says, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Simon’s experience tells him he won’t catch anything. It doesn’t seem likely at all. But he also trusts Jesus’ word. In chapter 4, we saw that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by his word (Luke 4:38–39), so Simon knows that Jesus’ word is powerful. He may not realize who Jesus is yet, but he knows Jesus is someone he should listen to.

So, Simon obeys Jesus, and when he does, he finds that Jesus was right. The nets catch so much fish that they start to break. In fact, the haul was so large that Simon has to call his partners, James and John, to bring their boat. And when the fish are divided between both boats, those boats start to sink. This is no ordinary catch. How did this happen? Well, Jesus is the God-man. It’s possible that either he commanded those fish to be there at that exact time, or he knew they would be swimming by at that time and could be caught if only the nets were in place. Either way, this is a display of Jesus’ power over nature.

When all the fish are in the boats, Simon doesn’t worry about the damage to the nets or the fact that the boats may sink. No, he doesn’t worry about that at all. Instead, he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why would Simon say something like that? Because he knows he’s in the presence of the divine. He may not realize that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but he knows that Jesus is no ordinary man, and that somehow Jesus is associated with God. His response may seem strange, but it’s perfectly natural, and fits a pattern that we see in the pages of the Bible. When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). He realized he and his fellow Israelites had spoken sinfully. When the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of God, he fell on his face (Ezek. 1:28). The same John in this passage, one of Jesus’ specially-commissioned followers, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. John reports, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

Why do these people respond this way? They realize who God is. They know God is perfect. God is pure. And when we see God’s holy, righteous, pure, perfection, we also see how very imperfect and impure and unrighteous we are. Who are we in comparison to God? If you were a fisherman, it would be intimidating to be in the presence of the world’s greatest fisherman. But how would you feel if you were in the presence of the one who created fish? But it’s more than that. Sin is a rebellion against God. And it’s more than just bad choices. It’s deliberately doing what is wrong. More than that, sin is a power that corrupts and contaminates us. It turns us away from God and turns us in upon ourselves, thinking that the world revolves around us. Only when we’re called out of that inward gaze, when we face the very foundation of reality, the Creator himself, do we see the horror of our own sin. If we don’t encounter God, we will never say, “I am a sinful man,” or, “I am a sinful woman.” We may, “Oh, I’ve made some mistakes,” but that’s different. Mistakes can be honest or unintentional. But sins are crimes, violations of a holy God’s will. And until we see God for who he truly is, we’ll never understand the depth of our sin.

And unless we know the depth of our sin, we’ll never truly understand the depths of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace. Think of the way Jesus deals with Simon. Jesus already knows that Simon is a sinful man. And he never says, “No, Simon, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jesus would agree with Simon’s self-assessment. But Jesus doesn’t condemn him. No, Jesus tells Simon and his partners, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” He actually says, quite literally, “from now you will be catching men alive.” This is a bit puzzling. Of course, it’s not meant to be taken literally. What Jesus means is that they had previously spent their lives catching fish. Of course, those fish would die and be sold for food. Jesus doesn’t mean they will hunt down people. What he means is that they will be gathering people for Jesus. They will go and tell others about Jesus, about who he is and the forgiveness that he offers sinful people. A couple of weeks from now, we’ll see Jesus respond to some Jewish religious leaders who question why he spends time with obviously sinful people. Jesus says, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

How do Simon and his partners respond? Earlier, Jesus had told them to let down their nets, and they let their nets drop into the water to catch more fish. Now, they let down their nets—not to catch more fish, but to leave their old lives of fishing behind. They drop everything and follow Jesus. They trust his word and they follow him.

The passage is rather simple, but it’s profound. On one hand, we can see this as simply a bit of history. Jesus starts to call twelve men to himself. These twelve will follow Jesus, learn from him, see the miracles he performed, and then witness his death and resurrection. He happened to call some fishermen to join him, he performed a miracle to show them something of his identity, and they followed him.

But this passage reveals a paradigm: Jesus deliberately calls humble, sinful people to follow him. And those who follow Jesus trust his word and they leave their old lives behind. They have new identities and a new role to play in life.

And this is great news. Earlier, I said that we all have identities. Often, people identify themselves by their group, their people, their tribe, as it were. Everyone is labeled, and we even label ourselves. These labels have to do with gender, age, skin color, ethnicity, where we grew up, our socioeconomic status. We put other people and even ourselves in neat little boxes. But that isn’t liberating. It’s suffocating. Why should those accidental properties define us? I can’t control the fact that I was born in 1976 to a white family, that I have blue eyes, that I’m 6’2”, that I have this set of genes, and so on. All those things are important parts of who I am, but why should they define me?

And why should our desires determine who we are? What if our desires are harmful? What if we desire things that are contrary to God’s design for our lives? Our feelings shouldn’t determine who we are. What if our feelings are eating us up? What if our feelings consist of anxiety and depression?

If we build our identity on past successes, what happens if we fail in the present, or in the future? What then? And what happens when we think of ourselves and all we think about are our failures? How can we get an identity that isn’t destroyed by all the ways we’ve made a mess of our lives?

The same could be said of relationships. If we build our primary identity on our status as husband or wife, what happens if our spouse leaves us or dies? If our primary identity is mother or father, what happens when our kids don’t turn out the way we hoped the would be, or what happens if, God forbid, they die?

What happens if we never had the family we wanted, the career we wanted, the life we wanted? How can we have an identity that is positive?

I want to press this home a little further. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a wise, older friend. I was telling him about some recent difficulties that I’ve had. And I even told him that I’ve had a difficult time, emotionally speaking, over the last two years. I said that there was a point when I wanted to get out of my life. I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to hit the reset button, to start all over again, to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I remember telling friends that I felt like the opposite of King Midas. You may remember the story of King Midas: everything he touched turned to gold. I felt like every good gift that God had given me I turned to garbage.

Well, my friend said something very interesting. He said that being stuck with ourselves forever is hell. What he meant was that if we are stuck with ourselves and are not redeemed, not saved, not transformed, then that is hell. To be unchanged and without hope, and to be stuck with our old identities, is a kind of hell.

Some of the most profound thoughts about personal identity have come from the great theologian Augustine. In his famous book, the Confessions, he talks about how he became a Christian. He first pursued a life of pleasure and non-Christian philosophies. Reflecting back on that time, he writes, “I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Where is there where I cannot pursue myself?”[4] Over sixteen hundred years before I had these thoughts, Augustine had them first. Human nature doesn’t change.

Don’t all of us wish we were different? Maybe we wish we had a different family, a different career, a different station in life, or even a different body. This is what all of us feel. I’ve felt it. Augustine felt it. I’m sure you have, too.

When Augustine became a Christian, he realized the depth of his sin. He confessed, “My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.”[5] We were made for God, to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him. But instead of treasuring the Creator, we treasure his creation. Instead of loving the Giver of all good gifts, we make idols of the gifts and ignore the Giver.

If this is the human condition, where can we go for help? Where can we find hope? How can we get new identities? How can we be changed?

The good news is that Jesus offers us new identities. He offers us transformation. He offers us change. And, in the end, he will bring about that change.

But first, we must realize that we have sinned. And we must own that fact.

Last week, I read a fascinating little book called The Riddle of Life. It was written by a Dutch missionary named Johan Bavinck over fifty years ago and it was recently translated into English. This book dares to ask the big questions of life, such as, “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” In the course of the book, Bavinck describes the nature of sin. He says, “In our hearts we carry a goodly number of passions, and we are loath to reveal these most intimate thoughts to others, because we are well aware that they are not at all what they should be.”[6] Deep down, we know we have thoughts and desires that we should be ashamed of. And we all know we have done things we shouldn’t have. In short, if we’re honest, we know we’re not right.

But there comes a choice. Do we admit that we’re not right, or do we talk ourselves into thinking that we’re okay, or we’re not as bad as those people over there?

The proper response to an encounter with God is to own our sin, not to shift the blame. Bavinck addresses this issue, too. He writes,

As much as possible, we want to blame our shortcomings on others and on institutions outside us. We continually want to rid ourselves of all blame, while the only route to real salvation is that we fully own up to our guilt, admit that the emptiness dwells in our own soul. To put it differently: we are inclined to explain our suffering in such a way that we are victims of hostile powers outside ourselves. Our victim-obsession deprives us of the real incentive to essential conversion. Thus the first thing we have to do is to recognize that we are totally on the wrong track, that our lives completely lack a goal, that we ourselves are entirely to blame, and that the fundamental fault lies first of all within ourselves. Only then have we arrived at the heart of the matter.[7]

That quote is so very relevant for our world today. We cannot blame our sin on others, on outside forces or institutions. Yes, we may have been wronged by others. But we have wronged others, too. And we have to admit that we’ve not loved God or wanted to live life on his terms. Bavinck writes, “The real reason for denying sin is our constant effort to wrestle free from God and to resist his will.” In order to come back to God, we must first admit this and seek his forgiveness.

To know God is to know you’re a sinner. To know you’re a sinner is the first step to knowing the Savior. Jesus knows your sin. As God, he knows everything. Yet he still came and died for everyone who would simply trust him, who would run to him for refuge, who would come to him to find a new identity.

Jesus knew that Simon was a sinful man. Simon knew he had failed in life. He even failed at fishing. But what does Jesus say? “Let down your nets.” “But Jesus, we’ve fished all night and haven’t caught anything!” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, get away from me, I’m a sinful man. You don’t know the things I’ve done.” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, I can’t be of any use to God. I’m such a loser.” “Let down your nets.”

Simon didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. But there’s one thing he had. He had confidence in Jesus’ words. So, at Jesus’ word, he tried fishing again. And he found that Jesus was right. And after he confessed his sin to Jesus, he let down his nets. He left behind his life of fishing and became an evangelist, catching people not to die, not to be sold and enslaved, but so that they would have eternal life, and new identities. In fact, Simon was given a new identity and even a new name. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus first meets Simon, he says, “‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42). Cephas and Peter both mean “rock.”[8] In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter says that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16–18). Simon went from a humble, sinful fisherman to being Peter, the rock, one of the first leaders of the church. He went from sinner to saint and son of God.

This wasn’t because Simon cleaned himself up and atoned for his own sins. Jesus can call sinful people to himself and tell them that they will catch men alive, because Jesus allowed himself to be caught and killed. Though Jesus is the perfect Son of God, the God-man, the only person who has never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and an enemy of the state. He was tortured and crucified, killed in a brutal way. This was because sinful people hated him, but it was also God’s plan. God made a way for sinners to have their sins punished when Jesus died on the cross. And God made a way for sinners to be clothed in Jesus’ righteous status, receiving credit for his perfect life. This is a gift. We call this grace.

You can have this, too, if you trust Jesus’ word. Do you trust that God can forgive you? Do you trust that you can be regarded as perfect, as clean, as sinless? God promised this in the new covenant, the terms for his relationship with his people: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Do you believe that is true? Do you believe that God can forgive you and cast aside all your failures? Do you believe that God is good enough that he would send his precious Son into the world to receive the penalty that you deserve? Do you believe that Jesus would lay down his own life to rescue yours?

The Bible also says that the world is still broken, marred by sin. But one day Jesus will return to settle all accounts. He will right all wrongs. His people will be raised from the dead and receive new bodies that can never die. Do you believe that could happen? Do you trust that it will?

You may think this is too good to be true. You may not understand it all. But you can still be like Peter and say, “I don’t think this can happen, but because you say so, Jesus, I’ll trust you. I’ll follow you.”

You may not have to change your job like Simon Peter did. Letting down your nets may be leaving behind some old, destructive habits. We need to put sins to death. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave our jobs or our families.[9] We’ll all have to leave some things behind. Some of us will have more dramatic conversions than others. But we all need to change and we all need to be willing to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us and whatever he tells us to do.

Now, if you are a Christian, I want to leave us with two quick thoughts. The first is that we have a tendency to forget that our real, primary identity is in Christ. We can look back at our failures, or we can look to other things to give our lives meaning and purpose. But being a Christian means being “in Christ.” Our old lives are gone, and our new life is found in Jesus. When I was feeling depressed, when I felt like I was being attacked by forces of evil, I had to remind myself of the gospel. We all have to do that.

The second thought has to do with evangelism. Why does Jesus call fishermen? I suppose it’s because fishing requires hard work and patience. Fishermen have to be willing to go out, work hard, and get little for their labors. There will be days when they don’t catch much. And I suppose that’s a lot like evangelism. All Christians should be witnesses to Jesus. All of us should tell others about who Jesus is and what he has done. We can tell others about how Jesus has changed us. This requires many attempts. Some attempts won’t produce fruit. But we should keep trying. We might think, “Jesus, I can’t believe that person would ever put their trust in you. Jesus, I’ve tried already. Jesus, that person is too far gone, too bad, too stubborn, too angry.” But, still, we have to be like Peter, “At your word, I’ll try again.”

The only true good news that the world has ever received is that Jesus is the true King, the righteous ruler who comes to rescue his people. He lived the perfect life that we don’t life. He died a death in place of his people so that their sins are punished. He offers new life, forgiveness of sins, and new identities to those who trust in him. He promises that one day he will fix all that is wrong. There is no better offer out there. Please, take Jesus’ offer. Let down your nets and follow him.

Notes

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream . . .” This speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. The text of the speech is available at https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 153. Edwards cites B. Crisler, “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (1976): 137.
  4. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 60.
  5. Ibid., 30.
  6. J. N. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, trans. Bert Hielema (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 66.
  7. Ibid., 81.
  8. Cephas is based on the Aramaic for rock and Peter is based on the Greek word for rock.
  9. See 1 Corinthians 7:17–24.

 

Who Is God?

The following presentation was given by Pastor Brian Watson to students involved with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bridgwater State University on October 4, 2016.

Who Is God?

I saw something interesting this past week. 25 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Among 18–29-year-olds, that number is 39 percent.[1] That means that about four out of ten people in your age range don’t claim any particular religion. Some people see that a dismaying figure. I see that as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to reintroduce people to who God is.

Here’s what I’m convinced of: despite all the churches in America, despite the billions of Bibles we have in this country, and despite all the God-talk in our society, we don’t really understand who God is. That’s because the vast majority of those Bibles collect dust. And a lot of churches don’t even bother much with the Bible these days. When they do, it’s not uncommon for churches to misinterpret the Bible. And despite all the references to God in America, most of it is vague. Our money says, “In God We Trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance mentions “one nation under God.” But who is that God? People talk vaguely about prayer or faith, but they usually don’t talk with any specificity. If we’re going to know who God is, we have to move past sound bites, clichés, and memes.

Tonight, I’m going to try to lay some groundwork for us to understand who God is. That’s really hard to do, because there is so much to say about God. Often, when people are talking about theology (which simply means “God words”), they focus on his attributes. That is, they talk about how God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy, righteous, wise, good, loving, and so forth. We could talk about God that way. Or we could look at a particular story in the Bible that shows something of God’s character. Both would be good places to start.

But tonight, I want to take a little bit of a different tactic.

To understand who God is, I want to compare the story that the Bible tells with two or three other stories about God. And I’ll say this up front: I think all stories outside of the Bible that concern God tend to reduce him to something less than he actually is. The word for this is reductionism. And the problem with all other God-stories is that they end up ignoring very real and important things that we all care about.

The Story of Atheism

So let’s start with one very prominent story. This is the story of atheism, which says there is no God. This worldview is sometimes called naturalism, which means that nothing supernatural exists. Sometimes it’s called materialistic naturalism, which means the only reality is matter. In this story, the universe is either eternal and has been continually expanding and contracting (each “Big Bang” is followed by a “Big Crunch”) or it somehow emerged out of nowhere. And everything in the universe has evolved with no overarching plan behind it. It isn’t designed; it only appears that way. It’s not the product of a superintelligence such as God. And everything in the universe, including us, is the result of a blind, unintelligent, purposeless process of evolution. In essence, we’re a cosmic accident. Our lives have no inherent meaning. We’re simply here right now. Many people who believe in this story say that we don’t even have free will. No, all our thoughts are simply the byproducts of chemical reactions in our brains. We don’t actually choose anything; it just appears as if we do so. And after we die, that’s it. There is no God and no afterlife.

That story reduces reality to one in which God doesn’t exist. And if we take God away, we end up taking away any objective meaning to life, any objective moral law, and any hope for an afterlife. Without God, there is no purpose to life. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist says: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of life, has no purpose in mind.”[2] If there is no creation of the universe for a certain purpose, there simply is no purpose. And, worse than that, there’s no justice in such a universe. This is what Dawkins says elsewhere:

In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[3]

I hope you see that such a view of reality is problematic. We are conscious, intelligent beings who act with purpose. How can we arise from an unconscious, unintelligent, and purposeless process? We long for justice, yet in a world without a moral law and a judge who will make sure that all crimes are paid for, there is none. We think that certain things are good and other things are evil, but according to Dawkins, that really isn’t the case.[4] There are many philosophical and scientific problems with this view.[5]

The Story of Pantheism

So, that’s one view of the world, where the only thing that exists is “not God.” Another view of the world is pantheism, where everything is God, or God is in everything. This is the view of the world that some eastern religions possess. It’s also the view held by New Age spirituality. In this view of reality, God is reduced to a spiritual force or energy. At its worst, it says that we are gods. I didn’t think that many people believe in this sort of thing, until I met a young man on an airplane earlier this year. He and I sat next to each other and he started a conversation that lasted nearly four hours. He asked me what I was reading, which was a book that dealt with God. We then talked about God, the meaning of life, and other things. He said he thought he was God. About a month ago, I met up with him again and had lunch. Again, he wondered if maybe he is God. I don’t think he was joking, either. He had been exposed to a long strange, New Age views.

People who hold this view think that they can create their own reality. They think that if they think something and really believe it will come true, it will happen.

There are a number of problems with this view. The most basic problem is that it doesn’t line up with reality. We can’t create reality. It exists. Period. We can work hard and do good things, of course, but there are limits to what we can do. And we’re not in control of life. Any one of us could die tonight in an accident. Any one of us who contract a disease and die at a young age. What is certain is that all of us will die. It’s foolish for finite, mortal creatures to believe they are God.

A Third Story

We’ve briefly considered the story in which everything is “not God” and also the story in which everything is God. Here’s a third story: there is a God who made the universe. God is not the universe and the universe is not God. God has always existed. He has no beginning and no end. The universe, however, came into existence at a certain point in time. It is a created thing. And the universe is sustained at every moment by God. He is the reason for why the universe is well-ordered. He is the reason for why there is beauty. He is the reason why there is an objective, transcendent moral law, one that we can discover but not one that we can create. He is the reason why we love and value relationships. He is the reason why we are intelligent beings who can make choices. He is the reason why we long for justice and why we long for a better world.

This is the story of God that is told in the Bible. But before I continue, I want to say this: our tendency is to think that God must be like us, or that God must always agree with us. In other words, our tendency is to make God in our image and likeness. But that’s not reality. The truth is that God has made us. We have no right to tell God how his universe should go. What we can do, however, is learn about God, have a relationship with him, and live according to his design. When we do that, we have meaning in our lives. We have peace. We can have real freedom. And we can have hope.

In order to know God, we need to let him speak. After all, I couldn’t really know any one of you just by looking at you. I could know some things about you by observing you or digging up information on you. But if I were to really know any of you, I would need for you to talk to me. You would need to reveal yourself to me. How much more is this true of God? After all, God is immaterial. He doesn’t have a body. He is the not the proper study of science. Science can’t observe or experiment on God. And even if it could, we would still need to have God speak to us to tell us what he’s really like. So, we must let God speak. And God speaks to us through his word, the Bible.

It may seem odd that God speaks to us through a book. Why doesn’t he just speak to us individually? Well, think about the advantages of a book. It’s objective. We can study it together. I didn’t make it up and neither did you. Now imagine if God spoke to us individually. What if we thought that God was telling us different things? Imagine that one of the men here said to one of the women here, “God told me that I should ask you out.” Now imagine the woman saying, “That’s funny, because God told me to reject you, because you’re creepy.” Who would be right? We need something objective, something outside of me and you, to tell us.

God Is “I AM”

I want to touch on just a few passages in the Bible to show what God is like. The first passage is from the book of Exodus. About four thousand years ago, God had spoken to a man named Abraham, and he promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants. Fast forward a few hundred years later and Israel had become a large nation. But there was a problem: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When they were oppressed, they cried out to God and God responded with a plan to rescue the Israelites. He did that through a man named Moses.

When God first appeared to Moses, he told him that he would send him to the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and say, “Let my people go.” Then Moses says, “Who am I that I should be able to do such a thing?” And God says, “I will be with you” (this is a paraphrase of Exod. 3:10–12).

Then Moses asks this question, which is followed by God’s response. I’ll read Exodus 3:13–15:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

I want to focus on what God says about his name. He says it is, “I am who I am.” What does that mean? This could be translated, “I cause to be because I cause to be.”[6] What God seems to be saying is, “I exist. Period. I don’t need any explanation. I have always existed. And I cause everything else to exist.” No one made God. He didn’t make himself. He has always existed. And he is the Creator of everything else. So, there’s God and there’s “not God.” Unlike the story of atheism, where everything is “not God,” and the story of pantheism, where everything is God, the story of the Bible says that there are two basic types of things that exist: God and everything else.[7] Those two things shouldn’t be confused.

In all of this, we see that God is personal. He is a God who speaks and who reveals himself. He is powerful. He is ultimately the Creator of everything else that exists. And he’s one of a kind. Only God exists without any other cause.

There’s No One Like Him

The reason I draw that out is because we need to know this if we’re going to know who God is. God created us in his image. That means that we reflect something of what he is like. In fact, God made us to reflect him and represent him in this world that he has made. But that doesn’t mean that God is entirely like us. The fact is, God is incomparable. There is simply no one like him (Isa. 40:18; 46:5). One of our major problems is to confuse God with something in creation. We end up making a false god who is like us or who is the way we think he should be.

Some of the clearest expressions of God’s incomparable nature come in another Old Testament book, the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus. His job was to call Israel back to God. Israel had been worshiping false gods, or idols. This is what is said of Israel right at the beginning of the book:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:2–3).

Israel, like all human beings, rebelled against God. They were worse than animals, because they forget their owner. And when they did, they started doing some very unjust things. This is what God says about the city of Jerusalem later in Isaiah 1:

21  How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
22  Your silver has become dross,
your best wine mixed with water.
23  Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (Isa. 1:21–23).

If you find that language a bit shocking, you should read the other prophetic books in the Bible. Generally, they say things like, “Stop your whoring, you whores!” They say that because worshiping idols is like cheating on God. The relationship between God and his people is often likened to a marriage. It’s a relationship that is supposed to be exclusive. And when you ignore God and live life on your terms, you’re being a whore.[8]

God cannot tolerate this situation. Later in the book of Isaiah, God makes it clear that he won’t share his praise with false gods. In Isaiah 42:8, he says,

I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

There simply is no other God. We were made to worship God, but we give our time, our attention, our money, and our emotions to other things instead of God. We fall short of God’s standard for right living.

God’s standard for righteousness is rather high. And that is because God himself is the standard of righteousness. The reason that certain things are right and certain things are wrong is because God is the measure of what is right, and what is contrary to God’s character and God’s commandments is wrong. We cry out for justice because we realize that a lot of things in this world are not the way that God had originally designed them to be. A lot of things in this world are out of step with God.

The “I Am” Is a Savior

Notice that in Isaiah, God uses the “I am” language often. For example, here’s Isaiah 43:11–13:

11  I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12  I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13  Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”

And a few verses later, God says,

“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins” (v. 25).[9]

Here, we see that there is only one God, but we also get a hint that he is a savior. He is the one who can reconcile us to himself. He is the one who can make all things right. We live in a broken world because from the beginning, human beings have rebelled against God. That’s when evil entered into the world. It is like a cancer that metastasizes, working its way through all the world and through our bodies and through our hearts and minds. But God promises to fix this broken world one day.

The story of Christianity is that God does that through Jesus. Jesus is God, yet he also becomes man without ceasing to be God. He entered into human history when Mary miraculously conceived him. But he has always existed as the Son of God. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He perfectly images God the Father and represents him. He always does what the Father wants. He is the ultimate human being.

God Is Triune

Now, at this point I’ve introduced something that may seem strange and mysterious. The God of the Bible is one God, yet he exists in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Trinity. How can one God be three Persons? It’s hard to understand this, and I don’t think we can understand it completely. That’s because there is no proper analogy for the Trinity. We can’t really compare God to something in creation. As I said, God is incomparable.

Even though it’s hard to understand the Trinity, here’s what is great about it: God has always existed as a community of Persons who love each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and they love the Spirit, and so on. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16) because God has always been both lover and beloved. If God were one God who has always existed as one Person—and that’s what Islam says about Allah—then before creating the universe and before creating human beings, he would have nothing and no one to love. That would mean that God has not always been love. But the God of the Bible has always been love, and that is why we long for love. That is why we want deep relationships. We are reflecting the image of God when we search for love.

Jesus Is “I Am”

Here’s one more thing specifically about Jesus. Jesus, too, is the “I am” God of the Bible. In the Gospel of John, which is one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus has seven “I am” statements. He is the bread of life (6:35, 48, 51), which means he sustains our lives in a way that literal bread cannot. He is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), revealing truth. He is the good shepherd (10:11, 14), who cares for his sheep. He is the resurrection and the life (11:25), because after he died on the cross, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion against God, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die. That’s the end of the story of the Bible, by the way. When God makes all things new, he will restore the world and all his people will become alive again in bodies that can never die. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), the only way to be reconciled to God, and the only hope for having life beyond this life.

Jesus even says challenging things like this: “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He means that unless you believe that he is God—and trust him, not just accept this as a fact—you will not have eternal life in a perfect world. Jesus makes it clear that he will evaluate everyone’s life. He is a savior, but he’s also a judge (John 5:25–29; 12:48).

Now, I realize that last bit may not sit well with a lot of you. The worst sin in the world, our culture tells us, is to be judgmental. Let me say this: first of all, everyone is judgmental. Look at social media. Look at the comments section of any article online or underneath just about every YouTube video. Think about all the times you have said, “He should do this,” or “She shouldn’t have done that.” Now, ask yourself, what would happen if you were judged by your own standards? How would you come out?

I think the reason we’re judgmental is because we are reflecting the image of God. He is the true Judge, and we are little judges. But our judgments tend to be off. They need to be corrected.

God Corrects Us

It seems like a lot of people want a God who won’t correct them. They want a God who says, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” That might make a nice pop song, but it’s not reality. Which one of you would bother to go to school here if every professor said, “You guys don’t need to learn anything. I won’t give you any exams, because you don’t have to prove anything to me. You’re amazing just the way you are.” If that’s how each class went, you wouldn’t spend four years of your time and thousands of dollars on tuition and fees.

And, honestly, any real relationship can’t work that way. Earlier, I said that the relationship between God and his people is like a marriage. If you honestly think your future spouse is never going to correct you, you don’t understand marriage. Just last night, my wife corrected me. She brought something to my attention that I need to work on. If my wife does that, how much more does God do that? My wife is an equal partner, another human being, but we’re not equal to God. So, if the human beings who love us correct us, the God who is love should correct us, too.

Now, there’s a lot more to say about God, but I think that is a start. God is the I am. He exists. Period. Without him, there would be nothing. He is the reason why we exist. I would encourage you to learn all you can about him.

Notes

  1. Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch, “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” a survey conducted by the Pubic Religion Research Institute, September 22, 2016, http://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PRRI-RNS-Unaffiliated-Report.pdf, accessed October 3, 2016.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: North, 1987), 5, quoted in Richard Weikart, The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life (Washington, D.C., Regnery, 2016), 68–69.
  3. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  4. Interestingly, Dawkins knows that there are evils, even if he is wrong about what is evil. Elsewhere, he writes, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 308). This shows that his worldview is false. Any worldview that excludes something that we know to be real is false. The person who must “cheat” on his own worldview by borrowing from another possesses a false worldview.
  5. There are many books that address the problems of any form of Darwinism. I can personally recommend Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2013); Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015); Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002).
  6. Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 121.
  7. This is called “Two-ism” by the theologian Peter Jones, who calls other worldviews “One-ism.” See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010).
  8. I realize this is shocking, and perhaps offensive, language. But it’s the language of the Bible: Jer. 2:20; 3:1–3, 6, 8, 9; Ezek. 16:15–17, 26, 28, 34, 41; 23:3, 5, 19, 30, 43; Hos. 1:2; 2:4–5; 3:3; 4:10–15; 5:3–4; 6:10; 9:1.
  9. The “I am” sayings in Isaiah include Isa. 41:4; 43:10–11, 13, 25; 44:6; 48:12.

 

Living Waters (John 4)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message about Jesus’ famous encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He shows that when we try to make anything other God our greatest desire, we will feel empty. Only Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit satisfy the soul.

And so We Came to Rome (Acts 28)

Pastor Brian Watson finished preaching through the book of Acts with a message based on Acts 28. He talked about Paul’s arrival in Rome and how Paul, though in chains, was free to preach the gospel. Learn about true freedom in this sermon.

True and Rational Words (Acts 25-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.

Let the Will of the Lord Be Done (Acts 21:1-23:11)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 21:1-23:11. This passage is about what happens to the apostle Paul when he returns to Jerusalem. He faces opposition from non-Christian Jews at the temple (much like Jesus had). We can learn from Paul how to follow Jesus no matter the cost.

Do Not Be Afraid, but Go on Speaking (Acts 18:1-23)

Pastor Brian preaches a message on Acts 18:1-23. The apostle Paul’s place, God’s promise, God’s provision, and Paul’s perseverance were vital to Paul’s task of telling others the good news about Jesus. These things (our place, God’s promises and provision, and our perseverance) are needed for evangelism today and they are important to our lives.

All the Doors Were Opened (Acts 16:16-40)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Acts 16:16-40 titled, “All the Doors Were Opened.” When God closes a door, he opens another. And when he opens a door, he closes another. Find out how God opened doors for the gospel to be proclaimed by Paul.

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What follows is a very brief defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want to read a longer version, which has much more detail, specific references, and citations, visit https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. [1] Also, you can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Additionally, Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This shows that he paid the sentence for our sins in full and walked out of the prison of the tomb a free man. His death paid the penalty for all the sins of those who are united to him by faith.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures the future resurrection of all Christians. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history, all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns.[2] Like Jesus, each Christian will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shows that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too. Fortunately, we have several lines of evidence that show that the resurrection is an historical event.

Miracles?

Before we consider the evidence, we should first address one major objection. Many people don’t believe Jesus’ resurrection is a real, historical event simply because they think such things are impossible. In other words, they don’t believe in miracles. Since I don’t have a great deal of space to defend the existence of miracles, I’ll make three relatively brief points.

One, some people think miracles never occur. But it would be nearly impossible to prove such a statement. Such a statement is not based on evidence, for two reasons. One, we have evidence for miracles. For thousands of years, in different times and in different places, different people have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3]

Two, in order to disprove the existence of miracles, scientists would have to have observed, measured, and accounted for every event in history.[4] To say that no dead person in all of history has ever come back to life, scientists would have to have information regarding every dead body in all of history. But scientists simply don’t have access to such information. To say that miracles are impossible is an assertion that needs to be proved. That statement (“miracles are impossible”) is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific conclusion.

Two, some people, such as the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), think that the low probability of miracles indicates that they are unlikely, if not impossible. Yet the probability of a resurrection is about the same as the probability of a universe arising out of nothing, which is what the Big Bang theory implies. The origin of life is also highly improbable. Just because something is improbable doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

Three, there are some events that are frankly impossible without an outside agent coming in to help. For example, I think it’s impossible for my son to bench press 225 pounds—unless I step in and help him lift that weight. Similarly, the origin of the universe and the origin of life are impossible—unless God does the work. So it goes with the resurrection. Usually, dead bodies stay dead. Everyone knows that. The earliest Christians knew that. That’s why they were so shocked when they saw Jesus alive again. Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is real and acts within the world he has made.

The Bible

The best witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the New Testament. This is not one witness to the resurrection, but many. After all, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven different books written by nine different authors, at different times, in different locations, and to different destinations. What is amazing is the fact that these many different witnesses proclaim a single, unified message regarding Jesus. It is important to note that these books were all written in the first century A.D., within seventy years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they were written by eyewitnesses or those who gathered information from eyewitnesses. The New Testament is the best-attested book (or collection of books, really) from ancient history, in the sense that we have much greater manuscript evidence for these writings than we have for any other ancient text.[5]

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).

The Gospels then report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62–66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13–30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36–40; John 20:19–20, 26–27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:12–14). Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9).

The apostle Paul was also a witness to the risen Jesus. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul testifies to the resurrection several times in his letters. In some of his letters, written roughly twenty to thirty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul seems to quote early creeds or hymns that date back to the earliest years of Christianity. These include Romans 1:3–4, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, and Philippians 2:5–11. The first two passages clearly speak of the resurrection, while in the third passage, the resurrection is implied.

Extra-Biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. He was the first bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.” This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is 95–97.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. 69–c. 155). In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “For whosoever . . . says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.” Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) mentions Jesus twice in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the fate of James, he states that this apostle is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but here he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

In another, longer passage in the Antiquities, Josephus states Jesus was a wise man known by his virtue, that he had followers, that he was condemned by Pilate to die, that his disciples reported that they had seen him alive after three days, and that they continued to follow him.

Another witness is Pliny the Younger (61–c. 112), who was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He observes that Christians worshiped Jesus as one who is divine.

There are other references to Jesus from Roman writers such as Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion.

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. Christianity grew quickly, spread to Rome, and changed the course of history.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (refusing to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if Jesus is God, the one who created the universe from nothing, no miracle is impossible for him.

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

One is the Jewish expectation of resurrection. Jews believed in a resurrection at the end of history (Daniel 12:2; John 11:24), not the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. The disciples didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected, though he had told them he would. It seems that several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16–17; Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–25). Since this resurrection was not anticipated, it is highly unlikely that anyone would make this story up. (Also, if the Gospels weren’t true, why would they report the disciples’ doubts and flaws?)

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they were sincere but rather thick-headed. They were also cowardly, fleeing when Jesus was arrested. Yet when we read Acts, we read of a group of bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. Only the resurrection (and the power of the Holy Spirit) could transform them in such a way. It should be added that these were not influential men; they didn’t have political power or riches.

Paul had a similar, though perhaps even more dramatic, transformation. He was changed from a persecutor of the Church to its greatest evangelist and missionary. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, also were converted from unbelievers to pillars of the church and writers of New Testament letters.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, yet several Christian worship practices are dramatically different from Jewish ones. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection. In fact, Christianity threatened Judaism and the Roman Empire. If someone invented this new faith, there would be no money or fame to gain. Instead, that person might very well be killed. The only reason someone would risk proclaiming the message of Jesus is if he believed it was true.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. The question is, will we believe it?

Notes

  1. Another online resource concerning the resurrection can be found here: https://credohouse.org/blog/evidence-for-the-resurrection-in-a-nutshell.
  2. It’s true that others, like Lazarus, were revivified: they were made alive, but they died again later.
  3. Craig S. Keener has written a large, two-volume work, much of which details miracle reports from different parts of the world. See Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For a more popular treatment, see Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014).
  4. “One cannot inductively prove a negative without examining every possible instance” (Ibid., 1:105).
  5. For more on why we can trust the New Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.

 

God Had Called Us to Preach the Gospel to Them (Acts 15:36-16:15)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Acts 15:36-16:15 titled, “God Has Called Us to Preach the Gospel to Them.” God sovereignly directs the apostle Paul’s mission. He directs our lives and the mission of the church today, too.