Woe to You! (Luke 11:37-54)

Jesus warns the religious leaders of his day about their hypocrisy, their failure to understand God’s word, and their lack of grace. This is a warning to us, too. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 11:37-54 on March 31, 2019.

The Kingdom of God Has Come upon You

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

As you can see, I now wear glasses. At the end of last year, it became clear to me how I wasn’t seeing things clearly. I had a hard time reading any text that was about ten or fifteen feet away. Kathy and I were away one weekend, and we visited a church that projects the lyrics of songs on screens, and I had a hard time reading the words. At first, I thought, “Why did they choose such a small font?” But then Kathy said she had no problem reading the words. Then I noticed while I was in a classroom that I had a hard time reading the names of my fellow students, which were printed in fairly large print, on cards where they were seated. So, I finally got an eye exam and I got glasses.

What I didn’t realize was that I was missing out on a lot of other details in the distance, like the branches of trees. I could see the trees, of course, but I couldn’t make out all the branches within the trees. The trees were a bit blurry. The past few weeks I’ve driven in and out of Boston, and I now can see all the definition of all the buildings in the city.

I used to have better eyesight, but over time, particularly the last couple of years, it has become worse. So, I was slowly able to recognize how my vision had become worse. But some people start out with bad eyesight. When I told a friend I had glasses, he said he is nearsighted, and he refused to get glasses for years. He thought that everyone had a hard time seeing things in the distance. If you start out with bad eyesight, you wouldn’t know what you’re missing until you get glasses or contacts. Then, you can see things as they really are.

In a similar way, we don’t start out life seeing reality clearly. I’m not talking about literal vision. I’m talking about perception. We don’t perceive all that there is to life. We certainly don’t understand life very well. What we need is a set of glasses, metaphorically speaking, that will enable us to see reality. And the Bible is that set of glasses. The Bible is God’s written word, which tells us what he is like, what the world is, who we are, what’s gone wrong with the world and us, and how things can be fixed. If we don’t see the world through the lens of the Bible, we won’t reality clearly. Of course, we’ll see important things; we’re not completely blind. But there are things that are real, and things that are really important, that we won’t see at all unless we view the world through a biblical worldview.

So, today, I want us to slip on a pair of biblical glasses to see four realities. We’re continuing in the Gospel of Luke, which we have been studying for some time now. And we’re going to read Luke 11:14–36 today. As we do that, we’re going to see four things. One, supernatural good and evil are real. There really is a God and there really is a devil and his demons. Two, we’ll see that Jesus is real and we’ll see something about his identity. Three, there is no spiritual neutrality. Four, there is no neutral response to Jesus, and we’ll see what it looks like to respond to him positively.

So, keep those four things in mind as I read today’s passage. The passage may seem like it’s drawing together some disjointed sayings. That’s probably because our Bible translations have the passage broken up into smaller sections. You can ignore those subheadings that the Bible editors put there. Those subheadings aren’t part of the original text, and while sometimes they can help, sometimes they just get in the way.

Let’s now read Luke 11:14–36:

14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

33 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. 35 Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36 If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”[1]

The first reality we see through the lens of the Bible is that there is a supernatural good, God, and there is supernatural (or preternatural) evil, Satan, who is called Beelzebul here. That name, Beelzebul, refers back to Baal-Zebub, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 1. He is called “the god of Ekron,” one of the Philistine cities (2 Kgs. 1:2–3, 6, 16). The name means “Lord of the flies.” You may not understand any of that if you’re not familiar with the Bible, but if you’re familiar with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you might recognize “Beelzebub.”[2] Beelzebul might mean “Lord of the dwelling place (or temple).” But what matters is it’s a reference to Satan, the devil.

And in this passage, we read about demons, or unclean spirits. Jesus casts a demon out of a man. The demon had caused the man to be mute, unable to speak. Jesus also tells a cautionary tale about unclean spirits. All of this might seem quite strange, because we don’t see demons, just as we don’t see God or the devil. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. We certainly see the effects of God and Satan.

This discussion about good and evil leads us to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which is the second reality the Bible allows us to see. The question of Jesus’ identity keeps coming up in Luke’s Gospel. The four Gospels of the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are biographies of Jesus. But they’re not really like modern biographies, which generally tell about every age of a person’s life. These biographies focus mostly on two or three years of Jesus’ life, and they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about one particular week of Jesus’ life, the week that ended with his death. Luke clearly wants his readers to know who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do during that period of time.

So, the question of Jesus’ identity is brought up once again. We see that Jesus is able to heal the man who was demon-oppressed. But some people, probably Jewish religious leaders, accused Jesus of doing the work of Satan. Jesus points out that this accusation makes no sense. Why would Satan drive out his own demons? Jesus says that every kingdom divided against itself falls—that’s true whether the kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Israel, or the kingdom of the devil. Jesus points out how illogical they are being.

Then, Jesus asks, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” He’s referring to other Jewish exorcists. He’s probably referring to his own disciples, who were given the authority to cast out demons (Luke 9:1; 10:17). They will judge Israel (Matt. 19:28). His point is that if all the other Jewish exorcists are casting out demons by the power of God, then so is he. Or, to put it the other way around, if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of Satan, then so are the other Jewish exorcists. You can’t have it both ways.

But Jesus says that he isn’t casting out demons by the power of Satan. Instead, what he’s doing is proof that the kingdom of God has come. He is driving out demons “by the finger of God.” That’s an interesting phrase. In Matthew’s Gospel, in a parallel passage, Jesus says he casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). So, the “finger of God” is an anthropomorphic way of referring to the Holy Spirit. But Luke uses the “finger of God” to refer back to something in Israel’s history. In the days of Moses, God delivered the Israelites out of slavery through miracles. Moses would perform some action with his staff, and miracles would happen. What’s interesting is that the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, had magicians who could also do miraculous works. They weren’t doing these things by the power of the Holy Spirit, but by some demonic force. (That, by the way, shows that everything that appears miraculous is not from God. That’s why we have to be careful about paying too much attention to miracles.) But there were times when Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t do what Moses did. And at one of those points, the magicians say, “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19). We’re also told that the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10).

What that means is that Jesus is doing the work of God. He is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles, signs that show that he is from God. And, just as the Holy Spirit wrote the Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit is revealing who Jesus is. He’s a man, but he’s not just a man. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that he is the Son of God. He is divine, eternal. As God, he has always existed. Over two thousand years ago, he added a human nature to himself, becoming a baby in a virgin’s womb. That miracle, too, was brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the “strong man” who can bind Satan, attacking him, overpowering him, stripping him of his armor, and dividing his spoils. Jesus came to drive back the devil, to wrest the world away from Satan’s hold, to put an end to evil. John, an apostle, said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

I’ll say more about how Jesus does that, and a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do, a bit later. But first I want to point out something interesting. It’s no surprise that the Bible says that Jesus could work wonders. We would expect that. Most of what we know about Jesus is found in the Bible, and the Bible presents Jesus as the God-man, the Savior, the Lord, and a miracle worker. But we do have some other information about Jesus outside of the Bible. The Roman sources about Jesus affirmed that he lived and was crucified by Pontius Pilate.[3] There are a couple of references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of writings by Jewish rabbis. The Talmud was put together a few hundred years after Jesus. It’s not the Bible, so we can’t view it as completely true and authoritative. But it does refer to Jesus as a worker of wonders. These statements were written by people who didn’t believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews. So, one claims that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray” (Sanhedrin 107b). Another says, “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy” (Sanhedrin 43a).[4] Those rabbis were wrong to say that Jesus led Israel astray. But what’s interesting is that everyone seems to acknowledge that Jesus worked miracles and that he was an exorcist. The only dispute is whether he came from God or Satan. The claim that he came from Satan simply doesn’t make sense. The way that Jesus lived and the things he taught could never come from the prince of demons.

Before we move on to the third reality we’ll see this morning, we should note two more things about Jesus’ identity. First, he claims to be greater than Jonah, one of Israel’s prophets. If you don’t know anything about Jonah other than a whale (or, as the Bible puts it, a great fish), then join us next Sunday at 9:15. We’re currently studying the book of Jonah. And Jesus claims to be greater than Solomon, one of Israel’s more famous kings, and a man known for his great wisdom. Second, Jesus implies that he is related to being enlightened. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the one who came to reveal our true condition, to lead us out of darkness, and into life. I’ll say more about these things in a moment.

The third reality we see is that there is no spiritual neutrality. That’s his point in the little parable found in verses 24–26. Jesus describes a situation in which an unclean spirit is cast out of a person. If that person doesn’t have the Holy Spirit filling the vacuum, the demon will return with seven more. I don’t think he’s saying that this is exactly how all exorcisms work. The point is that it’s not enough to simply cast out evil. One must be filled with the good. It’s not enough to avoid doing “bad things,” whatever you think those bad things are. If you aren’t turning to Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, you open yourself up to spiritual attacks from the enemy. And you will be guided by one spirit or another. Some people say they’re spiritual but not religious. I have no doubt about that. Everyone is spiritual; the only question is whether that spirit is the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. We will either be with God or against him. We will be on one side of the dividing line or another.

In a similar way, Jesus says that we will either be filled with darkness or light. We have to look to a light that is outside of us. And that implies that all of us start out filled with darkness. If we look to the light, our whole body will be full of light. But we can only do this if we have healthy eyes, eyes that can see the truth clearly. If we don’t have eyes to see, we will be full of darkness. Jesus urges us to come to the light, to look to it and trust it. What Jesus doesn’t say here is that he himself is the light. But he implies that he is the one that we have to look at, the one we must respond to.

And that brings me to the fourth reality we see here. Just as there is no neutral position spiritually speaking, there is no neutral response to him. He explicitly says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You are either with Jesus or against him. If you’re with him, you’re doing the work of gathering people into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[5] Jesus came to call people into that kingdom, and to show that he himself is King. And Jesus uses his followers to gather people, the way a farmer gathers a harvest (Luke 10:2). If you’re not working to know Jesus and to make him known, you’re working against him. You’re allowing people to be scattered, apart from God, and therefore apart from true life and hope. The key point is that you are either under the King’s rule, doing his work, or you’re not. There’s simply no fence-sitting when it comes to Jesus.

To be against Jesus, you don’t have to be hostile to Christianity. You don’t have to be an atheist. If you’re apathetic, not really interested in following Jesus, you’re against him. So many people are simply apathetic to Jesus. I see this every Easter. On Easter, which is four weeks away, we’ll probably have twice as many people here. And that’s good. I encourage you to invite people to come here, to join us in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for more people to hear about Jesus. But so many who come will be apathetic. They may enjoy the service to some extent, but they won’t pursue a relationship with Jesus. They won’t read the Bible, pray, and worship with other Christians. They likely won’t obey other commandments of Jesus, ones that are demanding. It’s heartbreaking, really.

What does a right response to Jesus look like? Jesus gives us a couple of examples. First, he refers to Jonah. There were people who wanted to see a sign from Jesus, as though Jesus hadn’t performed enough miracles already. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew that some people will never have enough proof to believe. They will demand proof after proof after proof and never put their trust in him. They want to be in control. So, Jesus says that no other sign will be given to them other than the sign of Jonah. In this case, he probably is referring to Jonah’s preaching. Jonah was sent to one of Israel’s enemies, Assyria, specifically to the city of Nineveh, in order to tell them God’s judgment would come upon them for their evil deeds. When Jonah relayed that message to the people of Nineveh, they repented. They responded positively to Jonah’s message. In a similar way, the Queen of the south, or the Queen of Sheba, came from a great distance to see Solomon. She heard his wisdom and was amazed. She had a positive response to Solomon. Jesus says these people will rise up on the day of judgment, and they will judge the unbelieving Jewish people standing in front of Jesus.

This would have been an amazing thing for these Jewish religious leaders to hear. These Gentiles had faith, and they would judge Jewish people, the supposed “chosen people of God.” God did choose the Israelites as his people. They were rescued by God, delivered out of slavery. They received his law and many of his blessings. But that doesn’t mean that all of them believed and had a right relationship with God. No one is born with a right relationship with God. We must respond to him positively. And we do that by responding positively to Jesus.

What do people who respond positively to Jesus do? Look at verses 27 and 28. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching, a woman interrupts Jesus by yelling, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” In other words, “Jesus, your mother is blessed to have you as a child.” She’s acknowledging that Jesus is great. But Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Mary is blessed.” And if ever there were a time when Jesus would say something about Mary being sinless, which is what Catholics believe, he would have said it here. But he doesn’t say that. What he says is, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” What does it look like to trust Jesus? You believe that he speaks the words of God, and you do what he tells you to do.

Now, this does not mean that we earn a right standing with God. The Bible’s message is that we cannot do that, because our obedience is always imperfect, mixed not only with moments of disobedience, but also bad motives. We can only receive a right relationship with God by trusting in Jesus, trusting that he alone has fulfilled all of God’s righteous demands and that he died on the cross by bearing the penalty for our sin. But if we truly trust Jesus in that way, we’ll obey him. Those who receive God’s blessings also come under his rule. You can’t be a Christian and ignore what Jesus says. In that case, you’re not looking to the light. Instead, you’re remaining in darkness.

Jesus came to save his people, and to destroy the works of the devil. But he hasn’t fully destroyed those works yet. Satan is still active, and we obviously experience evil all around us and even within us. Jesus will come again, sometime in the future, and he will completely defeat Satan. The strong man will not only bind the devil, but he will destroy him. But Jesus came the first time to remove Satan’s grip on us. And he did that not by acting as a strong man. Instead, he let himself be bound. Though he was perfectly righteous, completely sinless, people didn’t believe him. They hated him. They didn’t like what he said, and they were threatened by what he was doing. So, they bound him and killed him under false charges. But this was ultimately God’s plan. Jesus allowed this to happen, because he knew that that he had to suffer the punishment that we deserve. Jesus died on the cross, and when he did that, he endured not just physical pain and death, but spiritual pain and death. He endured God’s wrath. The light of the world was submerged into the greatest darkness in order to bring us into the light. And Jesus then rose from the grave to show that he satisfied God’s demands, that he has power of sin and death, and that all who come to him will be raised from the dead when he comes again in glory.

So, what do we do with this information? We’ve slipped on our biblical glasses and seen some things that we couldn’t otherwise see. So what?

We should consider these four realities. God is real. And so is Satan. Furthermore, so is Jesus. And there is no neutral spiritual ground. We will either be with Jesus or against him. So, which side are we on?

I realize that many people find the idea of no neutrality off-putting, to say the least. Some people think that whole “we’re either with Jesus or against him” business to be very narrow-minded. They would probably say, “That’s far too black and white. The real world is full of grays.” I do believe that reality is often quite complex, and there are many situations where things are not so black and white. But just because there’s a lot of gray doesn’t mean there is no black and white. Many truths are precise and even narrow. Two plus two is four, not three or five or any number. All species of living things are either human beings or not. There are times when we can very neatly say that people are in this group or that. For example, you’re either an American citizen, or you’re not.

As I was thinking about this, I thought of the following image. We all know about the Titanic. I’m sure a lot of us saw the movie of the same name that came out in the late ’90s. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler: A large ship hits an iceberg, the ship is destroyed, and a lot of people die. There were some lifeboats, and people who got on those lifeboats lived. But those who didn’t died. Even those who had lifejackets didn’t survive, because they were in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic. So, you were either on a boat or you were dead. There was no neutral ground, no third place.

And that is a good way of imagining what the Bible tells us. God made a good world, which we might liken to a luxury liner. Things were fine on board. But then a disaster happened. The ship struck the iceberg of sin. Like an iceberg, sin might not seem so dangerous on the surface. But sin is deep and dangerous. It is a failure to love, trust, worship, and obey God the way that we should. And when the first human beings sinned, the luxury liner that God created was ruined. It’s been sinking ever since. And everyone who has ever lived is either plunging to their death or they’re getting on the lifeboat. That lifeboat is God himself, and now that Jesus has been revealed, it is Jesus. He is the only place to find refuge.

If someone rescued you from frigid waters, in which you would surely die, and put you on their boat, you would listen to them. If a captain of a ship found you drowning and he pulled you on to his ship, you probably would be grateful and while you’re on his ship, you would abide by his rules. The same is true of Jesus. If we have truly come to know him, if we’ve been pulled onto his ship, not by our own efforts, but by his, then we will be thankful, and we will listen to our captain and do what he says.

But there are many others who aren’t on that lifeboat yet. They’re on the ship that’s sinking and think everything is fine. They think, “Oh, the ship has some trouble, but we’ll find a way to patch it up someday.” Some people are in the water, thinking that they can save themselves because they’re strong swimmers. Those who think there’s nothing to be saved from will be lost. Those who think they can save themselves will be lost. But those who fix their eyes on the light, who trust that Jesus is their only hope, find salvation, and their lives are changed forever.

If you haven’t looked to the light, if you haven’t gotten on board the only lifeboat there is, then I urge you to do so now. If you’re already on board, listen to your captain. Abide by his rules. Don’t just be hearers of the word, but also be doers. And if you’re on board, look around. There are many people who are drowning. They are scattered in dangerous waters. Will you gather them? Will you try to rescue them? Do you realize they are truly lost? A nice person who doesn’t know Jesus is a drowning person who cannot save herself. Not one of us can save ourselves through our own efforts. The only hope is Jesus.

To use a different metaphor, God’s kingdom has come, and Jesus is the gate, the door, to that kingdom. He’s the only way in. Let us make sure we are in that kingdom and that we obey the King. And let us bring others along with us, urging them to find shelter in a kingdom of love, light, and life.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. That’s a reference to the song by the band Queen. The line from the song, “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me,” doesn’t quite back sense, unless we think of “devil” as a demon.
  3. For more information on sources about Jesus, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  4. Quoted in Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 214.
  5. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

 

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

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

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever wanted what someone else has? Of course, you have. At some point in our lives, all of us have probably wanted someone else’s money, house, car, or job, or perhaps their popularity or celebrity. But I’m not thinking of those kinds of things. I’m thinking more about abilities or personalities. Have you ever seen someone do something so well that you thought, “I wish I could do that”? Have you ever met someone who has a certain personality trait and you thought, “I wish I was more like that”? Perhaps the ability is something practical like the ability to cook well, or to fix a car. Perhaps the character trait is something like kindness, or perhaps you wish you were funnier or more intelligent.

A lot of times, when we want something that someone else has, it’s a sin. It’s envy. Or, we might call it coveting. But there are times when we see someone able to do something, and we think, “I want to learn how to that.” That’s not coveting; it’s emulating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on our motivation. It’s not wrong to see someone who is able to cook a great meal or fix their own car and think, “I would like to learn how to do what they do.” It’s not bad to see someone who acts calmly under pressure, or who treats everyone with grace and kindness and think, “I want to learn to be more like them.”

So, let’s say you know someone who has an ability or a characteristic that you desire to have. What would you do? Perhaps you would try to copy them. But, if you really know that person well, you might simply ask, “Could you teach me how to do that?” Or, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you always act this way, and I really admire that. What’s your secret?”

I imagine that Jesus’ followers had a similar experience. They were around Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, and they saw how unique he was. He was an incredible teacher. He possessed great power—he could miraculously heal and feed people. He was able to handle stress and pressure without breaking. He never got his feathers ruffled. He was able to answer difficult questions in the most brilliant ways. He was the most spiritually mature person they ever met. He had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was selfless yet self-assured, tender yet tough, humble yet confident. There simply was no one like him.

And Jesus’ disciples must have realized that Jesus often prayed. It’s something that Luke in his Gospel brings up again and again. Jesus prayed when he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him (Luke 3:21–22). He prayed alone and then people sought after him. The result was that he taught in many synagogues (Luke 4:42–44). Jesus prayed before healing a paralyzed man (Luke 5:16ff.). He prayed before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He was praying right before Peter confessed that he is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:18–20). Jesus went with three of his disciples to pray when he was transfigured, appearing in all his glory (Luke 9:28–29). He urged his disciples to pray that more people would do the work of God and then he prayed to God with joy when his disciples returned successfully from their mission (Luke 10:2, 21–22).

So, prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life, and he often prayed at critical times. I’m sure his disciples noticed that when Jesus prayed, big things happened. Perhaps they connected his power and his abilities to his prayer life. It’s only natural for them to observe Jesus and say, “Hey, how do you do that? What’s your secret?”

And that’s what we see today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus. We’re now in chapter 11 of Luke. We’ll see what Jesus has to say about prayer.

First, let’s read verses 1–4:

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”[1]

Once again, Jesus was praying, and when he was done, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his own disciples. We don’t have any record of John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray, but we know he had disciples, and he must have taught them something about that. At any rate, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer.

What follows is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not an accurate description of the prayer, because it sounds like it’s the prayer that Jesus often prayed. But Jesus wouldn’t need to pray that God would forgive his sins—he never sinned. A better title might be “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because it’s meant to be used by the disciples. But since the old title is so common, I’ll use that.

If you’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that what appears in Luke is a bit shorter than the traditional version you’re used to. It’s shorter than the version found in Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presented it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he’s teaching it privately to his disciples. Jesus must have taught the same things in slightly different ways over the course of his ministry. And the differences show us that the prayer is meant to be used as a framework, a skeleton that we fill out with the body of our own words, our own particular petitions. I don’t think Jesus intended for this prayer to be repeated word for word, without thinking, as if it’s some kind of mantra.

Before we look at some of the things Jesus teaches his followers to pray for, I want to note a couple features of the prayer. The first is that it’s a communal prayer. It’s not an individual prayer. The prayer mentions “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” This teaches us that we should pray together. Of course, we can and should pray alone. But praying together is important. We do that as a church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. If you’re coming to those meetings, I would encourage you to do so.

The prayer begins “Father . . .” That’s another important feature of the prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to address God as Father. That’s one of the stunning things about Jesus’ teachings. There were times in the Old Testament when Israelites were referred to as God’s children or son (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). And there were times in the Old Testament when God was referred to as Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8). But those times were relatively few. According to David Garland, “The term ‘Father’ for God appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, while it appears 255 times in the New Testament.”[2] That’s significant given the fact that the Old Testament is about four times as long as the New Testament. What that means is that Jesus taught his followers to know God intimately as their Father. We can come to God as his beloved children and know him as a loving Father. God is not some distant, terrifying being—at least not to those who put their faith in his Son, Jesus.

But because God is Father and can be known intimately doesn’t mean he’s not the transcendent Creator. So, Jesus teaches his followers to ask that God’s name be “hallowed,” or sanctified. God’s name is his identity, and it refers to his reputation. God himself can’t be made more holy, righteous, powerful, or perfect. God cannot improve. He already is perfect. But the prayer asks that God would make himself known for who he is. It asks that people would see that he is holy, that he is great. When we ask that God would be glorified, we’re asking that we and other people would see how great God is.

There’s a point in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, when God tells the sinful nation of Israel, which has gone into exile because of their idolatry, that he will act to vindicate his reputation. This is what Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

Because of the way Israel acted, they brought God’s shame upon his reputation. They acted as if he was less valuable than their false gods. If they had seen how great God was, they would have lived differently. And they would have let the nations around them know how great their God was. When we live as if God is the greatest being there is, then we make his name “hallowed.”

In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. God has always been King, so there’s a sense in which his kingdom has always been present. To use, once again, a definition that we recently learned, God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[3] But since Jesus would have us pray for God’s kingdom to come, it means that it has not come in its fullest yet. Israel often lived as if God were not their King. And today there are many people who live as if God is not King. When Jesus came the first time, he came to establish God’s kingdom. He is the King of kings, and all who turn to him enter into God’s kingdom. They are his people and he is their God. To pray that God’s kingdom would come is to pray that everyone on Earth would bow the knee and worship God and live as if he were their ruler. God is a loving Father, but he’s also a King who must be obeyed. One day, when Jesus returns, the whole world will become God’s kingdom. On that day, it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their daily needs. We are to pray for our “daily bread.” In the ancient world, having enough food to eat each day was no small thing, and it was no guarantee. They couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy that week’s food. Bread needed to be baked on a regular basis. But the prayer isn’t just for bread. It’s a request that God give us what we need each and every day. This implies that this prayer should be prayed daily. We should ask God to glorify himself, for people to enter into God’s kingdom, for Jesus to return, for God to give us everything we need, for God to forgive us our sins, and to protect us—all on a regular basis.

And that leads us to the next petition: forgiveness of sins. Again, this is why this isn’t the prayer that Jesus prayed for himself. Jesus needed no forgiveness because he never sinned. But forgiveness from God is exactly what we need. Luke compares this to being in debt. We owe God love, worship, and obedience. And the fact is that all of us have not loved, worshiped, treasured, and obeyed God—not all the time, and not perfectly. The fact that the first humans sinned means led to a terrible reality: we are separated from God, and God put the world under a partial penalty, or a curse. Instead of living in a garden paradise, we live in a world that is fallen. It’s still beautiful, but it has cracks in it. We can still experience goodness and love, but not perfectly. There is harmony, but there are often discordant notes that interrupt our peace. We’re not at peace with God, not at peace with each other, not at peace with our environment, and we’re not even at peace with ourselves. The only way to be restored to God and to have hope of living in a paradise once again is to seek forgiveness from God.

Forgiveness always comes at a cost. To borrow an illustration from Tim Keller, if you were to damage my property, you would enter into my debt.[4] You would owe me, at the least, the price of repair or replacement of my property. And if I am to forgive you of that debt, I would have to pay the cost. The damage doesn’t go away unless someone pays. So, I can choose to forgive you but then I accept the cost of the damage. In a similar way, for God to forgive us, he can’t simply forget that we’ve done wrong. For our sin to be repaired, someone must pay the price for the damage. And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to pay the price for our sin, which is a debt so large that we could never repay it. Because he is righteous, he had no debt. Because he’s God, he is infinitely wealthy. He can pay for everyone’s sin. But first, you must come to him and trust that he is the only one who can make us right with God. You must trust him personally. And a good way to do that is to take this prayer that he taught and make it your own. Say it to God, but don’t repeat it as empty words. Adapt it with your own words. And mean it.

The prayer teaches us that we are completely reliant upon God, the way that young children are completely reliant upon their parents. We need God to provide for us. And he does. Every good gift we have comes from God (James 1:17). The Bible teaches us that God gives us the power to work and to earn money (Deut. 8:18). God sustains our lives at every moment. Without God, we wouldn’t exist. And without God’s mercy and grace, we couldn’t be reconciled to him, forgiven of our sins, and adopted as his children.

If we are forgiven, we will forgive others. Jesus makes that clear. If we are not forgiving of those who seek our forgiveness, we must not have experienced God’s forgiveness. If you truly know how awful your sin is, and how amazing it is for God to forgive you, then you can and will extend forgiveness to others, even when it’s hard. For there to be true forgiveness, there must be confession of sin and repentance. If someone comes to us, admitting their wrong and seeking reconciliation, we must forgive. We must be like our Father.

We are also supposed to ask for spiritual protection. We are supposed to ask God that he would not lead us into temptation. We should pray that God would deliver us from sinning. We shouldn’t view God’s forgiveness as a blank check to keep on sinning. We shouldn’t think that just because God pays our debt, we can keep running up a huge bill at his expense. We should desire not to sin. Though God gives us trials, these are meant to refine us. We should pray that we would endure the trials. But our Father knows are weaknesses, and we should ask him to strengthen us, not to overwhelm us with temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We should pray to that end.

So, Jesus teaches us to pray that God would be glorified, that God would provide for our needs, that God would forgive us our sins, and that God would spiritually protect us. This gives us a framework for how to pray.

But Jesus doesn’t just give us that model prayer. Jesus also taught us about why we should go to our Father in heaven. He is a good Father who gives his children good things. To see that, let’s look at the rest of the passage, verses 5–13:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The first part of that paragraph is a bit of a parable. Jesus has us imagine two men living in a village. One has a friend come to him at night. The problem is that this man has no food to give his visiting friend. The friend is probably tired and hungry and, again, there is no way to simply go to the grocery store or call for late night delivery. If the man doesn’t feed his friend, his friend doesn’t eat. More than that, the man would experience shame for being a bad host. So, he goes to his friend in the village at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. The other man in the village may be bothered. He lives in a one-bedroom house. The first man has interrupted his sleep and is in danger of waking up his children. But even if that man is put out, grumpy, and half asleep, he will give his friend what he needs. The point Jesus is making is that if such people are willing to answer the bold request of their friends, how much more does God the Father give good things to his children.

God is always listening. He never sleeps. He knows all. He can process billions of prayer requests at the same time. And God is not some grumpy man who gives begrudgingly. So, Jesus encourages us to go to God, to ask for what we need. We are to ask God, and what we need will be given to us. We are to seek God, and we will find him. We should knock on the door of his kingdom, and the gates will be opened.

Jesus then gives us another reason to go to our Father in verses 11–13. He asks what kind of human father would give his child a serpent instead of a fish. The serpent might have been a water snake used for bait.[5] We might paraphrase this statement by saying, “What kind of father would give his son a worm when he asked for salmon?” If the child asked for an egg to eat, no father would give him a scorpion. Now, I suppose there are some pretty terrible parents who might give their children something bad when they asked for something good, but most parents wouldn’t do this. Most parents give their children what they need, even if it’s not what their children want. And Jesus’ point is that if humans, with all their sin, manage to give their children what they need, how much more will the perfect Father give his children what they need when they ask him.

We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus refers to his followers as “evil.” God doesn’t flatter us. He doesn’t sugar coat things. Even the followers of Jesus have their sins. Christians don’t earn their way to God through good behavior. No one is good enough to be in a right relationship with God. Even the best people are evil because of the power of sin. That’s why all of us need to go to God for forgiveness, and the only path to God is Jesus himself (John 14:6). Jesus does not teach us that we are deserving of God’s good gifts. He teaches us that God gives to those who are undeserving. God even adopts bratty kids into his family and makes them his own children.

So, if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the perfect Father give good gifts to his children. And the chief good gift is the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that Jesus says that at the end: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That seems to come out of the blue.

Well, if the mention of the Holy Spirit seems to come out of the blue, it’s because we’re not thinking of asking God for the right things. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray for: God’s glory, God’s kingdom, what we need, forgiveness of sins, and protection from sin and evil. This is what we need to pray for, and the answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit.

Earlier, I quoted a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where God says that he will act to vindicate his name. These are the verses that immediately follow:

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24–28).

How does God sanctify his name? How does God vindicate the holiness of his great name? He gives the Holy Spirit to his people. The Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, to see and enter into the kingdom of God by faith (John 3:3–8). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t trust Jesus, we wouldn’t seek forgiveness from God. Without the Holy Spirit, we couldn’t be protected from sin and evil. We may ask God for all kinds of things we want, all kinds of things we think we need. But what we need most is God himself. And God gives himself to those who seek him. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God. God is one being who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So, when Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask, he’s saying that God will give himself. God is the greatest gift. He is what we need, and he can be found and received if we would only ask.

Jesus teaches us today to seek God. Part of our problem is that we don’t seek God for himself. We want things from God, but we don’t want him. You might say that’s the root of sin. Our failure to regard God’s name as “hallow,” or holy, our failure to see that he is greater than his creation, leads us to make created things our gods. We treasure the things of this world more than the “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This doesn’t mean that we utterly reject God. Instead, we often treat him as a cosmic butler. When we really want something or when we’re in a bind, we may call on God to give us what we want, or to get us out of a jam. But we don’t come to God and seek him above all else. That’s because we’re evil.

Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to treasure God above all things. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be convicted of sin. If you’re here today and you feel that you haven’t been seeking God for who he is, and you’re coming to see that you haven’t loved the Father the way a good, loving child should, then the Holy Spirit is working on you. If you’re in that place, then ask God for forgiveness, seek him with all your heart, knock on the door of his kingdom. He promises to open that door, to accept you as his child, to forgive you of anything bad that you’ve ever done. His love, his goodness, and his grace are infinite. If you want to know how to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

If you are already a Christian, consider how you normally pray. Are you praying the way that Jesus taught? Do you pray above all that God would be glorified? Do you pray that God would give you what you need, instead of what you want? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for him, your knowledge of him, and your obedience to him? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for others?

If you haven’t prayed for these things, there’s good news: God forgives us, and we can boldly seek forgiveness from him, because Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 4:14–16).

God always answers prayer, and he always gives us what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we want, or the things that we ask for. Sometimes, his answer is no. Sometimes, we’re asking God for a serpent, and he gives us a fish. But if we ask things of God that line up with his will, we can be sure that he will give us what we need. The apostle John wrote this toward the end of his first letter:

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:13–15).

Let us go to our Father in heaven and pray the way his Son taught us.

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), 471.
  3. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  4. See the discussion of forgiveness in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 194–200.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1061 n. 36.

 

One Thing Is Necessary

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

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

The One Who Is Great

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

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

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

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

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

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

We’ll begin by reading verses 46–48:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s read verses 51–56:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

Follow Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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.

Also Some Women

This sermon was preached on December 30, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

It seems like every year, there are new concerns about how women are treated. Not long ago, there were several stories about people in the entertainment industry who have sexually abused, harassed, or intimidated women. Many women came out and told their stories of how Larry Nassar, a doctor, sexually abused them while they were on the USA Gymnastics team. There has been a lot of talk about how much women get paid in comparison to men. Every time there’s an election, there is discussion about how many women are in Congress and if a woman could become president. The women’s rights movement has been going on for decades and discussions about women’s issues won’t stop any time soon.

What these discussions reveal is that many different people assume that women should be treated as well as men. That’s hardly a controversial statement today. But if you study history, you know that women were often not treated as well as men. They were often relegated to second class status. The further you go back in history, the more clearly you can see that.

So, what happened between ancient times, when women were treated more like property than adult human beings, and today, when we expect that women will do everything that men do? What caused us to think that women have rights that should be protected?

I’m sure many people today would say the Enlightenment, that period of time beginning roughly in the 1600s and continuing for a couple of centuries. But is that so?

What if the proper grounding for women’s rights comes not from the Enlightenment, but from the time when God created human beings in his image? What if a refined understanding of this issue came from the New Testament, which states that all those who are united to Christ have an equal status as “sons,” receiving a full inheritance (Gal. 3:9, 26–29; 4:4–7)?

Today, we’re going to look at just three verses from the Gospel of Luke. We had been studying Luke’s biography of Jesus for the better part of this year, taking a couple of breaks to look at other passages in the Bible. As we come back to Luke, we’ll see how he highlights the role that women played in Jesus’ ministry. We’ll see that they serve as an example of how people who come to faith are willing to serve Jesus. And we’ll think about how the Bible—contrary to what many people might think—shows that women are equal to men in value, and that our modern views about women, though a bit distorted, are largely due to the influence of Christianity throughout the world.

Before we read today’s passage, which is Luke 8:1–3, I want to remind us of what Luke was doing in his Gospel. At the very beginning, he states that his goal was “to write an orderly account” that was based on “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” who have delivered their accounts of what Jesus did to those who hadn’t personally witnessed such things. So, Luke was writing history. But not just any history. It’s theological and religious history. Luke’s goal was that his audience “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1–4).[1]

Luke begins his story by telling about all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Aside from telling one story about Jesus’ childhood, he skips ahead to when Jesus begins his public activity as an adult. Jesus went around healing people and teaching. We’re often told that Jesus went around proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The good news is that the kingdom was at hand. The true King had come, and people could enter his kingdom by coming under his reign and rule. People who had been at war with the king could now find peace, which comes through the forgiveness of sins, which is rebellion against the King’s rule.

Jesus called a special group of twelve disciples, or followers. But they weren’t the only ones following Jesus, as we’ll see in this passage. There were other people who followed Jesus, including a group of women.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 8:1–3:

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

Luke begins by saying “afterward.” The last episode we saw in Luke was about a woman whom Jesus had forgiven for her sins. She was grateful, and she expressed her love for Jesus in an act of service: washing his feet.

Now, we see Jesus continue to travel throughout Galilee, preaching the “good news of the kingdom of God.” The twelve disciples are with him, but so are some women. They had been healed by Jesus from infirmities and evil spirits. As I said last week, while looking at Revelation 12, evil spirits are real, and there was heightened demonic activity during Jesus’ lifetime.[2] These three women whom Jesus healed followed Jesus, serving him out of gratitude, just like the sinful woman who had been forgiven.

The first woman named is Mary Magdalene, who was from the town of Magdala, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. She is later mentioned in the Gospels at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. She witnessed Jesus’ death and she saw Jesus after he rose from the grave (Luke 24:1–10; John 19:25; 20:1–2, 11–18). Mary had seven demons driven out of her. Seven is a number of completion or perfection; this might be a way of saying Jesus exorcised all her demons, once and for all.

The second woman is Joanna, who was married to a man named Chuza, who served Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Chuza was either the manager of one of Herod’s estates or a high-ranking official. Either way, this means that Joanna was a woman of status and some wealth. This shows that not all early Christians were poor.

The third woman is named Susanna. We don’t know anything else about her.

As I said earlier, Luke claimed to write history. But some skeptics doubt whether his Gospel, as well as other books in the Bible, are truly historical. Legendary writings during this time wouldn’t have such details as all these names, particularly ones that weren’t further explained, like Susanna. Luke’s writing has an air of history about it, even when he reports miraculous things like exorcisms. The writing style isn’t fantastical. It’s restrained and fact-oriented. But more importantly, if you were going to fabricate a story about Jesus to make him look more impressive than he was, you would never have women among his followers.

Why is that? People in Jesus’ day had a lower view of women. It would have been shocking to learn that Jesus had women following him. Jewish teachers, rabbis, didn’t have women accompany them on journeys. Jewish oral tradition taught that women were not to speak in public and shouldn’t be taught the Torah, the law that God gave to the Israelites. Women weren’t normally allowed to testify in court.[3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples “marveled that he was talking [alone] with a woman” (John 4:27).

To be clear, this was a cultural view, not a biblical one. We have to make that distinction when we’re thinking about religions and cultures. There’s nothing in the Old Testament that suggests that women couldn’t be taught or couldn’t speak in public. In fact, there are two books in the Old Testament named after exemplary women: Ruth and Esther. I’ll say more about this in a moment.

The important thing to note is that Luke’s reporting concerning women was not something that he would have created to make the Jesus story more acceptable or believable.

And yet Luke often writes about women in favorable ways. In the first chapter of his Gospel, we have reports of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who comes across much better than her husband, Zechariah. We also have Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was likely a teenager at that time yet who trusted God when she heard the amazing news that she would become pregnant though she was a virgin. Luke gives favorable reports of a prophetess named Anna (Luke 2:36–38), a widow whose son died (Luke 7:11–17), that sinful woman who had been forgiven (Luke 7:36–50), Mary (not Magdalene), the sister of Martha (Luke 10: 38–42), a widow who gives everything (Luke 21:1–4), and the women who were witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 23:49, 55–56; 24:1–12). This is all the more remarkable given how often the twelve disciples look foolish.

These women flocked to Jesus because they knew his message was good news. He said that all kinds of people could be part of God’s kingdom, both men and women, rich and poor, old and young, and Jew and Gentile. Women were not second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn’t afraid to talk to them, teach them, and include them in his ministry.

Jesus knew that both men and women were made in God’s image. This is what the first chapter of the Bible says:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).

In the ancient world, people worshiped many different gods, and they built temples to these gods. In these temples, they would place statues or other physical representations of these gods. The Bible says that God made the universe to be his temple. And the Bible strictly forbids making physical representations of God, because human beings are made to represent him on Earth. We were made to rule over the world by coming under God’s rule. We were made to reflect his glory, to worship him. And we were made after his likeness, which means we were made to be his loving, obedient children. This is true of both men and women.

In the New Testament, it is quite clear that both men and women are part of God’s kingdom and have roles to play. Women financially supported Jesus and his apostles. It’s possible that they might have served in other ways, perhaps in terms of providing food and clothing for the apostles. Women hosted house churches (1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Phoebe was a deacon who probably carried the letter of Romans to its audience (Rom. 16:1–2). Priscilla was involved in ministry with her husband, Aquila (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Rom. 16:3–4; 1 Cor. 16:19). The apostle Paul called Euodia and Syntyche his “fellow workers” (Phil. 4:2–3).

The Christian view of women was very different from other views of women in the ancient world. It was different from the Greek view. Greek women “lived in semi-seclusion,” had no property rights and could get married and divorced against her wishes.[4] “The Greek wife had virtually no freedom.”[5] Greek women were not educated.[6]

The Christian view of women was different than the Roman view of women. Roman women had limited education and property rights. A married woman was under the rule of her husband and control of her husband.

In both Greek and Roman culture, women were often married quite young, sometimes before puberty, which wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world. And women were of such low value that they were often killed as infants.[7] Rodney Stark says, “The exposure of unwanted infants was ‘widespread’ in the Roman Empire, and girls were far more likely than boys to be exposed.”[8] In fact, there’s a letter dated roughly 1 BC, written by a man named Hilarion to what we assume is his wife, Alis, and to Berous and Appollonarion. In the letter, he writes, “I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If—good luck to you!—you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.”[9] We assume this man is telling his wife to kill the baby, to expose it to the elements, where it might be eaten by wild animals or starve, if it were female.

Beyond the ancient world, the Christian view of women was and is very different than the ones found in other cultures. In Muslim countries, particularly ones that more closely follow the Qur’an and other Islamic traditions, women have little freedom. Just this year, a small group of women in Saudi Arabia were finally allowed to get driver’s licenses. Less than two hundred years ago, it was common in India for widows to be burned on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. The practice was outlawed in 1829 by British authorities.[10] The British missionary William Carey played a significant role in helping abolish this practice. In China, the practice of binding women’s feet, supposedly to make them more attractive as they sashayed on their toes, was made illegal in 1912.

Alvin Schmidt, in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, asks, “where else do women have more freedom, opportunities and human worth than in countries that have been highly influenced by the Christian ethic?”[11] It’s no accident that how women have been treated in the West is very different than how women have been treated elsewhere. And when laws have changed in other countries, it has been due to Western influence. And this is because of the Christian view of women, who are made in the image of God, just as men have been, and who can be children of God and coheirs with Christ if they turn to Jesus in faith.

Again, the Bible says that men and women were created with the same basic purpose. The Bible teaches that men and women have the same problem, which is sin. The reason why bad things happen, including the oppression of women, is because of sin in the world. We were made for a certain purpose, as I said earlier. The problem is that we don’t live according to that purpose. As a punishment, God has removed us from his direct and special presence and he has given us over to our sinful practices. The consequences of sin include fighting, oppression, natural disasters, diseases, and death.

The Bible teaches that the same solution to this problem of sin is available to both men and women. Because we do not tend to love God as we should, because we tend to do wrong, we cannot find our way to God. We cannot earn our own right standing with him. We can’t merit our way to heaven. So, God came down to Earth. Jesus was, of course, male, but he was born of a woman, so both men and women played a role in salvation. But this was all God’s initiative, God’s doing. God sent his Son to the world to live perfectly, fulfilling God’s design for humanity. And Jesus, though perfect, was put to death, ultimately as a sacrifice, to pay the penalty for our sin. God is a perfect judge who must punish sin, and Jesus took that punish on himself willingly. Everyone—man or woman—who trusts Jesus is a child of God and is part of his kingdom. As Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile], there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This does not mean, however, that men and women are the same. God made men and women to be similar, yet different. This is true physically and often emotionally. Men and women were made to play different roles. Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar, writes the following in an article about today’s passage:

This does not mean that Jesus abrogated all sexual, social, or creation order distinctions recognized under the Old Covenant. Indeed, it seems rather clear that He affirmed the headship and authority of the man when He chose twelve men from among His disciples to be leaders of the community and that Luke wishes to reaffirm this by giving special stress to the twelve and their distinct roles.[12]

He then adds:

Being Jesus’ disciple did not lead these women to abandon their traditional roles in regard to preparing food, serving, etc. Rather, it gave these roles new significance and importance, for now they could be used to serve the Master and the family. The transformation of these women involved not only assuming new discipleship roles, but also resuming their traditional roles for a new purpose.[13]

Christianity doesn’t teach, as many people do today, that men and women are alike in every way other than biologically. Men and women play different roles. But this does not mean they have different values. Both have the same worth in God’s eyes. This is because our worth isn’t based on physical strength, or the role we play, or how much money we have. Our worth is determined by our position in Jesus Christ. That is what makes Christianity unique. We become acceptable to God and a treasured part of his kingdom if we are united to his Son.

So, what do we learn from today’s passage?

First, the kingdom of God is for everyone who turns away from patterns of sin and rebellion against God and turns in faith to Jesus. Men, women, rich, poor, old, young, people of different skin colors, ethnicities, backgrounds—all kinds of people will be part of God’s kingdom.

Second, we should also see that women played a key role in Jesus’ ministry. They supported him financially. They probably served him and his apostles in practical ways. They also were witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, if this story were made up, no one would ever think of having women be the key witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

It’s also possible that Luke got some of his information about Jesus from these women. Many scholars believe Luke was able to talk to an elderly Mary about Jesus. He might very well have met Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna.

Third, here’s an even more important thing for us to get out of this passage. Notice that the women whom Jesus had healed then followed Jesus and served him. This is the pattern of God’s people throughout the Bible. God rescues us from sin and the condemnation that we deserve not so we can live for ourselves. He saves us so that we can serve him. And people who truly realize what God has done for them thankfully and willingly live for him.

So, if you claim to be a Christian, how are you serving God? Are you following the example of these women?

As we come to a new year, what kind of resolution could you make to serve God better?

There are many ways to do this. We can grow in our knowledge of God by reading the Bible and by coming to church to participate in Bible studies and to hear the word of God preached.

We can spend more time in prayer.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word in our homes. The New Testament has many things to say about how husbands and wives should live, how parents should raise their children, and how children should obey their parents.

We can make sure we’re living according to God’s word at the workplace, working with integrity and, whatever our job is, working as if our boss is Jesus.

We can be more devoted to telling other people about Jesus. To do that, start by praying for those who don’t know Jesus. Pray that God would give you new relationships and new opportunities to share your faith. Then make sure you know the gospel. Learn about common objections to Christianity and how to answer them. I can help you with this. Talk to me if you’re interested.

You can find ways to help the poor and needy. Find an organization to donate to or to help through volunteering.

But one of the best ways to serve God is by serving his church.

God has instituted his church as the “place” where he is worshiped, where he is made known, where his people come together and love and serve one another, where disciples are made. And people who truly love God love his church, and they serve in his church.

How would these women serve in a local church? I think they would do what they did for Jesus. They would contribute financially. Giving to the local church is a way of supporting the ministry of the gospel. We turn around and give a good percentage of what comes in to the church to missionaries and Christian organizations. The more money we have, the more we are able to do here and abroad.

These women would meet practical needs at the church, whether that’s helping take care of children, helping clean things, organize things, or whatever else they could do. We always have a need for help in very practical ways.

The biggest thing that these women—and all the early disciples showed—was commitment. I’m convinced that one of the biggest idols of our age is the idea that we should always keep our options open, always be free to do whatever we want. And this means that we lack commitment. This is seen in our families, as people walk out of marriages. It’s seen at work, as people are not very loyal to their jobs. And it’s seen in church.

One of my great frustrations is that Christians aren’t more committed to the church. And this is the same frustration that pastors everywhere experience. Some people who are members of a church don’t attend regularly, or they attend but don’t help out. Other people don’t become members at all. I really don’t understand this. No, there is no one verse that says, “You must officially join the local church.” But it is presupposed everywhere in the New Testament. God gave the church leaders to help hold people accountable, to teach them the Bible and make sure that they’re living according to it. And one of the ways we can hold people accountable is through membership. Members of a church can be excommunicated if they are unwilling to repent. But we can’t do this without some sense of membership. People who don’t become members of a church are basically saying that they will not come under the authority of that church.

But God has instituted authority everywhere: in civil government, in the workplace, in the home, and in the church. Authorities are good for us. The Bible does teach that wives should submit to their husbands. And it teaches that children should submit to parents, and employees to employers, and people in church to their leaders, and citizens of a country to their governmental leaders, and everyone to God. To serve God means to come under his authority, which means coming under God’s appointed authority structure, even within the church.

Coming under authority helps remind us that life is not about us. Service reminds us of that, too. Some people who are Christians seem to act as if life revolves around them and their needs. But if we serve God, we’ll become less selfish. We’ll be concerned with the welfare of the church. We’ll be concerned that only a few people do most of the work, and we’ll want to help our brothers and sisters. We’ll be concerned about those who don’t yet know Jesus and we’ll help reach them, individually or as a church.

People often make New Year’s resolutions. Why not resolve to serve in the church? Why not resolve to join the church? I would love to talk with you if you are not yet a member. I would love to talk to members about how to serve more. Some of you have been asked or will be asked to join the church or to serve. Please think about it and pray, and then respond.

And if you’re not yet truly a Christian, I would urge you to turn to Jesus. Maybe you need to learn more about him. Please come and talk to me. I would love to answer any questions you might have. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot about Jesus but haven’t committed to him. Now is the time to follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See the sermon I preached on December 23, 2018, “She Gave Birth to a Male Child,” https://wbcommunity.org/she-gave-birth-to-a-male-child.
  3. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 102.
  4. Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 122–23.
  5. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 98.
  6. Ibid., 99.
  7. Stark, Triumph, 126–27.
  8. Ibid., 126. Stark here cites William V. Harris, “Child Exposure in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 84:1–22 (specifically page 1).
  9. Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-privatelife249.shtml.
  10. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, 117.
  11. Ibid., 122.
  12. Ben Witherington III, “On the road with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and other disciples: Luke 8:1-3,
    Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 70 no. 3 – 4 (1979): 245.
  13. Ibid.: 247.

 

The Seed Is the Word of God

This sermon was preached on January 6, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

How many resolutions have your broken so far in this new year? I’m not asking if you’ve broken any resolutions. It’s January 6, after all. I’m asking you how many resolutions you’ve broken.

Resolutions are made to be broken, or so it seems. That means that either we’re quitters, or we set our goals to high. I have a friend from college—I’ll call him Seth, because that’s his name—who said he only makes resolutions he knows he can keep. He said one year his resolution was to wear his bathrobe inside his house every day. Another year, he resolved to never say “oh” instead of the number “zero.” Maybe there’s something to be said for setting the bar low.

But no matter how high or how low we set the bar, we realize that most of us don’t achieve our goals. Only some people seem to cross the finish line. Many resolutions involve diet and exercise. We realize that some people never bother to do those things. Some people start out with the best of intentions, work hard for a week or a month, and then give up. Only some people will achieve their diet and exercise goals.

The same is true when it comes to pursuing a relationship with God. In the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re told that some people won’t bother with the things of God. Some people will seem to have a relationship with him—they may seem to become Christians and talk about Jesus, attend church, and read their Bible—but then trials come, or they get too busy with other things in life, and they change. Only some people will truly pursue a relationship with God. These people will have a life-long relationship with God and are part of God’s family.

Today, we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. If you haven’t been with us so far, you can catch up by visiting wbcomunity.org/luke. We’re still in the first half of the Gospel, so there’s a lot more to learn about Jesus, his teachings, and his death and resurrection.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:4–8:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”[1]

Notice that Jesus is attracting a great crowd of people that have come from various towns. Jesus is still in Galilee, the region where he grew up. And perhaps because there’s a great crowd, he teaches in a parable. We’ve already seen a couple of short parables in Luke (Luke 5:36; 6:39), but we’re going to see many more of them, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them. A parable is a way of teaching that isn’t direct, or straightforward. Sometimes, parables are like proverbs, short, colorful statements that teach theological truths. Other times, parables are stories that teach a theological truth, but not in direct way. The word parable comes from a Greek word that literally means something cast alongside. A parable comes alongside a truth and communicates it in an indirect way.

There are a lot of ways to communicate something. If I wanted to tell you about God, I could tell you things in short, propositional statements. I could say that God is all powerful. That’s a direct way of teaching something about God. But I could also tell you that by telling a story about a king who has complete control of his kingdom. I could tell you that God is merciful. Or I could tell you a story about how a king forgave his dishonest servant. I could tell you that God is loving. Or I could tell you a story about a father who loves his rebellious son.

There’s a lot to be said for teaching things in a direct way. But parables are different. They get you from point A to point B, but not in a straight line. They get there in a roundabout way, kind of like the way parabolas are curved. Parables get us to think. They’re colorful and memorable. To those who understand, they’re clear as day. But those who don’t understand may be stumped and might scratch their heads. This is why Jesus teaches in parables.

This parable is pretty easy to understand on one level. In Jesus’ day, people were all familiar with the basics of agriculture. To grow crops, you had to sow seed. We hear of a sower who sows seeds. Some seed fall on the path, where they get trampled on and the birds eat them. The path would have been hard ground, so the seed would have no chance to get into good soil to grow. Some seed fell on rocky ground. There would be a thin layer of soil above limestone. This seed would grow up to a point, but it couldn’t develop deep roots and it couldn’t draw in enough moisture to withstand the hot weather. Other seed grew up amidst thorns, which choked the plant and caused it to die. And some seed fell on good soil, where it grew and produced a large crop.

On one level, the story is easy to understand. But why is Jesus teaching about agriculture? What’s the point of this story?

The disciples want to know, so they ask Jesus, and he answers. Let’s read verses 9–15:

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

There are a couple of things to see here. The first is what Jesus says about “the secrets of the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God, to use a definition we studied recently in our Bible study, is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] Not everyone is part of God’s people. Only those who turn to the King and come under his rule will find his blessing. Luke clearly presents Jesus as this King, the one who has come to establish his kingdom on Earth. And the secrets of this kingdom, or what we might call the ways of this kingdom, are not communicated clearly to everyone. To Jesus’ disciples, he gives them the clear meaning, but others will only hear in parables that are not interpreted.

Jesus then quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was sent to Israel, which was supposedly God’s people, to send them a message of warning about their sin, but also a message of hope for those who would hear. Israel had rebelled against God. They had worshiped false gods. They rejected the very reason why God made them, which was for his glory, so that they would know him, love him, and worship him. They rejected the true God and went after gods that seemed to please them, but who couldn’t help them. So, Isaiah was told to speak to them. But Isaiah was told that the people were hardhearted. They could see, but they couldn’t really see the truth. They could hear, but they wouldn’t hear God’s words and act on them. Because they worshiped idols, they became like them. Idols have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear.

In a way, that’s our story. The Bible says that because we live in God’s creation, and because we were designed by God, we know certain things about God. We all know there is a God who exists, who created everything, who is powerful and eternal (Rom. 1:20; cf. Eccl. 3:11). But though we know this, we don’t pursue God. That’s because we don’t really want there to be a God who is both Creator and King. That kind of God tells us that he made things to function in a certain way. That kind of God is the ultimate authority. We tend to want to be the ultimate authority of our lives. We want to determine the course of our lives. We’re going to set our own goals, our own resolutions, thank you very much.

Because of our rebellious nature, God lets us go our own way. But he graciously reveals himself more clearly to some of us, those whom he is calling into his kingdom. This is what Jesus means when he prays to God the Father. This is what he says in Matthew 11:25–27:

25 At that time Jesus declared, “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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

It’s God’s gracious will to reveal himself. That means that knowing God is a gift. And so is salvation. Christianity teaches that we can be reconciled to God not because we deserve it, because we work hard or because we’re good. No, Christianity teaches that we’re so bad that the only way to be made right with God is if he gives us the gift of salvation. And if he has given us that gift, our lives will change forever.

The second thing we need to see is the meaning of the parable. For anyone who cares to read the Bible, the meaning is made clear. In the story about the sower and the seed, the seed is the word of God. Jesus has been sowing that seed, speaking God’s words. Those words will fall on deaf ears, who hear but don’t seem to understand (see Matt. 13:19), or perhaps who aren’t interested at all. Jesus says the devil comes and snatches the word away from such people. Elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that “the god of this world” blinds “the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The second type of soil is rocky, shallow soil. Jesus says these people appear to receive the word of God with joy. In other words, these people seem to believe for a while. But he says they have no root, and in a time of trial, and in that “time of testing” they fall away. The third type of soil is similar: this represents people who seem to believe for a while, but that faith is “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Does this mean that people can truly believe that God’s word is true and then later not believe?

I think that’s possible, but I also think that’s different from trusting in God himself. I believe that the Bible, in its totality, teaches that no one can truly understand who God is and what he requires of us, and then have a right relationship with him, unless God draws that person to himself and gives them eyes to see the truth. In other words, we can’t come to God unless we’re born again of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says in John 3. We can’t come to God truly unless he transforms us. And if he changes our hearts, we will be changed forever. We will not fall away from that kind of faith.

But the Bible also teaches the possibility of false conversions. Some people say they believe in Jesus. Some people will act like it for a while. But then they experience difficult times, perhaps hardships or temptations, and they walk away from Jesus. Others will care more about things that seem to be pressing realities, the “cares . . . of life.” They may say, “I’ll read the Bible when life slows down, when my kids are off to college, when I have some extra time.” Others will be consumed with “the riches and pleasures of life.” And these people will walk away from Jesus, too. These people were never “born again,” or regenerated by God.

This seems easy to understand. It’s easy to say you believe. Anyone can do that. Anyone can take a few steps toward following Christ. They can go to church, get baptized, read their Bible. They can appear quite sincere. But it’s one thing to do this for a little while and quite another to do this for a long time, particularly when life is difficult and when so many other things compete for our attention, affection, energy, time, and money. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that hard to get a gym membership, to show up to the gym for a while, and to eat a healthier diet. A lot of people can do that for a week. But how many can do that for a month, or a year? How many people make that a new lifestyle? You can’t realistically say, “I’m going to get really buff by working out for a week,” or, “I’m going to lower my cholesterol by 50 points in the next week.” To become healthy, your life needs to change permanently, not just for a little while. The same thing is true of pursuing a relationship with God.

Those people who appear to have faith but don’t follow through in their relationship with God never had true faith. As the apostle John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These people who end up walking away from the church were never “of us,” they were never transformed by God, they were never born again of the Holy Spirit, they were never saved.

Some people have a hard time accepting that. In my experience, those people are usually parents whose kids went to church, made a profession of faith while they were young, were baptized, and then went off into the world and didn’t live as Christians. These parents are often in denial about the true spiritual state of their kids. If your kids abandon the church as adults, I am quite sure that they didn’t have a real faith to begin with. Don’t fool yourself and say, “Oh, they know the Lord, they’re just not walking with him now.”

Here’s a quick story: the year that I came to this church, 2014, I had applied to a number of churches to be their pastor. One of these churches pursued me and was interested in calling me to be their pastor. We visited the church a couple of times and I preached one sermon for the congregation. I had preached on a passage from Colossians 2, where Paul urges Christians to stay rooted in Christ. And I mentioned that the Bible teaches about the possibility of false conversions. Those who aren’t rooted in Christ fall away from him. They don’t have real faith. They aren’t really Christians. I was supposed to preach a second time before they offered me the job, but I didn’t feel that it was a good fit, so I called the head of the search committee to let him down. When I did that, he mentioned that one man didn’t like my sermon. I knew who this man was. He taught a Sunday school class. In it, he mentioned that his adult daughter wasn’t “walking with the Lord” and didn’t even want him to pray for her. But he also was quick to say he knew she was “born again,” so she was okay with God. If the Spirit of God resides in a person, that person will never reject prayer. I think this man had fooled himself because he couldn’t bear the thought that this daughter rejected Jesus.

The Bible calls those who don’t walk with Jesus unbelievers, not “backsliding Christians.” There are no perfect Christians in this life. And our faith can go through valleys, when we fall into sin. But a real Christian repents, again and again, and keeps turning to Jesus. If the Spirit of God dwells in you, he will bring you to Jesus. Your life will bear the fruit or the marks of a Christian.

And that’s what Jesus says about the fourth type of soil. This soil represents those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” These people are truly Christians. They hold fast to the word of God and they bear fruit “with patience.” They are in it for the long haul. They’re like the people who, seeking better health, stick with their diet and exercise program even when it’s hard, doesn’t seem like fun, or doesn’t seem to produce great results in the moment. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

It seems clear that Jesus commends only this last group of people. They are the ones who are part of his kingdom, who are forgiven of their sins, and who will live forever with Jesus. Again, Jesus doesn’t mean that these people earned those things. Salvation is a gift. But if it has been received, it will be put to use by those who have received it.

That’s more or less what Jesus says in the next paragraph, verses 16–18:

16 “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world.” He says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus comes to reveal things as they truly are. He reveals our true spiritual condition. He exposes our sin, our rebellion against God. But he also illuminates the path to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He himself is that path. If you understand and believe that Jesus is the light of God, you would hang on to that light and shine it in all parts of your life. You wouldn’t hide it in a box or stick it under the bed, like an unwanted Christmas gift. People do that, of course, but these are not the people who realize who Jesus truly is.

Jesus says that even if you do that, his light will be revealed. “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.” You can try to cover Jesus up, or shut him up, but in the end he will prevail. He is in heaven now, but when he comes to Earth a second time, everyone will see that he is Lord, the true King. And he will bring everyone into judgment. There will be no hiding him, no silencing him on that day. All will come to light, including our sins and whether we have truly believed Jesus or not. If we do believe in Jesus, our sins will be covered. They have already been paid for when Jesus died on the cross almost two thousand years ago. But those who have rejected Jesus will have nowhere to hide. They will have to pay for their own sins.

Since that is so, Jesus says, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” If you receive God’s word and are faithful to what God has given you, he will entrust you with more. But the one who truly doesn’t have a relationship with God, “even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” I believe there will be many people on that last day who will be surprised by the judgment that Jesus makes on their faith. There will be people who say, “But Lord, I made a confession of faith. I prayed that prayer I was told to say. I was baptized. I went to church.” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus is giving us a warning. We are hearing the word of God. What are we going to do with it?

Jesus makes it clear that hearing the word of God and believing that it is true leads to action. Those who belong to the family of God hear the word and do it. We see that in verses 19–21:

19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus’ biological family wanted to see him. Instead of saying, “Oh, thanks for telling me. I’ll be right there,” Jesus takes the opportunity to define his real family. His real family consists of people who hear and do the word of God. Again, we don’t earn our way into the family of God by doing his word. Did you earn your way into your family? No, you were born into it. But no one is born biologically into God’s family. We must be reborn, which is a work that only God can do. But once we’re in the family, we’re supposed to act like it. And Jesus says that the people who are in his family show themselves by their actions. It’s easy to say you believe something. Act like it, Jesus says.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, how do we respond?

I simply ask three questions. One, is there room in your life for the word of God? Two, are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Three, are you acting according to God’s word?

Is there room in your life for God’s word? Are you listening intently now? Are you reading the Bible? Are you studying it to make sure you understand what you’ve read? There are many things that will crowd your life so that you don’t read the Bible. There are many concerns that we have. We’re worried about our family, our health, our job. Don’t let these things choke out the word of God. There are many pleasurable things to do, and not all of them are wrong. Don’t let these things take up all your time so you have no room for God’s word in your life. Trials will come, and you may doubt God’s word, or temptations may come, and you may not want to hear from God because you know he will correct you. But this is a mistake. We need to run to the one who can correct us, forgive us, and heal us.

Make sure there is room for God’s word in your life. You can do this in many ways. Reading the Bible regularly is the best way. I recommend getting a study Bible like the ESV Study Bible and reading systematically. We have Bible plans available here and on our website (wbcommunity.org/bible). You can read through the Bible in a year. But if that’s too fast of a pace, do it in two years. You can also listen to the Bible. There are different apps you can use. Christianaudio.com has an app and you can find cheap recordings of the Bible to purchase. You can read alone or with your family. One of my only New Year’s resolutions was to have a regular time of worship as a family. So, three times this week we read a Psalm, sang a song or hymn, read a question and answer out of a catechism, and prayed. It was quick—maybe 10 minutes—but over a long time, that practice will help mold and shape us as a family. Ten extra minutes of exercise every day adds up to big changes over a long period of time. Likewise, our daily diet affects our health. You are what you eat, and we cannot be better than what we put inside ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian and a pastor in Massachusetts, made several resolutions when he was a young man. Most of them involved actions and attitudes. But one of them was this: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”[3] Resolve to study the Bible.

Are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Do you let God speak into area of your life? Do you let him expose your sins, the ways you are not doing life according to his terms? Or do you try to silence God and cover up his light? You can do this for a time, but in the end Jesus’ light will shine. His voice will roar. It is better to respond now so that he can heal you. If you are not yet a Christian indeed, I would love to talk to you about what it would look like to follow Jesus. I urge you to let God’s word and light into your life.

Are you acting according to God’s word? We all fail to do perfectly according to God’s word. But are you trying? Are you acting on what you know? It’s not enough to be hearers of God’s word. It’s not enough to nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s right.” We must act.

Jesus’ brother, James provides a great commentary on today’s passage. This is James 1:16–25:

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This comes from Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.

 

The Seed Is the Word of God (Luke 8:4-21)

What does it look like to respond rightly to Jesus? What does it look like to believe in him? Jesus teaches a parable about four types of responses to his message. Find out what it looks like to be a real Christian. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 8:4–21, on January 6, 2019.

In Full Accord and of One Mind (Philippians 2:1-11)

Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.

God Has Visited His People (Luke 7:11-17)

Jesus does the unimaginable: he brings a dead man back to life. He can bring spiritually dead people to life through his word, and the dead will be raised at his command when he returns. Listen to this message on Luke 7:11-17, preached by Brian Watson.

Foundation on the Rock (Luke 6:43-49)

Jesus divides people into two groups: those who produce good fruit by listening to his words, and those who produce bad fruit by refusing to hear him and do what he says. People in the first group build their houses on the solid ground, but those in the second group are like those who build a house without a foundation. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:43-49.

Widows (1 Timothy 5:9-16)

The Bible teaches charity, compassion, love. It teaches us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible also teaches personal responsibility. People should care for their own family members and work hard. Pastor Brian Watson shows how both of these ideas come together in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.

Christ Jesus Came to Save Sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-20)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 6, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Today, we’ll continue our study of 1 Timothy by looking at an important passage, a beautiful passage, even. But it’s one that confounds many people. That’s because this passage speaks both about God’s grace and the need to protect the church from wrong teaching and sin. It will take a little while to explain why both God’s grace and the need to stand against wrong beliefs and behaviors confound people.

Let’s start with grace. Many people don’t understand the concept of grace. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is not because they have atoned for their own sins or righted their wrongs. It’s not because those because those people had more good deeds than bad deeds on their balance sheets. The reason that God forgives people who have done wrong is because of grace: That forgiveness is offered to sinners freely. It’s not something earned, deserved, or merited. It’s something that is given as a gift by a merciful God.

I think true grace is poorly understood because we don’t live in a very gracious society. People are perhaps even more harsh and judgmental today than they were years ago. This is true for probably many reasons. I imagine the fact that we are more isolated from one another and that we have instant communications to vent our fury contributes to our graceless culture. But the real reason we experience less grace in America is probably because so many people haven’t been transformed by God’s grace. So, people just don’t understand grace.

But if you start to tell them the concept of grace, they may assume that those who are forgiven by God either weren’t so bad to begin with, or that they hadn’t done things that were so bad. But Christianity doesn’t teach moral relativism. It says that while not all moral acts are equal, sin—failure to be, desire, and do what is right—is real, and one bit of sin in our lives is enough to earn condemnation. So, we can’t say any sin “wasn’t so bad,” because it’s an affront to a perfect, holy, righteous God, who at the end of history will not tolerate sin corrupting his creation and harming his people. God hates sin, and God’s people should, too.

That’s why anyone who truly understands God’s grace knows that we shouldn’t take advantage of it. The apostle Paul once asked a question he thought people might be asking. After he explained that God’s response to sin is grace, which comes through Jesus, and that God’s grace makes God look great, loving, merciful, generous, patient, and kind, Paul asked, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1).[1] He raised that question because some people might think, “If God can forgive any sin, why does it matter what I do?”, or, “If God can forgive any sin, and his forgiveness makes him look good, then let’s sin even more so his grace can abound even more!”

Paul’s answer is that sin is contrary to righteousness. It’s contrary to God’s ways. If you’ve been forgiven of sin and you’ve come to know who God is, you shouldn’t want to keep sinning. You should realize that certain things aren’t compatible with God’s design for life. You should realize that dispositions of the heart and certain activities can lead us away from God or can diminish the amount of praise and honor that we might give to him.

So, Christianity teaches that God can forgive all wrongs and make all things right and it teaches that there are real rights and real wrongs, and that we should seek to eliminate those wrongs from our lives as we focus more and more on the rights.

And this is where it confounds people, including Christians. Some people think that grace and forgiveness are opposed to upholding moral principles or rules. That’s because in this world, many people see only rules and no forgiveness. And if you have that, you have judgmentalism, legalism, harshness, and, really, no hope. A world like that would be hard to endure. Other people think that everything should be about doing away with rules, or that everything should be forgiven regardless of whether a person ever changes. But if there were no rules and no standing up for what is right and wrong, things would descend into chaos.

Christians need both grace and unchanging moral principles. The church needs both forgiveness and rules. Without both, we will lose our way. And, fortunately for us, the message of Christianity is a message about truth and grace, or objective moral laws and forgiveness. You can’t really have one without the other.

I’ll explain more as we look at today’s passage, which is 1 Timothy 1:12–20. We started to look at this book of the Bible a couple of weeks ago. If you missed the previous two sermons, you might want to listen to them to get caught up. But if you’re joining us for the first time during this series of sermons, I’ll bring you very quickly up to speed. This letter was written by Paul, a special messenger of Jesus, to his younger associate Timothy. Paul was a Jewish man who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or Messiah when Jesus was alive. After Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and after he ascended to heaven, Paul was so opposed to Christianity that he helped arrest and even kill Christians. Yet Jesus appeared to Paul while he was on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, and Paul’s life was changed. He went from being Jesus’ greatest persecutor to Jesus’ greatest spokesman. He traveled around the Roman Empire telling both Jews and Gentiles that the only way to be right with God was to turn from sin—to repent—and to turn to Jesus and trust him and his work on their behalf.

Paul’s preaching was the tool that God used to bring Timothy to faith. Timothy probably became a Christian during Paul’s first visit to his city, Lystra (Acts 14). The second time Paul came to Lystra, Timothy became his associate. He either traveled with Paul or stayed in cities to minister to Christians there when Paul had to travel elsewhere. At the time that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, Timothy was in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey. Paul told Timothy to stay in that city because there were false teachers who had been affecting the church. They were obsessed with “myths and genealogies,” which they used as foundations for their “speculations” (1 Tim. 1:4). They also misunderstood and misapplied the law that God gave to Israel, which we read in the Old Testament.

Last week, we talked about how those things were contrary to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. But though Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law, that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. The moral principles that are reflected in that law, particularly in the Old Testament, are “contrary to sound doctrine” and “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:10–11). In the verses before the passage we’ll read today, Paul lists a number of sins that are against right beliefs and the message of Christianity. And at that point, you may think, “Well, Paul talks about grace and not being a legalist, but he sounds kind of legalistic himself.” But Paul knew what it was like to receive God’s grace, and that’s why he so’s insistent that people cannot be made right with God through their own obedience.

With all that in mind, let’s first read verses 12–17:

12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Here, Paul thinks back to when he first became a Christian. He said that God had strengthened him and appointed him to work for him, even though he had once blasphemed, or slandered, Jesus and had persecuted his people. Paul had approved of the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, and had arrested Christians (Acts 7:58–8:3). In the book of Acts, Paul says,

9 I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities (Acts 26:9–11).

This is why Paul says he was “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus. This is why he calls himself “the foremost” of sinners. He was opposed to Jesus in the strongest way possible, because he thought Christianity was a lie and that Jewish Christians deserved to die.

But Paul’s life changed because he received mercy. Why did Paul receive this mercy? He clearly wasn’t looking for a relationship with Jesus. Did he deserve forgiveness? Was he so good that God chose to change him? If you only read this passage, you might think Paul somehow merited salvation. He says he “had acted ignorantly in unbelief” and that Jesus strengthened him “because he judged me faithful.”

Paul acted “ignorantly in unbelief” because he didn’t believe Jesus was who Christians claimed he was. He didn’t believe that a man could also be God. He didn’t believe that Jesus was the anointed king that the Old Testament promised would come. So, he obviously wasn’t a believer. He didn’t know better. Does that mean he was responsible for doing what was wrong?

I don’t think it does. There are many times when we could be held accountable for illegal actions even if we didn’t know a law existed. The law doesn’t change whether we know it or not. Paul didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah, but he should have known that. He should have known, from his extensive knowledge of the Old Testament, that Jesus had fulfilled God’s promises. He should have known that Jesus is the key that unlocks all the mysteries and complexities of the Hebrew Bible. So, I don’t think Paul means that somehow his ignorance wasn’t sinful or blameworthy. And I don’t think he means that people who knowingly commit sins are somehow beyond God’s mercy and grace. If that were the case, how many of us could be forgiven for things we did that we knew to be wrong?

Paul may be contrasting himself with these false teachers. They heard the true message of Jesus and they claimed to know him, only to teach false doctrine later. They were willfully teaching a false doctrine even though they claimed to be wise. In his former life, Paul was following his wrong beliefs with what we might call a “good conscience” (verse 5). He really thought he was doing the wrong thing. But perhaps these false teachers were not teaching false doctrine with a good conscience. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t repent and turn to Jesus. It just means that the more they rejected the truth, the more unlikely such repentance would be. The best commentary I read on this truth is by Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin: “God can bring to salvation willful sinners as well as ‘ignorant’ sinners, but both groups need to come to God in faith and repentance. The more willful the persons, the less likely is their repentance.”[2]

At any rate, Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners, so it’s not like he’s trying to say, “Yeah, I was against Jesus, but I wasn’t as bad as those other guys!”

And Paul says that Jesus called him to his service “because he judged me faithful.” This sounds like Jesus took a good look at Paul and said, “That guy’s faithful, I’ll make him my apostle.” That wouldn’t make sense, since Paul acted in unbelief and is the chief of sinners. What it must mean is that Jesus knew Paul would be a faithful, or trustworthy, minister of the gospel after he came to faith. Jesus knew that Paul had certain strengths: he knew the Scriptures, he was an unusually driven individual, and he had a background in the Gentile world of the Roman Empire since he grew up in the city of Tarsus. But this was all part of God’s plan. All of this was a gift.

And the gift of salvation can only be received by faith, not by willing one’s self to be more obedient, or to try harder. It doesn’t come from being more religious or more self-righteous. It doesn’t come through obedience to the Old Testament law, since no mere human being obeyed perfectly. It can only be received by faith.

That’s why in verses 12–20 there are seven appearances of the Greek word that means “faith” or related words. It’s hard to see in English, but the Greek word that means “faith” can also be translated as “trust.”[3] So, when we read “faithful” (verse 12) and “trustworthy,” we’re looking at two translations of the same Greek word. To have faith, or to believe, is to trust something to be true. More importantly, it’s trusting a person, Jesus. To lack faith, or to be in unbelief, is to fail to trust that something is true. It may be to fail to trust that Jesus can fix your problems and put you in a right relationship with God. Paul used to rely upon his own religious efforts to be righteous (Phil. 3:4–6). But then he came to see that real righteousness only comes through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:7–9). That’s because even the most law-abiding, religious-rule-respecting person fails to obey perfectly. God’s standards for moral purity are so high that we don’t measure up. And more than just obedience, he wants our hearts. He wants our love and trust and worship. We don’t naturally give him those things.

But the amazing thing is that Jesus came into the world to save sinners. As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed. He is the one through whom God the Father created the world. He is the one who sustains he universe by his powerful word (Heb. 1:2–3). But he left heaven to come to Earth to become a man, to experience the pains of being a human being, and to be mistreated, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. And this was not because he deserved any of that. No, we do. Yet he came to rescue sinners.

The amazing thing is that Jesus would take Paul, who was cheerfully rounding up Christians and having them killed, and make him his messenger and even his trophy. That’s what Paul says. Look at verses 15 and 16 again: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus came to rescue the worst sinner and make him a trophy of grace. Paul stands as an example of Jesus’ “perfect patience.” Jesus could have put an end to Paul. He could have destroyed him. And in a way, he did. But he didn’t do that through killing Paul and sending him to hell. No, Jesus just hijacked his life and changed it, giving him faith, repentance, and eternal life.

And that’s why Paul breaks into a bit of praise in verse 17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” It’s not clear whether he’s referring to Jesus or God the Father here. That’s because in Paul’s mind, you can distinguish between the Father and the Son, but they are so closely associated that you can’t think of one without the other. They, along with the Holy Spirit, are the three Persons of the one God.

Why would Paul praise God so much? I’m sure it has something to do with Paul remembering his past. Here he is, about thirty years after he persecuted Christians, yet he still refers to himself as the chief of sinners—in the present tense! I wonder how often he could see in his mind’s eye that day when Stephen was killed in front of him, while he approved. I wonder if he could hear the cries of Christian he arrested. I wonder if he could see the faces of the Christians against whom he cast votes, sending them to their deaths. I imagine it would be very, very hard to forget those things.

But every time Paul remembered such things, he must have turned his mind to Jesus. How could Paul deal with the fact that he had approved of the killing of innocent Christians? The only way, as far as I can see, was for him to reflect on what Jesus had done for him. Listen to what Paul writes in Galatians 1:13–17:

13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Again, Paul says he “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” But he also says something interesting: God “had set me apart before I was born.” God had plans to bring Paul to himself before Paul was born. God had always known what Paul was going to do in his persecutions. God never learns any facts, because he has always known them. But God chose to use Paul, the persecutor, to become his prize.

That must have been a comfort to Paul. He knew that even though he had done wrong, he knew that God had chosen him, had plans for him, and loved him. And God sent his precious Son to come to the world to save Paul, to bear the punishment that he deserved. Though Paul may never have actually killed anyone himself, he was associated with the killing of God’s people. And, in the end, whether someone orders a killing or carries it out, does it matter? Which is worse? Paul knew he was responsible for his role in trying to destroy the church.

Now think of this: What kind of punishment would you want to dish out to someone who killed someone you love? What kind of punishment would you give to someone who ordered the deaths of your children? You can imagine your anger, your desire to punish that person.

But this is what is amazing about God: Though Paul deserved that punishment, he didn’t get it. Instead, his punishment fell upon Jesus. God’s perfect, one-of-a-kind unique Son died to pay for the sins of those who had or would persecute him, those who did or would betray him, those who did or would ignore him and disobey him. He paid for their sins if—and this is a very big if—they turned to him in faith, repenting of their sins. Another way of saying this is that Jesus’ death can cover an infinite number of sins, but it is actually applied only to those who turn to him in faith, regardless of what they have done in the past.

Paul must have thought deeply about these things. I’m sure the pangs of his former sins would rise up in his heart from time to time. He might have felt the occasional wave of grief crash upon the shore of his anxious soul. But it was at those times that he would turn to the truth that God chose him, made plans for him, sent his Son to die for him, and even had his Son appear to him while he was trying to bring more damage to his Son’s church—all so that he could be saved from condemnation and used in God’s kingdom. All of that is grace.

That is something to sing about. That is something that should cause us to praise “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God.”

Paul never forgot that he was a sinner. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t boldly speak out against sin. Let’s read verses 18–20:

18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.

Paul was entrusted with the gospel, the message that Jesus is the Son of God, the crucified Messiah, who came to save sinners. And this same message was entrusted to Timothy, about whom prophecies were made. What those prophecies were exactly isn’t clear. It’s possible someone had prophesied what Timothy would do. It’s also possible that prophesies led Paul to Timothy. Regardless, Paul told Timothy that he should “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience.” Paul knew that Timothy would be involved in spiritual warfare. He wouldn’t wield the weapons of this world, like a sword. No, he would use things like Scripture, prayer, and reliance on God’s power. And he would have to fight to hang on to what is true and right, particularly in the face of opposition.

Paul mentions two people who “made shipwreck of their faith.” Two men Hymenaeus and Alexander, caused problems. Literally, they made “shipwreck of the faith”—Paul probably means they were trying to destroy the Christian faith by what they were saying. So, Paul says he “handed [them] over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” We don’t know who these men were. Hymenaeus is likely the Hymenaeus mentioned in 2 Timothy 2, where Paul says that he and a man named Philetus “have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18). If that is the case—and we can’t be sure—then Hymenaeus later taught the resurrection of the dead had already occurred, which is strange since Christianity teaches that this resurrection will happen when Jesus returns. It’s something you couldn’t miss. He might have taught that some people had missed out. Alexander was a common name, and though Paul mentions an Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:14, a coppersmith who did him great harm, we can’t be sure if it’s the same man. Regardless, it seems that these men were causing such problems that Paul had to excommunicate them.

Paul uses the language of “handing someone over to Satan” in 1 Corinthians 5, when he tells the church in Corinth that they should remove an immoral man from their church. The idea is that such a person should be treated as an unbeliever, and they should be removed from the protection of the church. When they are outside of the church, they will be treated as though they belong to Satan. It could be that they might be overcome by guilt and run back to the church, seeking forgiveness. It could be that Satan could afflict them with spiritual attacks or even physical ailments. We don’t know. But Paul acknowledges that God can use Satan to discipline wayward people, driving them to despair so that they might learn not to oppose God. We don’t know if these men ever turned to Jesus truly or if they were never Christians to begin with. The point is that there are times when divisions occur in a church and people need to be removed. This is not opposed to the gospel of grace.

Christians should be able to say that certain things are right and others are wrong. When we do that, we are always aware of the fact that we are sinners saved by grace. We should never forget that. But we still must say, “That is right, and this is wrong.” The world has a hard time understanding that. Non-Christians might quickly say, “Yeah, but you’ve done that wrong thing, too!” And we have to say something like, “Yes, I have, but it was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Yes, I was forgiven for it, but it’s against God’s design for our lives; therefore, it’s destructive, and I don’t want you or me to do whatever is destructive.” The fact that we’re sinners saved by grace doesn’t mean we can’t speak out against sin now, even if it causes a bit of internal tension.

Paul knew he wasn’t more deserving of grace than Hymenaeus and Alexander. The difference is that Paul turned away from his unbelief and attacks on the church. Hymenaeus and Alexander hadn’t, so Paul removed them from the church. And he told Timothy to fight the good fight, to guard the gospel, to make sure that no one would bring dishonor to God’s church or distort the message of forgiveness found only in Jesus.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what have we learned?

This passage teaches that we can think we’re in the right when we’re not. Paul thought he was right to persecute Christians. I’m sure he read his Bible and prayed to God and felt he was doing the right thing. But we can still be in the wrong. Even the most religious people can be opponents of the gospel. Perhaps the most religious people are often enemies of the gospel. All this means we must be careful about our ideas. We must truly check the Scriptures, consult with other Christians, and continue to pray for God’s guidance and wisdom.

This passage also teaches that God can correct us, even the worst of sinners. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re one of the worst. Maybe you’ve wondered if God could forgive you for that thing you did, whatever it is. Think about the example of Paul. And he’s not alone. The Bible is full of stories of great sinners becoming great saints. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to talk to you about Jesus and answer any questions you might have.

This passage also teaches us that after coming to faith, we have a duty to guard the truth. We have a duty to guard the conduct of the church. There will always be opponents of the gospel. Even the most religious people can get in the way of the mission of the church. That’s why we need to fight the good fight. God has never promised us something that is easy. But he has given us a great task, to hold fast to the gospel. There is no better news than this: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations, unless indicated otherwise, are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 74.
  3. The Greek word that means “faith,” “belief,” or “trust” is pistis. The Greek word translated as “faithful” or “trustworthy” is pistos. The Greek word translated as “unbelief” is apistia. The Greek word translated as “to believe” is pisteuein.

 

Christ Jesus Came to Save Sinners (1 Timothy 1:12-20)

Christ Jesus came into the world to save the worst of sinners. This is the amazing truth at the core of Christianity. Yet that grace isn’t opposed to standing firm against false teaching and sin. The church needs both grace and truth, as the apostle Paul well knew. This sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-20 was preached by Brian Watson on May 6, 2018.

Sound Doctrine

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 29, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

If we lose our focus, bad things can happen.

Our youngest son, Simon, started playing tee-ball recently. It’s not a very competitive league, as far as tee-ball goes. It’s mainly an opportunity for the kids to try to hit pitches and use the tee if they fail, and for them to do some very basic fielding. The kids are just getting their feet wet in baseball and most of them lack skills. They tend to lack focus, too. That’s the case with Simon. He’s just happy to be out doing something. When he gets on base, he hops and dances on it. When he’s fielding, he’s talking to his friends. But I try to teach him to focus on the ball the whole time, even when he’s not batting. I figure it’s only a matter of time before a ball is hit at him when he’s not looking. And if he’s not focused on the right thing, he could get hurt.

The same thing is true when it comes to the things of God. We can easily lose our focus. I assume that we are here today because we want to refocus our lives on God, or perhaps get a better sense of who God is and what he requires of us. But if I asked you what the focus of Christianity is, what would you say it is?

If you asked that question to many different people on the street, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some non-Christians might think Christianity is all about rules, a set of dos and don’ts—particularly the don’ts. Others might say that Christianity’s focus is on helping the poor and oppressed. Some Christians might say that the focus of Christianity should be on theology. In that case, Christianity is reduced to a set of beliefs. Christians must give mental assent to the right statements about God. Others would say that Christianity is focused on endless Bible studies. And still others would say that Christianity isn’t about beliefs as much as it’s about a relationship with Jesus.

There is truth to all these things. Christianity does involve rules. Christians should help the poor and needy. Christians should have right theological beliefs. Christians should read the Bible. And Christianity is about a right relationship with Jesus. But all these things are not equal, and it’s easy to focus on only one of them. Sometimes people focus only on the rules, or they focus only on studying obscure passages in the Bible, or they focus only on certain theological teachings. If we lose our focus on the core of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ himself, bad things will happen. Our faith will be distorted. It won’t be healthy.

That was certainly the apostle Paul’s concern. He wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a younger associate, warning him that false teachers were trying to teach something different than what Paul taught. Their teaching was unproductive and unhealthy. It was even destructive. So, Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the truth, and to teach it in love.

We’ll see this today as we look at 1 Timothy 1:3–11. Last week, we started to look at 1 Timothy and I gave an introduction to the book. If you missed that message, you can find it online. Today, we’re moving ahead into the body of the letter. Let’s first read verses 3–7:

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.[1]

We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was headed to the province of Macedonia, where the city of Thessalonica was located. But he told Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus. Timothy wasn’t the pastor of the church in Ephesus, but he was an apostolic delegate. He was there to help a relatively new church maintain its health.

Paul told Timothy to tell “certain persons” not to teach a different theology. “Doctrine” simply means teaching. Paul must have had in mind a definite group of false teachers, people who were off track in what they were teaching. They might not have been the pastors of the church, but they were leading others astray.

It’s hard to know exactly what these people were teaching, because Paul doesn’t get very specific, probably because he had already told Timothy these things. When we read letters in the New Testament, sometimes we have to do something called mirror reading. It’s like when you hear someone talking on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, but based on what you hear, you can guess what the other person is saying.

The false teachers were focusing on myths and genealogies. We’ll also see that they were using the law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai in a wrong way. So, these teachers were likely Jewish Christians.

Some Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament became very fanciful. When I was studying a bit about Islam, I found out that some Jewish myths even made their way into the Qur’an. One fanciful Jewish story, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from after the time of Jesus, concerns what happened at Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, after God rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In the Talmud, the story becomes something rather interesting: God had searched the nations for one that would accept his covenant. But only Israel did. And they accepted his covenant because God lifted Mount Sinai over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they did not accept his offer. One rabbi is quoted as saying, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’”[2]

This is obviously legendary material. It’s a myth. But this myth made its way into a few passages in the Qur’an (2.63, 93; 4.154; 7.171), which shows that the Qur’an has historical errors and is likely based on what Muhammad thought the Jewish Scriptures actually taught.

There was also a tendency in Judaism to fill in the supposed “gaps” of the Old Testament, particularly in genealogies. There’s a document called The Book of Jubilees, probably written in the second century BC, which chronicles the time between the creation of the world and the giving of the law. Among other things, it says that Adam and Eve had many children not mentioned in the Bible, and it gives their names, indicating who married whom.

All of this may seem strange to us, but there is a tendency even in Christianity for people to try search the genealogies of the Old Testament for some hidden wisdom, or to become obsessed with figuring out timelines. This can be seen in the book called The Prayer of Jabez, which builds a whole theology on one verse tucked away in the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles.[3] First Chronicles 4:10 reports that Jabez prayed, “‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”

Now, that is what the Bible says. But what is descriptive in the Bible is not always prescriptive. God does not always promise to “enlarge our borders.” But people who didn’t know the Bible well touted this prayer as the key to God’s blessings.

There is also a tendency in some circles of Christianity to focus almost entirely on certain doctrines, particularly end times issues. Usually these people come up with fanciful and fairly ridiculous readings of the book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, readings not based on carefully study of history or the original languages. Their readings tend to sound more like science fiction or fantasy.

We’ll learn a bit more about what these false teachers were promoting as we continue to study this book. What matters is that Paul wanted Timothy to make sure that the church didn’t go off the rails.

In verse 5, Paul states his goal: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He and Timothy had good motives and they wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience love, pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. The greatest command is to love God with all our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:34–40; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). This love is at the core of Christianity, and it’s likely that the false teachers were missing it.

Paul also says that the false teachers taught in vain. They claimed to be experts in the law, but they didn’t really understand it. Yet they made “confident assertions” about the law. And that leads us to the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 8–11.

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

The false teachers were using the law unlawfully. That’s ironic, isn’t it? The law is not for the righteous, but for the lawless. The law has a right and a wrong use.

Paul has in mind the law given to Israel. We know that because his vice list summarizes most of the Ten Commandments. We’ll explore that in just a moment.

In the rest of Paul’s writings, he says that the Old Testament law had a limited use. In the book of Galatians, he said that the law had held people captive until the time of Christ. This is what he says:

23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:23–26).

In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one ever became acceptable to God through obedience to the law, because no one other than Jesus obeyed it perfectly. Part of the law’s intent was to reveal how sinful we are.[4]

The topic of the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai is complex and it is often misunderstood. I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.

Before we talk about the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai, we should know that there is an objective, universal, eternal moral law. Murder is always wrong, for example. This isn’t said in very explicit terms in the Bible, but it is presupposed. The nations that did not receive the law are still held accountable for their sins, which means there must be some moral or natural law that they transgressed.

But the law in the Old Testament, which we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was given to Israel, God’s covenant people. This law was given only for a limited period of time, though that period of time was over a thousand years. And the law was given for limited purposes.

One purpose of the law was to give specific descriptions of how the moral law should be employed in that particular, ancient society. So, the law taught general moral principles (particularly the Ten Commandment) and applied them in specific ways to that specific time, place, and culture. We can see that in the many specific laws about paying for damages caused to a neighbor’s property (for example, Exod. 21:33–22:15).

Another purpose of the law was to teach certain principles, such that sin is such a serious crime that it deserves death. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s a failure to love, trust, and obey God. The law also taught that sinners can find atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered to pay for the penalties of sin, the idea was that the sins of the people were transferred to those animals, who died in place of sinners. Certain laws provided pictures of what separation from idolatrous people would look like. They were pictures of having different practices. That’s why we there are dietary restrictions and laws regarding not wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, or not sowing two kinds of seeds in one field. Israel was learning how to make distinctions, and to be separate from the nations that surrounded them, because those nations worshiped false gods.

And a third purpose of the law was to reveal how sinful humans are. The law showed Israel that they did not measure up to God’s standards.

But here’s the key thing: we are not saved by obeying the law. No one is. That’s because we don’t obey perfectly. The Israelites failed, time and again, to keep the law. And if we were in ancient Israel, we would have failed, too. So, we do not become right in God’s eyes by first obeying his law. If that were the case, we would never have a right relationship with God.

Even after salvation, we are not bound by the law given to Israel. We are bound by the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17–18). We must understand the law through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. That’s why we don’t offer up animal sacrifices—Jesus is the only sacrifice for sin ever needed. That’s why we don’t have to worry about which animals we eat, or whether we’re wearing a poly-cotton blend. The moral principles of the law are still in place, because they are part of God’s unchanging, universal, eternal moral law. But we can’t simply read a law in the Old Testament and apply it to our lives without first thinking about how it is understood in the light of Christ.

Does that mean we can do whatever we please? No. Certain things are always wrong and continue to be wrong for Christians. Look again at that vice list in verses 9 and 10. This vice list shows us some things that are still wrong. It is always wrong to be “lawless and disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners, . . . unholy and profane, . . . those who strike their fathers and mothers, . . . murderers, . . . sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and [to do] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”

Why are these things wrong?

Some people might conclude that God gives us arbitrary rules. Think again of sports. A lot of rules in sports are fairly arbitrary. Why must a football team advance ten yards to get a first down? Why not nine or eleven? Why do they only get four downs to get those ten yards, instead of just three or perhaps five? There’s no great reason. Them’s just the rules. Why three strikes and four balls? There’s really no great reason. It’s just that there needed to be some number that wouldn’t make the game too easy or too hard. Are God’s rules arbitrary? No. There are reasons for them.

Some people assume that if there is some eternal moral law, then that law is greater than God, because even he is bound by it. That’s something captured in a philosophical dilemma called the “Euthyphro dilemma.” The idea is that some things are morally right either because God says them, or because the moral law exists outside of God. If the first option is right, then God could say that murder was morally good. If the second option is right, then the moral law is greater than God.

But there’s a third option. God’s moral law is a reflection of who he is. God says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God’s laws can also be viewed as something like an instruction manual. God is the creator of life. He designed things to function in certain ways. He knows how his creation works best. He doesn’t give laws to oppress us or rob us of joy. His laws are for our good. And if we love God, we will obey his commandments. That’s why the apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2–3).

We were made to know, love, trust, worship, and represent God. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us something about how to relate to God: We should have no other Gods, we shouldn’t have any false gods, or idols, in our lives, we should take God’s name seriously, and we should find our rest in Jesus, his Son (Exod. 20:3–11, interpreted in the light of Christ). So, to be “disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners” is always wrong. When we rebel against God, we are rejecting the very best “thing” there is, God himself. It’s like trying to fight gravity. It’s foolish and harmful.

The fifth commandment is to honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Striking parents or disobeying them is wrong because God designed the family as the basic building block of society and parents are the authorities in the family. Families precede cities and governments and businesses. That’s why Christians care so much about the structure of the family.

Parents were also designed to point us toward a greater Father. Strange as it may seem, God could have designed life so that people reproduced asexually, so that only one parent was needed, or he could have created a world in which no reproduction was necessary. He could have created one generation of a billion people at once, who each lived for thousands of years. Or he could create people out of nothing every once in a while. But he created parents who could create children. And this is a shadow of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity, and of the Father-children relationship of God and his people. Those who dishonor their parents are more likely to dishonor God.

The sixth commandment is against murder (Exod. 20:13). Murder is wrong because it’s killing someone made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5–6). To kill an innocent person is a great insult to God, because human beings are the height of his creation.

The seventh commandment is against adultery (Exod. 20:14). Strictly speaking, that prohibits a man from having sex with another man’s wife. But it was interpreted more broadly to prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31). Jesus even interprets lust as a violation of this commandment (Matt. 5:27–28).

Why is any form of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity, wrong? Are these just arbitrary commandments designed to take away fun? No. God created sex, and he created it to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage. God’s design for marriage is found in Genesis 2, before sin entered into the world and caused all kinds of disordered sexual desires. The definition of marriage in Genesis 2 is also affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7). The reason why God’s laws regarding sex and marriage are so serious is because God designed both to be a shadow of the exclusive, faithful, relationship of God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32). In a marriage two parties who are different come together. In the marriage of God and his people, it’s two different parties. It’s not God and God, or humans and humans. It’s God and human beings. Or, if you like, it’s the God-man, Jesus Christ, and his people. But what matters is that Jesus is God, and he is united to mere human beings. That is best reflected in a heterosexual relationship.

Of course, I realize that what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is rejected by most Americans today. But just because a majority of people hold an opinion doesn’t mean that opinion is right. It’s often the case that what is right is rejected by many people.

The passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality are rather clear. Revisionist scholars try to say that those passages are really about something other than committed, consensual homosexual unions that we find today. They say they are about men dominating teenage boys, which certainly was common in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. They say those passages really are about some strange sexual rites performed at pagan temples. They say these passages really prohibit excessive lust. But the passages don’t discuss these issues. Most of the passages are rooted in God’s design for men and women, and they often echo Genesis 1 and 2. (The language of Rom. 1:18–23, which precedes descriptions of homosexual activity in Rom. 1:24–27, echoes Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which also includes homosexuality in a vice list, comes before a quotation of Gen. 2:24 in 1 Cor. 6:16.)

If the biblical prohibitions in the Bible are regarded as arbitrary, it’s hard to provide a reason why there can’t be three people in a relationship instead of two, or why two brothers or two sisters couldn’t be in a sexual relationship. Yet most reasonable people realize there are boundaries to sexual relationships. So, why not trust that the boundaries that God has drawn are the right ones?

The fact is that most of us are sexual sinners. Even if we have never had sex, or have only had sex with our spouses, we have likely sinned or coveted another person’s husband or wife. The Bible focuses a lot more on heterosexual sin than homosexual sin. And there is hope for heterosexual and homosexual sinners. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9–11).

Any sinner can be made right with God. The question is whether that person will turn to God and away from sin. Not one of us will be perfect in this life. We will struggle with sin even after becoming Christians. Remember, we’re not saved from condemnation because of our perfect obedience. But salvation comes to those who trust in Jesus, and that requires repentance, a turning away from our old ways.

Getting back to Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy, he makes reference to the eighth commandment, which is against stealing (Exod. 20:15). But he does that by mentioning “enslavers,” those who kidnap people and make them slaves or sell them as slaves. Stealing someone else’s property is wrong, because it harms that person. It elevates things above people. But this goes further: stealing a person is wrong because it treats a person as a thing. Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century, said, “A kidnapper also is a thief; but he is, moreover, a thief who steals the very most excellent thing that exists upon the earth.”[5]

Some people have claimed that the Bible doesn’t say anything against slavery.[6] But that’s not true. This verse says otherwise. So does the book of Philemon. But we’ll talk more about slavery when we get to 1 Timothy 6:1–2.

Paul also references the ninth commandment, which is against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod. 20:16). Paul says “liars, perjurers,” which deals both with legal false witness as well as a broader category of deceit. God is a God of truth and Jesus himself is the truth (John 14:6). So, lies are contrary to God and his ways.

Paul doesn’t mention the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Exod. 20:17), but he does give a blanket statement that sinners are those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

The word “sound” means “healthy.” Sins aren’t healthy. Right theology leads to health. Bad theology leads to disaster.

We can be unhealthy by believing false things about God. We can be unhealthy when we focus too much on true things. When we get obsessed with minor doctrines and make those ultimate priorities, we can quickly become unhealthy. We shouldn’t major on minors and minor on majors.

The center of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being. The gospel is healthy, because it restores us to spiritual health. And it glorifies God because God gets all the credit for saving sinful wretches like you and me. If we were saved by our own obedience, we would be glorified. But the gospel says that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The gospel says that only Jesus lived the perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), yet he died to pay for our sins. He is the true substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. We must never forget that we are not saved by our knowledge, our obedience, our goodness, or our strength. No, Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

Today, I urge us to know and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus brings true, eternal health. Christianity involves knowing right things about God, but it’s more than that. It is about a relationship with Jesus. If we truly know Jesus, we will know facts about him, and we will live a life that is pleasing to him. That means turning from sin and embracing God’s moral law, not as a means of earning God’s favor or maintaining a relationship with him. No, our standing with God is based on whether we trust Jesus or not. But if you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, and you will find that they are not burdensome, but they are intended for your good.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This is quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2013), 233. It apparently comes from section BB of Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011).
  3. Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000).
  4. “In line with Pauline thought elsewhere, but not expressed here, the law functions to reveal sin (Rom 3:20; 5:13; 7:7–12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19). The law is good (Rom 7:7, 12, 14; 3:31), but human sin has made it ineffectual (Rom 7:13–25; 8:3) because it could not empower a person to follow the law. The righteous have outgrown the law (Rom 7:1–4; Gal 3:19, 23–4:7), have died to it (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19), and are now captive to the law of Christ (Rom 7:4–6, 22, 25; 8:2, 7), slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and of God (Rom 6:22; Gal 2:19), not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 34.
  5. Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 617.
  6. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made that claim in 2013. See Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible, NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration.

 

Rooted in Christ

This sermon was preached on April 15, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

This past week, we had a memorial service. It was somewhat typical for a church service. A lot of the people there are churchgoers or used to be churchgoers. People generally dressed appropriately for the occasion. And that’s usually how things go. But several years ago, I was part of an interesting memorial service at my last church, where I was associate pastor. A man named Henry had died and his family came to our church because they needed a place where they could have a service. Henry wasn’t a member of that church. His family and friends were not members of the church. But the senior pastor agreed to conduct the service because he thought it would be a good opportunity to tell people about Jesus.

So, on that Saturday, we had an entirely different congregation show up at our church. The service started late because at least half the group was outside smoking. As I remember it, there were a lot of people in denim and leather. During the service, there was an opportunity for anyone to share memories or thoughts about Henry. One man stood up and said, “The thing about Henry is, he stuck to his roots. No matter what, he was true to his roots.” That was about all he said. Now, from hearing people speak, I got the sense that Henry touched many lives. He seemed to be a good friend and the people there loved him. But this friend, the one who stood up and spoke, didn’t say what Henry’s roots were. I suppose his friend meant that Henry was true to himself, a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy who was loyal to the people around him.

Who among us wouldn’t want someone to say at our funeral, “He stuck to his roots”? When we first hear that, it seems like a good thing. It sounds like this person didn’t compromise. No, he stuck to his guns. He didn’t sell out.

But we’re only as good as our roots. I don’t mean historical roots, or genealogical roots. We all have those, and sometimes they’re not good, but we can move away from them.

What I mean is that each one of our lives is rooted in something. Our lives are based on something, they’re built upon some foundation. Usually, this is what we believe is true or what is most valuable to us. For Christians, that root, that foundation, is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Today, in a passage from Colossians, we’re going to see how Christians need to stay rooted in Christ by continuing in their faith, avoiding all other philosophies and religions, and remembering the gospel.

Today, we’re going to be looking at Colossians 2:6–15. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians in the city of Colossae. Let’s start by reading the first two verses:

6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.[1]

In the first two verses of this passage, Paul tells the Colossians to walk in Christ as they have received him. “Received” is a technical term that refers to receiving the teachings of Christ. The Colossians have heard about Jesus and they have believed in him. So, Paul tells them to continue to follow Jesus as their Lord. They are supposed to be rooted in him and built up in him, as they are established in the faith, just as they were taught. This kind of life should result in an abundance of thanksgiving.

This passage teaches us something very important about Christianity. It shows us that making a commitment to Jesus, professing faith in him, is merely the beginning of a relationship with God. Real faith, or trust, in Jesus is not one moment in your life. Real faith, the kind that unites you to Jesus and puts you into a right relationship with God, is a lifelong thing. We need to continue in our faith and live as though Jesus is the Lord of our lives. Jesus should be our King, our Master, the one who “commands our destiny” as we just sang.[2] When Paul says, “built up in him,” he implies that we are a work in progress. We are supposed to grow into what God wants us to be as his children.

These two verses alone also show that salvation should lead to thanksgiving. Christians, we should be thankful that God has saved us out of a dark future of condemnation and a bleak present of a meaningless, hopeless life. As Paul says in Colossians 1:13–14,

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

And this passage touches on a very important theme that runs through the whole Bible. It is the theme of the temple. The church is God’s temple. We are supposed to be the “place” where God dwells on earth, where God is worshiped, and where the forgiveness of sins can be found. I think that’s why later Paul says that we—together, as the body of Christ, as the temple of the living God—have been filled by and in Jesus. Our purpose is to glorify God by worshiping him in all areas of our lives. And our lives should be marked by thanksgiving as we respond to the gospel of grace. We who were once dead have been made alive in Christ. We are now his servants and he is our Master. For that reason, we shouldn’t let anything else take us captive.

That is why Paul warns the Colossians not to be taken captive by any other philosophies. Let’s read verse 8: See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we must avoid all other empty, deceitful, rival philosophies. Paul doesn’t condemn all philosophy. After all, the word simply means “love of wisdom.” Paul has just told us in verse 3 that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. The kind of philosophy that Paul warns about is the philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. The key is that these philosophies are described as “empty deceit.” They are empty because they cannot fill us up the way that Jesus does. And they are deceitful because they are not true.

We know that there are a lot of manmade philosophies out there. And these philosophies are godless ones, such as naturalism, the view that there is no God or anything supernatural, or scientism, that all of reality can be explained through science. These are essentially worldviews in which God does not exist, and all can be explained by science or by human reasoning. In Colossae, the “empty philosophy” might have combined Jewish regulations, such as dietary laws and circumcision, with mysticism and a form of asceticism. If you look at the next passage in Colossians, verses 16–23, you can see that. The Roman Empire was full of many different religions, and there might have been a temptation for these Christians in Colossae (a city in what is now known as Turkey) to add other religions or philosophies to Jesus. Certain people in Colossae might have believed that these things were necessary in order to have a right standing with God. But Paul says that the Colossians need nothing other than Christ.

It’s a little harder to know what Paul means when he writes about philosophies according to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The “elemental spirits” can either mean the physical elements of this world, such as air, earth, fire, and water. They can also mean spiritual beings like demons. Perhaps the best way to understand this phrase is to see it as both. Unbelievers worship the creation instead of the Creator. These “elemental spirits” somehow represent idols, or rivals to God. Paul could have meant that these “elemental spirits,” or “elemental principles,” were being taught by some false teachers. Ultimately, false teaching and false religious practices are rooted in the demonic realm. They belong to Satan, the father of all lies (John 8:44).

In our day, many empty and deceitful philosophies try to usurp the throne of Christ. Any form of idolatry is a rival to Christ as Lord. Obsession with romance, wealth, fitness, or politics can prove to be an empty philosophy.

There are many false teachings that creep into the church, like the postmodern thought that no one religion can be true, or that all religions lead to the same place, or that everyone is saved and there is no hell. There are other false teachings that become popular, such as New Age teachings. The specifics come and go, but they all tend to do with finding spiritual healing and peace outside of Jesus. And there are many false teachings that attempt to say that Christianity is false. I like to call this “Dan Brown history.” You know the story: there were many competing Gospels, and the Church decided which Gospels to keep and which ones to cover up.

I realize that there are many people who don’t regard themselves as religious, or who don’t think they have become captive to any philosophy or ideology. I think all of us are religious. We all think something is ultimate, and that something doesn’t require any other explanation. That something tends to be our god. And people seem to do a lot of irrational things.

This week I heard about a man named Braco the Gazer. He’s a Croatian man who appears to thousands of people and just gazes at them for several minutes. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t stare. He just sincerely gazes. And people claim that his gaze gives them feelings of love and light and energy and heat, and that his gaze can even bring healing.

Perhaps such things have a kind of placebo effect. But they don’t unite us to God. They don’t make us right with him or give us eternal life. That’s why we need to reject all of these false teachings. Christianity is a true view of all of reality. Christians need to develop a Christian worldview that tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God; all truth comes from God; the problem of the world is sin; and the only solution is Jesus. We need to guard our doctrine and the doctrine of our churches.

Sadly, I have seen many examples of people leaving their Christian roots because of empty philosophies. I have a friend whom I met in Austin when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. We met at the church that I was attending and eventually joined. I was studying voice at the university and he was a singer, too. Thought he had a day job working in a government office, he wanted to be a Christian R&B singer. He had even recorded an album. We became friends and occasionally had lunch together. We would talk about life and music.

From what I knew of this man when I lived in Austin, he was a godly man. He had a wife and three daughters, and it seemed to me that he wanted to use his musical abilities to serve the Lord. It was only after I left Austin that I noticed a change. The next time I came back to visit, I had lunch with this man. He started to tell me how he had been doing some “research” on the Internet. He told me there were other Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas. He told me other religions featured a virgin birth and a resurrection. I wasn’t very familiar with these things at the time, but now I know that there is a lot of bad history out there. The other Gospels were written in the second century or later. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was written towards the end of the second century. Thomas certainly did not write it. The same is true for the Gospel of Judas and other false gospels.

At any rate, this man was reading this inaccurate history and he was starting to doubt his faith. On my next trip to Austin, I once again had lunch with this man. He told me he was starting to look into Judaism. After all, if he couldn’t trust Christianity, he might as well go back to the roots of Christianity.

The last time I saw this man, he said he was just trying to live his life. He said he meditated on Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He told me he realized he needed to work on loving himself better. He also hinted at having some desire for contact with men. His comments were very ambiguous, but I could tell he had struggled with same-sex attraction.

This was the last time I saw him, but every few months, we would talk on the phone. Eventually, he told me some big news. He had decided to leave his wife. He had also tried out homosexuality. Though he had sex with a man, he didn’t know if he wanted to pursue being gay. He was obviously very mixed up. The last time I talked to him, he told me he was doing naked yoga and be was still trying to sort out his sexual orientation. From the looks of his Facebook profile, he is involved in some group that makes sexual pleasure their religion.

That’s just one example of someone I know who has left the faith. Another, closer friend I had seemed to be a strong Christian. But something has happened in her life, and I’m not sure what. All I know is that she divorced her husband and is now exploring astrology.

Now, you don’t have to get caught up in strange things to be taken captive by an empty, deceitful philosophy. People leave the faith in order to pursue desires, relationships, careers, or simply because they don’t want Jesus to be Lord over their lives.

We must guard our hearts, guard our doctrine, and even guard each other so that we can continue to stay rooted in Christ. We don’t need any other philosophies, because all true wisdom is found in Christ. And he is the only one who can save us.

If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we need to remember the gospel message. That means we must continue worshiping, reading the Bible, and even preaching the gospel to ourselves. We must remember that in Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. If we are in Christ, our old self has died. If we are in Christ, we are risen to new life. If we are in Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. And if we are in Christ, our enemies have been defeated.

Let’s read verses 9–15:

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Verses 9–15 summarize the key elements of the gospel message. In Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us once again that the fullness of God dwells in the physical body of Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” Jesus is God, or, to put it more accurately, the God-man. And if we are united to Jesus, we have access to the fullness of God. Think about that: if the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, and we are “in Christ” through faith, we have direct access to all of God. If we are the body of Christ and he is the head of that body, we are connected to the one who is over all rulers and all authorities. If we are the temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth is in us. Our Lord is the Lord of the universe. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. There is no greater power out there. Why would we want to worship something else or pursue any other philosophy? In Christ, we have everything we need.

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn other things, like math and science and history. But we should learn those subjects knowing that math and science are possible because they reflect the orderliness of the mind of God and the order and design of his creation. All truth is God’s truth. So, we should learn to connect all of life, including everything we learn, to God. We should learn to interpret every fact in light of the existence of God.

Beginning in verse 11, Paul gets to the heart of the gospel. In Christ, our old selves have died. Paul talks about this transformation that God performs in Christians by using the metaphor of circumcision. God told Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that all of the men among God’s covenant people had to be circumcised (Genesis 17). Literally, this was a surgery, a putting off of part of the flesh. But even in the Old Testament, circumcision took on a metaphorical quality. Israelites were told they needed to have circumcised hearts, which meant they needed to have new hearts, hearts changed by God (Deut. 10:12; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). We might say that to be right with God, we need to have spiritual heart surgery. That’s because before that transformation, we don’t desire or love rightly. Our problem is that we don’t love God and other people the way we should. We don’t desire to do what is noble and right, at least not all the time and not with the right motives.

Here, Paul says that all Christians have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” In other words, God is the one who did this circumcision. God has performed this spiritual heart surgery on his people. It was done “by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” The meaning of this is debated. Some people think the circumcision of Christ refers to his actual circumcision, which is a reminder that Jesus obeyed the law, the covenant demands of God. Paedobaptists—those who believe children of believers should be baptized while they are infants—believe that Christian baptism is the equivalent of circumcision, and this is what they baptize babies. However, the mention of faith in verse 12 shows why this view is wrong. Baptism apart from faith does nothing.

Other people think the circumcision of Christ is a way of referring to his death. When Jesus died, he was “cut off.” Still others think that it refers to the spiritual circumcision that Christ performs on us. Even in the Old Testament, circumcision language was used for regeneration, or being “born again.”[3] God told the stubborn, rebellious people of Israel that they needed circumcised hearts and even ears (Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51). To listen to God’s voice and respond to it rightly, we need to be transformed. We often think of the gospel as dealing with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And that’s right. But part of the good news is also that God transforms us so that we can respond rightly to Jesus. He gives us the Holy Spirit.

I think the “circumcision of Christ” refers both to his death and to our regeneration. If we are united to Christ in faith, we participate in his death. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Romans 6:3–4. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

True circumcision is also described in Romans. Romans 2:28–29 says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” To be circumcised by God is to have a radical heart surgery performed by God the Father, through the Son, by means of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ, we become spiritually alive. Not only do we die with Christ, but we rise with him, too. This dying and rising is represented in baptism, which is considered part of the complex of events—faith, repentance, receiving the Spirit—that marks our initiation into the family of God. The key element in verse 12 is faith in God’s ability to do powerful things. If God can raise Jesus from the grave, he can make us into new creations. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Ephesians 2. We once were dead in our sins and now we are alive in Christ.

In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, by dying in our place, we have the forgiveness of sins. Our debt to God that stood over us with its legal demands was nailed to the cross. This reminds me of that verse in “It Is Well with My Soul”:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

On the cross, Jesus paid our debt. We all have turned our backs on God. Sure, we may think of him when we have a need, but the rest of the time we don’t think of him and love him as we should. We don’t live life on his terms. Our lives are rooted in something else. God cannot have this, because our sin ruins his creation, and because he is a righteous, perfect judge. Yet Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live—always rooted in God—and he died in our place, paying the penalty for our crimes against God. And his resurrection proves that his death paid that debt in full. Jesus took on the sentence for our crimes against God and walked out of the grave a free man, having satisfied the penalty for our sin.

Finally, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven have accomplished one last, important thing. On the cross, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to save us through Jesus. But Jesus also died because Satan and the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him eliminated. The devil and the Sanhedrin thought that they defeated Christ when he was crucified, but the irony is that through death, God defeated his enemies. When Jesus died, the authorities stripped him naked, paraded him in front of angry crowds, and celebrated their triumph over him. But Paul tells us the reality is quite different. Through Jesus’ death and subsequent vindication, God stripped his enemies naked, paraded them in public, and celebrated his triumph over them. This may not be apparent to the world right now, but when Jesus returns, it will be.

Once again, we see that Jesus is Lord over all authorities and rulers, on earth and in heaven. If our root is in Christ, no enemy can defeat us. We must remember to preach this gospel message of regeneration and forgiveness and triumph to ourselves, to remember that we have everything we need in Christ. We need to do this in the midst of temptation or discouragement, to keep us from slipping away from Jesus.

Now that we’ve looked at the details of this passage, how should we respond?

Let me first ask this: what is your life rooted in? What is your life built on? If it’s not truly built on Jesus, or on the one true, three-in-one God that is the Father, Son, and Spirit, it will be built on something else, something that isn’t lasting.

If you haven’t built your life on Jesus, I would urge you to do that. Other things may sound good. Other ideas, ways of life, or even religions may sound very attractive. But they either won’t be true (in the case of other religions) or they won’t put you in the right with God (in the case of philosophies). Only Jesus can forgive our sins, change our hearts, and give us eternal life. But we must be rooted in Jesus. We can’t plant Jesus into another root. It doesn’t work that way. He won’t be built on our lives. It’s the other way around.

A lot of people have wrongly been taught that to become a Christian means saying a prayer, or making a one-time confession of faith. Now, we can and should pray to God when we come to faith, and we should confess that we believe that Jesus is Lord and God and that he died for our sins. But real faith isn’t just saying words. Real faith is a living, continuing trust in Jesus. There are many false converts, people who once said they believed and were baptized and are not following Jesus. Let’s not be fooled. Those people are not Christians. Anyone can say some words. Anyone can get wet. Anyone can appear to follow Jesus for a short time. But real Christians continue to follow Christ.

If you’re not a Christian, or if you’re not sure you’re really a Christian, I would love to talk to you about what it means to follow Jesus.

If you are a Christian, how do we stay rooted in Christ?

There are some practical ways to help us stay rooted in Christ. We need to continue to read our Bibles. My goal is to read the entire Bible every year. I think it’s a reasonable goal—though I’ve often failed. You can do it by reading twenty-three chapters each week, or a little over three chapters a day. We need to remember that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). But there’s no law saying you have to read in the Bible in one year. Try reading it over the course of two years. If you read two chapters a day, even if you miss a day here or there, you can read it two years’ time. Staying in the Bible helps us remember what is true and what is valuable. It keeps us rooted in Christ.

We can also read other books that help us understand the Bible or help understand how to connect the Bible to every area of life. What’s important is that we are careful about our inputs. You will only be as good as the diet your brain and your heart are getting. So, choose wisely.

Here’s something I want you to think about. We have a limited amount of time, and we should be careful how we spend our time. Think only about reading. Tony Reinke, in his book on reading called Lit!, makes the following observations. There are currently eighteen million books in the Library of Congress. In fifty years, there will probably be at least twenty-eight million books. If in the next fifty years we read one book a week, which is a lot of reading, we could read 2,600 books. That sounds impressive. But that means that for every book we read, we choose not to read ten thousand other books. We will only be able to read one out of every ten thousand books, and only if we read one book per week.[4] So choose your reading wisely. Don’t waste all your time on the Internet, watching TV and movies, and reading bad books.

We can also stay rooted in Christ by worshiping him, particularly on the Lord’s Day with other Christians. Remember that Paul said we should abound in thanksgiving. Be thankful that God saved you and show your thanks through prayer and through praise. Sing of how good God is and talk to him regularly.

Staying rooted in Christ means that we have to dig up weeds that would threaten us. Whether those weeds are sinful practices or distractions or philosophies, ideologies, or even other religious ideas, if they are contrary to Jesus, we need to root them out of our lives so that we can stay rooted in Christ.

Finally, remember the gospel. Remind yourself that you have sinned against the holy Creator and are deserving of eternal condemnation, and you have been saved by God’s grace, which is available at great cost: Jesus’ death on the cross. Preach the gospel to the people around you, whether it’s your congregation, your Sunday school class, your family, or your friends. Never assume that they know the good news of Jesus Christ. And even if they know it, we never move past the gospel. We need to keep hearing it and thinking about it. It keeps us rooted in Christ.

When we continue in our faith, reject the world’s deceitful philosophies, and remember the gospel, we stay rooted in Christ. If you do these things, when you die, someone will stand up at your funeral and say, “He stuck to his roots, no matter what.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. These words come from the hymn “In Christ Alone.”
  3. For the role of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, even in the Old Testament, see James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Spirit: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006).
  4. Tony Reinke, Lit! (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 93–94.

 

Rooted in Christ (Colossians 2:6-15)

What is your life rooted in? What is it built on? If it’s not built on Jesus, it’s on shaky ground. Find out why it matters that our lives are rooted in Christ and how we can keep our lives rooted in Christ. This sermon on Colossians 2:6-15 was preached by Brian Watson.

My Lord and My God! (John 20)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message based on John 20. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, because all who trust in him, all who embrace him as Savior, Lord, and God, will have a resurrected life, too. The only way to eternal life and peace is Jesus.

My Lord and My God!

This sermon was preached on April 1, 2018 (Resurrection Sunday, a.k.a. Easter) by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that it’s April. Only in the past few days has it started to feel like spring. It was a long winter, and we still have about three, small, stubborn mounds of snow at the edge of the parking lot. But the rest of the snow has melted, and the temperature is getting a bit warmer. And before too long things will start to get greener.

I love it when spring arrives, because it gives us a feeling of hope. We see signs of life after a long period of dead leaves and bare branches. The seasons of nature remind us of the seasons of life, and we can see signs of both new life and death all around us. Five weeks ago, we got a new dog, a puppy who was about twelve weeks old at the time. She’s already grown quite a bit, and she can be very playful. On the other hand, we look at our older dog, who at twelve years old is slowing down and sometimes walks with a limp.

But our lives—or the lives of our pets—aren’t like the seasons. The seasons come and go in cycles. Our lives aren’t cyclical; they only move in one direction. While we all were young at one point (if we’re not young now), we know that we’re getting older, and that eventually our bodies will decay and die. Even this past week, I saw evidence of that. Last Sunday night, I found out that the wife of a family friend died. She was probably only in her mid-thirties. She had a rare disease that caused her body to create way too many of one protein and not enough of the corresponding protein. And though she had some experimental treatments with stem cells, she couldn’t be healed. I only met her on two occasions, but I was very sad to hear about her death. She left behind a husband and two young children.

Someone else I know this week died. He was in his late sixties and had multiple health problems, including a major stroke several years ago. I saw him the day before he died. He was having trouble breathing and he wasn’t very responsive, in part because he was on morphine and was tired. He couldn’t talk. But with a bit of effort he could open his eyes and nod his head. Viewed from one perspective, it was sad to see him in the shape he was in. He was in his bed, leaning to one side, a tube bringing oxygen to his gaping mouth. He had lost quite a bit of weight, his breathing was labored, and his skin was very pale and unhealthy looking.

But viewed from another perspective, his situation wasn’t sad. And neither was his death. That’s because trusted that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. He trusted that Jesus’ perfect, righteous life was credited to his account and that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all his sins. He trusted that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, the first day being the day when Jesus was killed by crucifixion. He believed that Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of who Jesus is and what his death accomplished. He believed that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).[1] And because he believed that, and because he embraced Jesus as his Savior, Lord, and God, I knew that this was not the end of his story. I looked at him and said, “One day, you’ll get a resurrected body, a perfect body that won’t have all these problems, a body that will never die.”

The great claim of Christianity is that there is eternal life for those who are united to Jesus. Those who trust Jesus will die. But as Jesus once said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised from the dead and their bodies will be transformed, or glorified, so that they will be immortal. This will happen when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. And the reason we trust that this will happen is because almost two thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the first installment of a new creation, a world that is made perfect, a world in which there is no more evil, disease, war, or death.

This sounds almost too good to be true. Everything in life seems to head towards a fall and the long death of winter. Can there really be an ultimate spring and an endless summer? Can there really be eternal life after death?

Well, that is the claim of Christianity. And I believe it is true. The reason I believe that Christianity is true is because it makes the most sense of life, because it provides us great hope, and because there is evidence that supports its claims.

Today, I want us to see three things about Jesus and his resurrection. One, no one would have fabricated this story. Two, I want us to see why Jesus lived, died, and rose again. And, three, I want us to see what a right response to Jesus looks like. We’ll do that by taking a look at what the Gospel of John says about Jesus’ resurrection.

We’re going to read John 20 today. We’ll start by reading verses 1–13:

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It’s Sunday, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Jesus. In the other Gospels, we’re told that Mary was with some other women, and that they went to the tomb to put spices on Jesus’ body. This was a form of embalming a body; the spices would help cover the smell of the decomposing body. Because Jesus was hastily buried, they didn’t have the opportunity to do this before he was put in the tomb.

It’s quite clear that Mary wasn’t expecting Jesus to be resurrected from the grave. She thinks some people have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. She says this to Peter and John (“the other disciple”) and to the angels. And it seems like the disciples weren’t really expecting this. In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). Mark says that the women were afraid after they saw the empty tomb (Mark 16:8). Matthew says that even after they saw the risen Jesus, some of the disciples doubted (Matt. 28:17).

The point is that no one seemed to believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. People in Jesus’ day knew dead people stayed dead. British theologian N. T. Wright says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing.[2] He also says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23-24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’”[3] The apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history.

If no one was expecting Jesus’ resurrection, we shouldn’t think that people simply made this story up. There is simply no evidence that a group of people fabricated this story. The details of the story would be too unbelievable to make up. After all, if a Jewish person were to make this story up, they wouldn’t have women being the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases.[4] Now, that’s not a biblical or Christian view of women, but that was what people believed in that day. If you were making up a story, you wouldn’t have women as the first witnesses. You would likely have rich men or priests see the empty tomb first.

Also, the apostles would have nothing to gain by making up this story. Christianity put them at odds with the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that controlled the whole area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This area included good portions of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Christians occasionally died because of their faith. The earliest Christians were Jews, and the Roman Empire tolerated the Jewish religion. But it did not tolerate Christianity for almost three hundred years. Who would make up a story that would lead to their own death?

There are many other reasons to believe that the resurrection is true. You can read about them in the article that was included with your bulletin.[5] If you read that article, you’ll see that it points you to some online resources if you want to learn more.

The second thing I want us to see is why Jesus’ death and resurrection matter. Let’s read verses 14–23:

14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

It was early in the morning and still dark when Mary went to the tomb. And she was now weeping. So, it’s understandable that she wouldn’t recognize Jesus. She assumes this man who is now talking to her is a gardener. That’s a reasonable guess, since Jesus was crucified and buried in a garden (John 19:41). When Mary hears her own name called by Jesus, she recognizes who is talking to her. Perhaps that’s an echo of what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel. He called himself the good shepherd who leads and lays down his life for his people, his sheep. He said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).

But perhaps Mary wasn’t so mistaken. Maybe Jesus is a bit of a gardener. Bear with me for a moment. The big story of the Bible says that God created human beings in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26), to reflect his glory, to serve him and to obey him. Essentially, we were made to know and love God, to live all of life under God’s authority, and to let others know about God, too. At the beginning of the Bible, God made the first two human beings and he put them in a garden. I think this is a literal event that also has symbolic meaning. The first human beings were supposed to keep the garden (Gen. 2:15) and they were supposed to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). And if you think about it, you start to get this image: Outside the garden is wilderness, a wild, undeveloped area. And as God’s image bearers worshiped and obeyed God and as they were fruitful and multiplied, having children who also worshiped God, they would be able to expand the garden until it filled the whole earth so that it became a paradise, full of the glory of God.

Now, that sounds like a beautiful thing. But there’s a problem. The first human beings didn’t trust God and obey him. They doubted his goodness. They wanted to be like God. In effect, they tried to remove God from his throne. As a result, God kicked them out of the garden, into the wilderness. And as a partial punishment for sin, God put his creation under a curse. Now, life would be hard; people would die. God did this to limit the rebellion of human beings. God loves his creation and doesn’t want evil—particularly the evil of rebellious human beings—to ruin it.

Now, if you’re reading the Bible thoughtfully and you read the first three chapters of the Bible, you may wonder, “How can we get back to the garden? How can we get back into God’s presence? How can we have a right relationship with him? How can go to a place where we will never die?”

As you read the Old Testament, you see how all human beings are rebellious. And, frankly, you don’t have to read the Bible to see that. Just look around. Look at how rebellious even little children can be. We can’t make our lives into a garden. We can’t remove all the weeds from our lives, let alone the whole world. People have tried, and they have failed, again and again.

The only solution comes from God. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world. He did that in part so that Jesus could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. Jesus is the only person who perfectly loved, obeyed, worshiped, and served God. He is the ultimate image bearer of God, the true image and likeness of God. He is the perfect human being, the only one who has any right to live in the garden of God.

But how can Jesus bring people like us into the garden? We are made unclean by our sin, our disobedience to God, our rebellion against him, our ignoring him. God is a perfect judge who must make sure that the guilty receive the appropriate sentence for their crimes. God cannot allow rebels to live in his garden, so the appropriate sentence is death. Really, when we choose to turn away from God, we turn away from the source of life, and we find a world of death. No one forces us to do this. We choose this willingly, because we don’t love God.

The only way that Jesus can bring us into the garden is to take that sentence of death on himself. That’s what he did on the cross. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. He endured God’s punishment against sinners on the cross. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

And when Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first fruits of a new garden. Quite literally, the resurrected Jesus came out of the garden tomb as an immortal being, the second Adam planted in a garden. And he later ascended to heaven, where he is now with God the Father, praying and pleading for his people, serving as their great high priest. But someday he will come again, to judge everyone who has ever lived. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, will live in a garden paradise forever (Rev. 22:1–5 echoes the garden imagery of Gen. 2).

Jesus told his disciples, “Peace be with you.” The only way to have real peace in this life, the only way to have peace with God, is to know Jesus. Jesus said to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). That doesn’t mean that knowing facts about God gives us eternal life. No, it means we must know God because we have a relationship with him. That is what brings us peace. We don’t earn a relationship with God. We don’t make ourselves acceptable to God. No, we must simply receive salvation as a gift.

Now, I want us to see what a right relationship with God looks like. Let’s read verses 24–31:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas gets a bad rap. He’s known as “doubting Thomas. For him, seeing is believing. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16). So, Thomas was a person who followed Jesus and trusted him. Still, he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen.

Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. Instead, he appears to him and to the rest of the disciples on the following Sunday. And Jesus invites Thomas to see him and to touch him.

When Thomas see Jesus, he cannot help but say, “My Lord and my God!” One of John’s goals in writing his Gospel is to make it clear that Jesus is God. He begins his Gospel that way (John 1:1) and here at the end he records Thomas’ confession of faith.

People who truly believe in Jesus know that he is Lord and God. I think we generally understand what the word “God” means, but it’s hard for us to understand what “Lord” means. When we hear that word, we may think of the House of Lords in London. The word sounds antiquated. But John’s initial readers would have known what was being said. During this time, the superpower of the world was the Roman Empire, and its leader was the emperor, also known as Caesar. And Caesar was known as Lord. According to one dictionary, Lord means “one having power and authority over others.”[6] Caesar was the most powerful man in the world.

He wasn’t just known as Lord, but he was also known as “the son of God” and a “savior.” There is an inscription of a decree made in 9 BC by an official in the eastern part of the Roman Empire that says the birthday of Augustus—the emperor reigning over the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born—should be celebrated. This official wanted the calendar to be reset to the emperor’s birthday, in 63 BC.[7] The inscription claims that Augustus was a “savior”[8] and “our god.”[9] Coins in the Roman Empire had titles of the emperor on them: divi filius (“son of God”) and pontifex maximus (“greatest priest”). In the Roman Empire, the Caesar was worshiped as a god.

So, when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” he’s saying that Jesus is the true God, the true Lord, the true King, the world’s true ruler and ultimate authority. Thomas swears his allegiance to Jesus, not to Caesar.

The earliest Christians were willing to die rather than compromise that allegiance to Jesus. They would rather die than bow before the emperor and worship him. One of John’s students was a man named Polycarp (69–155), who became the bishop of Smyrna, which is now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey. He became a martyr, a Christian who died for his faith. At the time of his execution, some people tried to convince him to worship the emperor and therefore be saved from death. They said, “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense” (and other words to this effect) “and thereby saving yourself?”[10] But Polycarp refused. Then, “the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’”[11] When Polycarp was told he would be burned by fire, he said, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”[12]

True Christians recognize that Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord and God. I don’t think we have proper categories to understand what “Lord” really means. The most powerful man on earth is probably the president of our country, yet no matter who is in the White House, it seems like at least half the country hates him and doesn’t recognize his authority. And the president’s authority is limited, of course. But Jesus is Lord over everything. And when we come to him as Savior, he becomes Lord over all of our lives, not just our Sunday mornings or whenever we feel like being religious.

I think the reason many people don’t embrace Jesus is that issue of authority. We simply don’t want someone else to be Lord over our lives. That is why people reject Christianity. It’s not because Christianity is irrational or illogical. It’s not because there is no evidence to support the claims of Christianity. We have eyewitness testimony from several different witnesses, and the basic claims of Christianity are supported by philosophy and science. I think people often ignore that evidence because they don’t want a Lord.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, an atheist, wrote these words several years ago: “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[13] He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”[14]

We don’t want there to be a Lord God because we don’t want someone telling us what we can and can’t do, particularly in important areas of our lives like sex, marriage, money, how we use our time, and how we treat people who are different from us. I think people know that the Christian life isn’t an easy one, and they don’t want to take what they think is the hard road. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[15]

Yet if we reject Jesus because we reject his authority, we also reject his blessings. He said that those who believe—even when they haven’t seen him in the flesh—are blessed. John says he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe and have eternal life in Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God and have eternal life. But if there’s no Lord Jesus in and over your life, there’s no eternal life for you. So many people say, “Rest in peace,” after someone has died. I’m here to tell you the truth: the only way to rest in peace is to have a right relationship with Jesus, the kind of relationship that Thomas and Mary Magdalene had. We will all have that moment when our bodies will fail. We all will die, whether in a sudden accident or slowly on a bed, tubes connected to our bodies, morphine in our veins. What happens next? Will you have eternal peace? You will if Jesus is your Lord and God.

We will all come under some authority. Something will rule over us, whether it’s something that we treasure the most or even our own desires. Entertainment, pleasure, money, politics, and almost anything else can function as our lord and god. But Jesus is the only God who would sacrifice his life for you. He’s the only Lord who can die for your sins and make you right with God. No one else, and nothing else will do that for you. I urge you to put your trust in him. And if you don’t know Jesus, please talk to me. I would love to help you know him and follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76.
  3. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192.
  4. Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
  5. Brian Watson, “Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ.
  6. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003).
  7. John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 133.
  8. M. Eugene Boring, “Gospel, Message,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 2:630.
  9. Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones, 2:458, quoted in Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 133.
  10. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 8, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 233.
  11. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 9, in ibid., 235.
  12. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 11, in ibid.
  13. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130.
  14. Ibid., 131.
  15. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World? (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912), 48.

 

I Have Not Come to Call the Righteous

This sermon was preached on March 25, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.

These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city.[1] In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly.[2] Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.

This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:

We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.

Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.[3]

New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.

When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.

So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[4]

This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”

But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.

To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”

Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.

What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.

When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.

And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.

This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.

The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!

This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.”[5] Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.

Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:

Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.[6]

The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.

The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.

Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.

As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.

But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.

These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:

33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”

The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.

Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.

But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.

Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.

Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.

Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?

I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.

If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.

And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says.[7] We need to keep coming back to Jesus.

Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.

Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.

The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.

People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.

Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.

I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.

We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?

Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”

For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).

Notes

  1. Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a
  2. An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html
  3. Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497.
  6. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251.
  7. “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

 

I Have Not Come to Call the Righteous (Luke 5:27-39)

Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.

Who Can Forgive Sins But God Alone?

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 18, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below)

Cleanliness is next to godliness. That’s apparently what the preacher John Wesley said in a 1778 sermon.

There’s some truth to that, though it’s easy to misunderstand. But we all know that cleanliness is important, and if things aren’t clean, there will eventually be trouble.

At the very end of last year, just after Christmas, the weather was extremely cold. And during that cold spell, our car started making some terribly loud noises when we started it. It was a low, loud groan, that kind of sounded like an angry cow. This went on for a few days, and one day when I had to drive somewhere early in the morning, it had a hard time steering, as if the power steering had gone out. So, I tried calling some mechanics and the local Honda dealership to see if I could get the car looked at. Because of the holidays, they had limited time slots, so they were booked solid. The best I could do was make an appointment for after the New Year.

So, I went online trying to figure out what might be wrong, to see how urgent this condition was. I saw some articles that suggest there might be a problem with the power steering. So, I followed the advice of one blog and took a turkey baster to suck up the old, dirty power steering fluid, and I replaced it with new fluid. It seemed to work pretty well. But then in February, I took the car to the dealership to get an oil change and to have them look at this situation. They told me there was a leak in the power steering fluid pump (the angry cow), and that I need to have that fixed, as well as get some other things done on the car. I’m not a car guy, but I like to get things taken care of on the car sooner rather than later, so that there aren’t bigger problems down the line. So, I had some preventive maintenance done.

I imagine that part of the reason why the powering steering pump wasn’t working well during the cold was because I was overdue for a power steering fluid flush and change. When the power steering fluid gets dirty, and when any water vapor gets in the lines, there can be problems during cold weather. So, dirty fluid led to problems. The same would be true if I never changed the oil. If you try to go 20,000 miles with dirty oil, your car is going to suffer.

The same can be true of our bodies. If our blood isn’t clean, or if our digestive tract isn’t clean, we can have problems. If you eat a terrible diet and never exercise, you’re going to have problems. It’s quite possible your arteries will get clogged with plaque, which could lead to serious and even fatal problems.

Now, while it’s important to take care of your vehicle, having a car that has clean fluids and runs well won’t get you closer to God. And though it’s important to take care of your body, being healthy doesn’t make you a godlier person. But there’s a different kind of health, one that is more important, and that is the health of your soul. And if we want to have an abundant life, a healthy life, a life that fulfills the purposes for which we are made, we have to be made clean. If we want to see God and live forever with him in paradise, we need to be spiritually clean.

The only one who can clean up our souls, who can provide forgiveness of sins, is Jesus. The only way to have true, lasting health—in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our souls—is through Jesus. Today, we’ll see that Jesus has the power and authority to clean people and forgive them. We’ll see this in Luke 5:12–26.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for over three months. Luke is one of the four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. He begins his story of Jesus with the events leading up to—and including—Jesus’ birth. And after describing a brief episode of Jesus as a boy, Luke focuses on Jesus’ public ministry of teaching and performing miracles. We’ll see that continue today.

First, let’s read verses 12–16:

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.[1]

Jesus is in one of the cities in Galilee, perhaps in Capernaum, where he was before. While there, he encounters a man who has leprosy. When we read about leprosy in the Bible, we may be confused, because it’s different from what is called leprosy today. What we know as leprosy today is also known as Hansen’s disease, which is named after the person who identified the microorganism that causes that skin disease. In the Bible, the term “leprosy” can describe a variety of skin conditions.

What’s most important to know is that this man’s skin disease has made him unclean. And that was his biggest problem. He doesn’t say, “Lord, if you will, you can heal me.” No, he says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

Now, to understand this issue, we have to know something about what the Bible says about diseases and being clean. And to understand this, we have to understand something about the nature of sin. Last week, I said that sin was a rebellion against God, a turning away from our Creator and turning to value the creation instead. We were made to know, love, and worship God but we have turned away from him. We don’t seek a relationship with him—at least not a right relationship with him. We don’t love him the way we ought to. We don’t worship him all the time. We don’t do what he wants us to do. In other words, we don’t live according to his design. And because of that turning away from God, we have a broken world. When we turn away from the God who ordered and arranged the world, we find disorder and chaos. When we turn away from the God who is love, we find hate and war. When we turn away from the giver of life, we find death. Part of the penalty of sin is a world full of disease and ultimately death.

So, the ultimate reason there are diseases like leprosy in the world is because of sin. That doesn’t mean there’s a direct connection between a person’s sin and an illness they have. It’s not that all people who have diseases have done some particularly awful sin. Some very healthy people are great sinners, and some very godly people have a lot of ailments. So, there’s no one-to-one connection between the amount of sin in a person’s life and their bodily health. But the reason anyone has a disease is because of the presence of sin in the world. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. There’s only person who never did, and that’s Jesus.

Now, in the Old Testament, we find that God calls a people, the Israelites, to himself. He rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and then he gave them his law, which taught them how to live. And when you read through that law, particularly the book of Leviticus, you find a lot of information about skin diseases (Leviticus 13 and 14), in particular. And sometimes it’s all a bit baffling to us. But the idea is that in order to be part of God’s people, you had to be clean. Now, on one level, this makes perfect sense. The Israelites didn’t have modern medicine and diseases are contagious. In order to protect the health of the people, those who had diseases had to be removed. They often were placed outside the camp until they became clean, or healthy. So, the idea of keeping the unclean people on the edge of the community made perfect sense.

But the law also addresses issues in a symbolic way. The idea that you get when you read the book of Leviticus is that in order for the Israelites to approach God in worship they needed to be pure. They needed to be cleansed of their sin. Anything that made the Israelites impure made them unfit to be in the presence of God. And since diseases are ultimately the result of sin, those who were diseased couldn’t be part of the community. They were ostracized. That was a visual picture of the contagious nature of sin. Sin needed to be removed from God’s people. Sin corrupts. Sin has a way of being contagious, spreading throughout one body and on to others.

Because this man had leprosy, he would have been shunned by others. He would have been considered untouchable, for to touch someone with leprosy would make that person unclean. A leper was treated like someone who was less than human. Just listen to these words, found in Leviticus 13:45–46:

45 The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

So, this leper that Jesus meets has a skin condition that causes him to be “alone” and “outside the camp.” I’m sure he wants to be healed, but what he really needs is to be made clean.

What’s amazing is that Jesus heals the man by touching him. He didn’t have to touch the man. Jesus has the power to heal just by saying a word. But he intentionally touches the man, showing him that he is indeed a human being worthy of love and care.

When Jesus heals and therefore cleanses the man, he tells him not to tell others, but to go to the priest and to bring an animal sacrifice. In the Old Testament law, priests were the ones who examined people to see if they were healed. And if the person was healed, then that person had to offer animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices made that person clean (see Lev. 14:1–32).

The idea that animal sacrifices could make someone clean is strange to us, but the idea is simple, and it goes back to that root problem of sin. Because we have sinned against a holy, perfect God who made us for himself, we deserve death. In part, that’s because our sin corrupts God’s good creation. God wants to cleanse the evil from his creation. And evil deserves punishment. But God is also merciful and gracious, so he provided a way for unclean sinners to be made clean. Instead of us dying for our own sin, a substitute death could take place. In the Old Testament law, the substitutes were animals. An animal’s life could be taken instead of a human’s life. And, like the rest of the law, this had a teaching element. It taught that sin is a serious crime that deserves the most serious punishment. But it also taught that the God could allow the punishment to be taken by another.

This healing shows that Jesus has the power to heal unclean people. No Old Testament priest or prophet could heal a leper with just a touch. But Jesus also is righteous, obeying the demands of the Old Testament law.

And when people start to hear of his healing powers, they gather around him. In Mark’s account of this story, “Jesus could not longer openly enter a town” because of these crowds. Therefore, he “was out in desolate places” (Mark 1:45). Here, we’re told that Jesus went to those desolate places to pray.

When Jesus came to earth over two thousand years ago, his job was not to heal every disease. The miraculous healings he performed were not a new form of healthcare for all of Israel. No, they were signs that were meant to point to his identity as the one who would heal people of the root cause of illness, which is sin. But people are people, and if there’s a way to be healed, they want that. So, they crowded around Jesus. But Jesus needed time to be alone. He needed time to rest, and time to pray. Jesus is the Son of God, which means he is divine and has perfect union with God the Father. But as a man, Jesus also needed to spend time praying to his Father, talking to him. So, he withdrew to spend time in prayer. Jesus often prayed before important moments in his life.[2]

Perhaps Jesus prayed at that time because he was getting ready for the conflicts that he would have with various Jewish religious leaders. We see the first of such conflicts in the next paragraph, Luke 5:17–26:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

Jesus’ teaching and miracles attracted a crowd. They also attracted the attention of some Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees were one of four major groups of Judaism at that time.[3] They were lay leaders who took a particular interest in how to be faithful to the Old Testament law. To do that, they developed a system of applying those laws to many situations not explicitly described in Scripture. The teachers of the law, otherwise known as scribes, were those who could make judgments as to whether the law was being followed. Luke tells us that these religious leaders were coming from all over to see Jesus.

At this time, Jesus is teaching in a building, and it is crowded with people. When Mark reports this event, he said that Jesus “was preaching the word to them” (Mark 2:2). And while Jesus is preaching, a group of men carry another man on a stretcher. This man was paralyzed, and his friends bring him to Jesus to be healed. The problem is that they can’t get through the crowd to get to Jesus. So, they find another way. In those days, houses were simple structures. They had a flat roof that was accessible by an outside staircase. In hot weather, people could sleep on the roof. So, they bring the man up the stairs, and then dig through the roof so that they can lower their friend to Jesus. These are some motivated people! They must have been a bit desperate, but they knew that Jesus alone could heal their friend.

When these men get their friend to Jesus, Jesus can sense their faith. They trust that Jesus can heal their friend. But he does something unexpected. Instead of healing their friend, he simply says, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” That would be like going to your doctor, hoping to get medicine, and him reading some Scripture to you instead. You might say, “That’s nice, but I really was hoping you’d fix my body!”

We may not understand what’s happening here, but these Jewish leaders did. They thought to themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Why would these ask those questions? Think about this: who can forgive an offense? The person who has been offended. But we have no evidence that this paralyzed man had done anything to offend Jesus directly. We’re not told that he lied about Jesus, called him names, stole something from him, or anything like that. So, how can Jesus dare to forgive this man? It would be strange if you got into a fight with someone in your family and I came along and said, “You are forgiven.” I had nothing to do with that conflict. How could I forgive you?

Well, the answer is that Jesus isn’t just a man. Jesus is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God. The true, living God is triune. He is one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God doesn’t have a body. He is spirit. His immaterial. And yet, over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a human being, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in a virgin’s womb. He was born as any baby would be, he grew as any child would, and he lived as a common—though sinless—Jewish man. But he is still God. And God has the power to forgive all sins.

So, when Jesus says this man’s sins are forgiven, he is telling the truth. But these Jewish leaders don’t believe that Jesus is God. So, they question him. And Jesus knows the secret questions they have, so he answers them with another question: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” In one sense, saying either thing is equally easy. They’re just words. But the difference is that if Jesus just says, “Your sins are forgiven you,” there’s no clear evidence that anything has occurred. There’s no physical event that happens when you are forgiven. So, Jesus can say this man is forgiven, and no one could prove him wrong.

But it’s different if you say to a paralyzed man, “You’re healed. Get up and walk.” In that case, others could see whether that happened or not. That’s why Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” The man does just that. He gets up and goes, glorifying God. That miracle proves that Jesus has the authority and power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins. The people were amazed and they glorified God. But, as we’ll see, the Pharisees weren’t impressed. They can’t deny Jesus’ power, but they don’t trust him. So, they will later slander him and say that his power is demonic (Luke 11:14–15; John 10:19–20).

So, what do we learn from this passage? How does it affect our lives?

I think there are at least two major things we can learn from this passage. One is that while physical health is important, and we all want physical healing when we’re sick, there’s something more important. Ultimately, our spiritual health is the most important thing.

People can be very healthy in this life and be very far from God. You can devote all your time to diet and exercise, to preventative medicine, and have a long life. You may be fortunate to die at an old age, without having a heart attack or a stroke or cancer. Perhaps you’ll be one of those rare people who die peacefully in your sleep. But if you have that and you’re far from God, your physical health may last only for eighty, ninety, or even one hundred years.

But if diseases and handicaps afflict your body now, and your sins are forgiven because you trust in Jesus, your bad physical health will only remain for decades, whether those decades are few or many. You will die, just as all of us will die. And at that point, your spirit will be in heaven with Jesus. But that’s not the end of the story. All of God’s people will be resurrected. That means that their souls will be rejoined to their bodies. But those bodies will be transformed—we call this “glorified” in theology—so that they are perfect. Those bodies will be immortal. They will never die, let alone have any diseases.

So, if you focus only on physical health now, you won’t get it in the end. You’ll ultimately experience condemnation, a dreadful, eternal existence apart from God and anything good. But if you focus on spiritual health now, you’ll get physical health thrown in, and that physical health will last forever. That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t focus on taking care of their bodies. We should. But there are more important issues.

Several years ago, I had surgery to heal a herniated disc in my back. I was a bit apprehensive about having surgery, particularly after one of my doctors explained all that could go wrong on the operating table. And he said, “There are worse things than dying.” I think he meant that I could be paralyzed or have some other outcome that would be worse than simply dying during surgery. But it’s true. There are worse things than facing physical death. The Bible describes final condemnation as a second death. All who reject Jesus will face a spiritual death, which is far worse than we can imagine.

Now, if you’re here today and you don’t know where you stand with Jesus, you may not understand why sin is such a problem. If that’s the case, I would urge you to listen to last week’s message, which you can find on our website or on our podcast channel.[4] In short, sin is a rebellion against God. The only reason anything exists is because God created it. God created this universe for his glory. He created this planet for his glory. He created life on this planet for that purpose. And he created human beings to know him, love him, worship him, represent what he is like, and rule the world by coming under his authoritative word. But we reject God. We may not think of our attitude toward God as rebellion or rejection, but if we’re not living our lives for God, thinking about him, his design for our lives, and his will, then we’re ignoring God. If we don’t truly love God simply for who he is, we’re rejecting him. And if we’re not following his design for our lives, thinking we know better than God, we’re rebels. That’s a serious problem, one that corrupts us just the way an infectious disease might destroy a healthy body.

If you don’t know Jesus truly, if you’re not relying on him to heal your soul, I urge you to put your trust in him.

If you do know Jesus, take the issue of cleansing from sin very seriously. We should prioritize healing of sins. We should be praying for the salvation of the lost more than we pray for someone’s physical condition. There are worse things than dying.

And we should take seriously the contagion of sin. I’ll talk about this after the service, but I’ll say this now: Sin that goes unchecked has a way of spreading. And just as a body can be damaged by a disease, the body of Christ, the church, can be damaged by sins. Yes, we’re all sinners, so we will fail, often in small ways. But there are larger sins, sins that are particularly egregious, that we must root out of the church. Any division, any slander, any fighting against one another, any rebellion against God-ordained authority, sexual sins, false doctrine—these things have to go. We don’t deal seriously with sin in order to beat up on other people, or to act “holier than Thou,” or to be judgmental. We take sin seriously because it’s bad for us. We should want spiritual health, both individually and within this church.

The second thing we should take away from this passage is that Jesus has the authority and power to heal. And he has the compassion to do so. Obviously, Jesus performs miraculous healings. Some of us may be skeptical about the possibility of miracles. If that is the case, you should know that science cannot disprove that miracles take place. In order to do that, scientists would have to observe and measure every single event that has ever taken place in history. If you stop and think about that, such observation would be impossible. And many credible witnesses throughout history have reported seeing miracles take place.

The Gospels are reliable historical documents, and they all agree that Jesus has the power to perform miracles. He can do so because he is the God-man.

He also has the power to forgive sins. Again, he can do that because he is God. But on what basis does Jesus forgive sins? In other words, how does Jesus forgive sins? Does he simply sweep them under the carpet and forget about them? Does he relativize them and say, “Oh, don’t worry, you’re not so bad. Sure, you made a mistake, but who doesn’t?” No. Jesus doesn’t take sin lightly. In fact, he goes so far as to say that no one is good but God (Luke 18:19) and that the world is evil (John 7:7). So, how can Jesus forgive sins if he doesn’t take them lightly or just set them aside?

The reason Jesus can forgive sins is because he would die to pay the penalty for them. Each Gospel depicts Jesus’ death. He didn’t die of natural causes. No, he was tortured and crucified, executed in a horribly painful manner. And he wasn’t executed because he had done anything wrong. Yes, people like the Pharisees hated him and wanted to get rid of him. But, ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to crush sin instead of crushing all sinners. When Jesus died, he didn’t just experience a physical death. He experienced a spiritual death, alienation from his Father. He endured hell on earth, suffering that goes far beyond mere physical pain. He did this so that he could take on the condemnation that sinners deserve. But his death only pays for the sins of those who put their trust in him, who come to him in faith knowing that he alone can heal, who come to him in love and humility knowing that he is King and God.

Jesus has the authority and power to heal. But he also has the love and compassion to do so. He touched a leper, an outcast. This would be like someone in the 1980s touching a person dying of AIDS. In those days, we didn’t know a lot of about HIV and AIDS, and there was a great fear. People who had that disease were rejected and feared. But Jesus isn’t afraid. He comes to people who have a far worse condition than AIDS—he comes to people who have the malignant, rapidly-spreading, defiling and contagious disease of sin—and he heals them. Let us come to Jesus for healing, so that he can forgive us of sin, cleanse us of sin, and transform us so that we become healthy.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Jesus prayed before the Holy Spirit descended on him, shortly before he was tempted in the wilderness (Luke 3:21). He prayed all night before he called his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12). He prayed before Peter’s confession and his first prediction about his death (Luke 9:18). He prayed at the time of his transfiguration (Luke 9:28–29). His prayer led to his disciples asking him how to pray (Luke 11:1). He prayed on the Mount of Olives before his arrest (Luke 22:39–44). And he prayed on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46).
  3. The others were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.
  4. https://wbcommunity.org/let-down-your-nets.

 

Who Can Forgive Sins But God Alone? (Luke 5:12-26)

How can we truly be healthy human beings? The only way to be made whole is to receive the healing, cleansing, and forgiveness that Jesus can give. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 5:12-26.

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.

 

Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance (Luke 3:1-20)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon based on Luke 3:1-20. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by telling people that they needed to repent, or turn from the old ways and to God. He announced that we have a problem and that the solution, the one mightier than he, would come.

I Must Be in My Father’s House (Luke 2:41-52)

Luke is the only Gospel that contains the story of a 12-year-old Jesus at the temple. What do we learn from this story? We learn more about who Jesus is (Son of the Father and also a human being), why he came (to do the will of the Father, in this case by learning and explaining the Scriptures), and his priorities. Pastor Brian Watson explains Luke 2:41-52 in this sermon.

The Tender Mercy of Our God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 17, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advanced (see also below).

Christmas can be an exciting time. It’s a time of celebration and joy. But it can also be a time of depression for many. Depression can be caused by many things. Perhaps it’s due to loneliness, or the sadness in remembering a loved one who has died. But perhaps that depression comes from broken promises.

So many people break promises. How many times have politicians broken their promises? Too many times to count, I’m sure. Do you know how you can tell a politician is making false promises? His lips are moving. Think of all the marriage vows you’ve ever heard recited. How many people have kept their promise to live as a lawfully wedded couple “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”? Think of all the times that parents or siblings or friends have broken promises, both small and large. Think of how many times we have broken our promises to others.

There are other broken promises, too. So much in life promises joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness. Advertisers make us feel like if only we get the newest gadget or some other product, then we’ll feel complete. Sometimes we come into the holiday season hoping to get a certain feeling. That happens with milestones in life, too. We think, “If only I get that job, I’ll feel accomplished,” or, “If only I could retire, then I’d be happy.” Those goals and dreams promise so much, but when they arrive we’re often disappointed. It’s as if we believed those things promised us something great, but then we find out it’s all a lie.

But there is someone who always keeps his promises, and that is God. God never lies. But God’s promises aren’t always fulfilled the way that we expect them to be. When God makes a promise, we often start to imagine how he’ll fulfill that promise, and our imagination is often wrong. Though God doesn’t always give us what we want, he always keeps his promises and he always gives us what we need.

We’ll see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll see how God kept his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth to give them a son in their old age. And we’ll see how their son, John, will prepare the way for the salvation that God promised in the Old Testament.

Before we look at today’s passage, I just want to remind us of what we’ve seen so far. Luke begins his Gospel by explaining that it is an historical account of what God has done. Luke used eyewitness testimony to write his history.

He begins his history with the story of a priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were old and unable to have children. Yet God promised Zechariah that they would have a son named John. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16).[1] John’s role, as we’ll find out, was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their anointed king, the Messiah.

Zechariah found this hard to believe, so he questioned what the angel said. In response, Gabriel said, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). And from that time, Zechariah could not talk.

Last week, we found out that the angel Gabriel made an even more amazing promise to Mary. Though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. That child would be called Jesus. He would be the son, or heir, of King David, but he would also be “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Mary believed this message and later she praised God with a hymn known as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55).

Today, we’ll see that Elizabeth gives birth to the promised child, John. When that happens, and when Zechariah responds in faith, he is able to speak and he, too, praises God.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 1:57–66:

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Elizabeth gives birth to the child that God had promised to her and Zechariah. As you might expect, this birth was received with great joy. (Joy is one of the major themes at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.) John’s parents had him circumcised on the eighth day, as Jewish law required (Gen. 17:10–12; 21:4; Lev. 12:3). Circumcision was a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. It taught them that they were consecrated to God, special, to be holy. It also taught them that the Messiah would come from their people. (I don’t want to be graphic, but there was a reason this sign was etched onto a procreative organ). And it taught them that they needed to have their old selves “cut off” or removed in order to be God’s people. Even in the Old Testament, there are times when circumcision refers metaphorically to a change of heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; cf. Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3).

The child wasn’t officially named yet, and the people who witnessed his circumcision wanted to call him “Zechariah,” since sons were often named after their fathers. But Elizabeth says, “No; he shall be called John.” The people don’t understand, because no one in the family had that name. So, they ask Zechariah. Apparently, he wasn’t just mute, but he was also deaf, because they had to make hand signals to communicate to him. Zechariah agrees with what Elizabeth said and what the angel Gabriel had told him. The child’s name is “John.” This may not seem like a big deal. But it represents Zechariah’s faith in the message he heard months earlier. We know that because when he affirms that the baby’s name is “John,” he is able to speak once again. The name “John” means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Zechariah knows and believes this message, and when he responds in faith to God, he is able to praise God.

The fact that Zechariah and Elizabeth name their child an unexpected name, and that when they do, Zechariah can once again speak, causes the people to fear God and wonder what this child was going to do. Luke tells us that they “laid [these things] up in their hearts.” He will later say this about Mary (2:19, 51). The only way that Luke could know what these people were thinking is if he talked to them, or to those who knew them. This shows that Luke had written his account based on eyewitness testimony.

This story is a bit unusual, but it’s very significant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were previously unable to have children. She was barren. Her barrenness reflected the spiritual state of Israel. They were barren, lacking spiritual life. Between the Old and New Testaments, it seems that prophecy had stopped. In the Old Testament, the prophets said, “Thus says the Lord . . .” But for centuries, it seemed as though God was silent. The Jews were waiting for a word from God. They were waiting for God to come and rescue them from their enemies. The birth of this child, John, is a sign that this period of barrenness and silence has come to an end.

It’s no accident that Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh has remembered.” God remembered his promises made hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, and now he was making good on those promises.

We see this clearly in Zechariah’s words of praise. Like Mary’s “Magnificat,” this is written in Luke in the form of a hymn.[2] We’re told that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said these words. We’re also told that Zechariah prophesied these words. This is a message from God, delivered for the sake of the people who wondered what God was doing by giving Zechariah and Elizabeth a son.

So, let’s read the whole passage, and then I’ll go back and dissect it a bit. Here are verses 67–80:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69  and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70  as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71  that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72  to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73  the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74  that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77  to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78  because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Not only are Zechariah’s words prompted by the Holy Spirit. Not only are they words of prophecy, telling the people what God was doing by giving the world these special babies, John and Jesus. But Zechariah’s words also represent the Jewish hope for their Messiah. This is important, because without this understanding, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of Christmas. You can’t appreciate the birth of Jesus without having some idea of context. Fortunately, Zechariah’s words give us that context, and they show that God keeps his promises.

Let’s look more carefully at his words. In verse 68, John begins this hymn with a blessing. In the Bible, God is often blessed for great things he has done for his people (Ps. 72:18–19). Zechariah’s words echo King David’s in 1 Kings 1:48. When David was about to die, he knew he would be succeeded by his son, Solomon, and he said these words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day.” Zechariah now blesses God for a greater Davidic King.

Zechariah blessed God because “he has visited and redeemed his people.” Notice that these words are in the past tense. Zechariah is so certain that God will do this work that he says it’s a done deal. It’s as if it’s already been accomplished. The language of “visitation” often refers to God delivering his people. It’s used in the book of Exodus when God “visited the people of Israel” (Exod. 4:31). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed them. That is, he freed them from slavery. God was now doing something similar.

In verse 69, Zechariah says that God “raised up a horn of salvation” for Israel. Horns were a symbol of strength. Think of animals that have horns and attack with them, like bulls, buffalo, or oxen. Their horns are their strength. In one of King David’s psalms, he calls God his “horn of salvation (Ps. 18:2). God is raising up a figure in the house of David who will have the strength to save his people.

The mention of the house of David is important because God had promised David that he would have an offspring, a “son,” who would inherit his kingdom and who would reign forever. God made this promise to David about a thousand years before Jesus was born. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13). This promise came to David through the prophet Nathan, who was one of many prophets who delivered God’s promises to his people. That’s what Zechariah acknowledges in verse 70. God spoke a consistent message through these prophets. That’s why we’re told that he spoke by the one mouth of his holy prophets. God had revealed these promises through different prophets across the centuries. One of the reasons I trust that the Bible is God’s word is that it tells a unified story. It gives us one message of God and his salvation of his people. This was written by dozens of people over the span of centuries. Yet all of them bear witness to the same truth.

In verse 71, Zechariah says that God’s promise was to save his people “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the Old Testament, the promises of David’s offspring, the anointed forever-king, the Messiah, often talk of salvation for God’s people and judgment for those who oppose God. In last week’s Advent reading, we were told of a special child, a son, who would be born. The government would rest upon his shoulders and he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7). This morning, we heard that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, which brought them joy (Isa. 9:2–3). Sandwiched between those two passages are these verses:

For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire (Isa. 9:4–5).

The Messiah would put an end to oppression. That was good news, because Israel often had enemies who oppressed them. Pharaoh enslaved them and was so threatened by them that he wanted to kill their male children. In later years, they had been in exile in Babylon, then under Persian rule, and under Greek rule. When Jesus was born, they were under Roman occupation. Israel waited for the Messiah to deliver them from all their enemies. And often, these enemies seemed to be foreign nations. God had delivered the Israelites in the exodus, about fourteen hundred years earlier. The Jews were waiting for God to deliver his people once again.

The expectation was that this would be done through a Davidic king. We don’t have time to look at this passage this morning, but if you read Isaiah 11, you can get that idea.[3] We also see a promise of a righteous king in Jeremiah 23:5–6:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

They were waiting for a righteous king would bring about justice and security. They needed a king to save them and to crush their enemies.[4]

But this hymn of Zechariah shows that Israel’s own enemy was its own sin. In verse 72, he mentions “the mercy promised to our fathers.” In verses 76–78, he says that John’s job would be to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sin, because of the tender mercy of our God.” Mercy can mean kindness or compassion. It also has the sense of sparing someone something they deserve. God promised to be merciful to Israel. He promised to remember his covenant. When the Israelites were in Egypt, God remembered his covenant with Abraham (Exod. 2:24).[5] Of course, it’s not that God forgot that covenant. God knows everything. But that language means he acted based on the covenant he made with Abraham.

A covenant is like a binding pact between two parties. But it’s not just a legal document. It’s more personal than that. It combines the law with personal obligation and relationship. It contains promises. It expects certain behavior in return. God promised Abraham he would bless him and his offspring, and he would bless the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1–3). But Abraham had to obey God by circumcising himself and his son, and all subsequent Israelite men had to be circumcised (Gen. 17:1–14). God made great promises to Abraham, but he expected obedience in return.

Later, after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai. He gave them his law and he said that if they kept it, they would be his “treasured possession,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). But the Israelites were never perfectly obedient, or even close. They continued to rebel against God, and they often worshiped other, false gods.

Years later, God made a covenant with David, promising him a King who would reign forever, as we saw earlier (2 Sam. 7). But in order for there to be a forever kingdom of people ruled by this forever king, there had to be a way for Israel’s sin to be removed. The mercy that the Israelites needed wasn’t mercy from foreign enemies. They needed deliverance from their sins. They needed forgiveness. They needed God to remove their sins.

God promised that. He promised a new covenant. Under the terms of this treaty, God would write his law on his people’s hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit. He would give all his people direct knowledge of himself, so they wouldn’t have to have priests mediate that knowledge. Instead, all of God’s people would be priests. He would forgive his people of their sins. And, most importantly, they would be his people, and he would be their God. (See Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:35–27.)

This is what the Israelites needed. It’s what all of humanity needs. We all need to be rescued. We all need to be saved from our enemies. But our true enemies are not political enemies, or foreign nations. That’s what people think about today. We think our enemies are “those people” on the other side of the political aisle. We think of enemies as people of different religions, or people from different countries. We may think our enemies are problems like health problems and a lack of money. But the real enemy is our sin. In a way, we are our own enemies. The Bible also says there are spiritual forces that are our enemies, too. Satan is an enemy, but so are our desires. The power of sin, which corrupts God’s creation, is what causes all those other enemies, such as wars, poverty, disease, and even death. So, what we really need is a Savior who can rescue us from sin.

Fortunately, God promises to save his people from sin. He promises forgiveness. But the only way a just God, who is a perfect judge, can take away the consequences of sin is if someone else would pay for these sins. Zechariah looked forward to a political rescue, and perhaps a spiritual rescue. But he didn’t realize that this Son of David, the one his boy John would point to, would have to die in order to achieve that salvation. That’s what Jesus would do. He would live the perfect life that no human being besides him has lived, yet he would die to take on the sins of everyone who turns to him in faith. All the covenants of the Bible are connected, and all of them are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus died to take the penalty of the old covenant, the one that focused on the law, and his death inaugurated the new covenant, the one marked by the activity of the Holy Spirit. On the night before he died, he took the cup of wine that was drunk in the Passover meal and he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).[6] Everyone who trusts that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus has done what the Bible says he has done receives the benefits of that new covenant. We can be forgiven for all the wrong things we have done.

Zechariah probably didn’t know this or couldn’t have imagined it, though in a famous passage in Isaiah 53, there is a servant of Israel who suffers for the sins of the people. But Zechariah knew, as he says in verse 78 and 79, that “the sunrise [of God] shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He knew that he and everyone else was in darkness, living under the long, looming shadow that death casts. It seems that death swallows up everything and that the world is a dark place. Nothing within the world can stop death. Nothing in the world lives up to the promises the world makes to us. We hear a lot about “peace” at Christmas, yet we often don’t feel peaceful. We see beautiful lights at Christmas, but those electric lights don’t penetrate the depths of our soul. They don’t remove our sadness or loneliness. They certainly don’t remove our sin. Neither do the gifts we give, or the food and drink we consume.

We need a light from outside, a light from outside this world, outside this universe. And Jesus is that light. He is the Lord, who is God, but he also became man. In perhaps the greatest miracle, Jesus was and is the God-man, uniting the two parties of God and humanity that had been separated by sin. He saves those who turn to him in faith. As another prophet, Malachi said, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2). Jesus is God’s light, the light of the world (John 8:12), who shines on our darkness, revealing our sin, but also bringing life and healing to those who will confess their sin and their need for a Savior.

Zechariah is a model of faith. At first, he doubted God’s message and he was made deaf and dumb for a while. But he eventually came around and trusted God and acted on that faith. And then he was able to speak and praise God. Notice that Zechariah says, in verses 74 and 75, that God delivered his people “from the hand of our enemies,” so that this people “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all [their] days.” Why does God save a people? Why does God save anyone from sin, from death, from condemnation? He does it so that they would serve him. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7; 12:31). And God rescues people from slavery to sin so that they would serve him. Jesus is not some “insurance policy” we use once we die to get into heaven. He’s not a golden ticket or a lottery ticket. He’s certainly not a genie. Jesus is not just a Savior, he is also a King. And those who trust him will serve him.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think of two ways that it applies to our lives. One, salvation and faith lead to service. We see this in Zechariah’s life. He trusted God and then praised God. His son, John, would serve God by calling Israelites to turn from their sin and to the Messiah, to receive forgiveness. Salvation should lead to changed hearts, hearts that love and praise God, hearts that are thankful, and hearts that are ready to serve. That was true for the Old Testament Israelites and it’s true for us.

It seems that Zechariah thought salvation was for the Israelites, and his hymn focuses on God’s promises to his Israelite forefathers. But Gentiles are included in the new covenant. In the Old Testament, male Israelites had to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant community. In the new covenant community, you have to have your heart “circumcised” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You have to be born again, and this is a gift of God. If you trust in God, you have received that gift. The apostle Paul said of Christians, “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). If you worship God by the power of the Holy Spirit and glory in Jesus, you are part of God’s people. If you put no confidence in your “flesh”—your strength and abilities—then it shows you are trusting only in Jesus to make you right with God.

If you have been reconciled to God through Jesus, are you living for Jesus? Do you serve Jesus by serving his church? Do you serve Jesus by obeying him in your whole life?

The second thing I want us to see is that God’s salvation is not always what we imagined it might be. Many Israelites seemed to think that when the Messiah came, he would bring about a political deliverance. He would destroy the enemies of God and God’s people and establish a visible, political kingdom. They didn’t realize that he would come in two stages. They didn’t realize that first the Messiah would come and live a life of righteousness and then die an atoning death for his people. They didn’t realize that he would rise from the grave, ascend into heaven, and come back in the future to put an end to all enemies and establish a new creation. But that’s what God did and will do through Jesus. Jesus came once to save us from sins. But he will come again in the future to judge. And, for those of us living in the in-between times, life is not always easy.

Some people may wonder think things like, “If Jesus is real, then why is there still evil in the world?” Or they may ask you, “If your Jesus is real, why is your life not better?” Of course, most people won’t say that to you, but they may think it.

Salvation is not the promise of a “good life” now. Yes, Jesus rescues us from the condemnation that comes with sin. But after we put our trust in Jesus, we still wrestle with our sin. We still must be on guard against the powers of darkness. We will still die. God never promises an easy life. In fact, he promises a hard life. Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them and that they would face tribulation (John 15:18–25; 16:33). But Jesus said he overcomes the world (John 16:33) and he promises his followers the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In other words, God gives us his presence, he gives us himself. And though life is sometimes hard, he gives us comforts and joys along the way. And the final promise is eternal life in a perfect world with him and all his people. In that new creation, there will be no more enemies, not even the enemy of death.

The reason why that promise hasn’t come true yet is because when Jesus returns to destroy all of God’s enemies, he will remove all evil from the world. He will judge everyone who has rejected him and he will cast them out of the world and into hell. God removes evil by removing evil from people who trust him or by removing evil people who reject him. But when Jesus comes to make all things new, to remove all the bad of the world, it will be too late to turn to him for salvation. So, why hasn’t Jesus come again? Because God has given us time to turn to Jesus. A life of following Jesus is not what we might always imagine. It might not be what we want. But it is most certainly what we need. Turn to him and serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all your days.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This hymn is known as the “Benedictus.” Like the “Magnificat,” that word comes from the Latin translation of the first Greek word. In this case, the word is “blessed.” (The Greek word is related to a verb from which we get our word “eulogy.” A eulogy is literally a series of “good words” said about the dead.)
  3. Clearly, Isaiah 11 refers to the Messiah. He is “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father (verse 1). He is anointed by the Holy Spirit (verse 2). And He will rule with righteousness (verses 3–5). He will usher in an age of peace (6–10). And he will bring about a second exodus (verses 11–16).
  4. The Jewish expectation at the time that Jesus was born was that a Davidic king would rescue Israel by defeating its enemies. See the non-biblical text, Psalms of Solomon 17:23–27, which was written in the second or first century B.C.:23 See, O Lord, and raise up their king for them,
    a son of David,
    for the proper time that you see, God,
    to rule over Israel your servant.
    24 And undergird him with strength to shatter unrighteous rulers.
    25–26 Cleanse Jerusalem from the nations that trample it in destruction,
    to expel sinners from the inheritance in wisdom, in righteousness,
    to rub out the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel,
    to crush all their support with an iron rod;
    27 to destroy lawless nations by the word of his mouth,
    for Gentiles to flee from his face at his threat,
    and to reprove sinners by the word of their heart.
  5. See also Mic. 7:18–20 for the hope that God would act on the covenant promises to Abraham.
  6. Read Jeremiah 33:14–26 and notice the language that connects the covenants made with Noah (a so-called “covenant with creation”), Abraham, Israel, and David.

 

The Tender Mercy of Our God (Luke 1:57-80)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:57-80. John the Baptist is born, and after he is named, his father Zechariah praises God. Find out how God always keeps his promises and, in his mercy, saves his people through the one John pointed to: Jesus.

Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

This sermon was preached on December 21, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).
Additional thoughts related to the virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18–25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.[1]

You know the story: in a quiet, unassuming, small town, an amazing event happens: a visitor from far away arrives in the form of a baby. He was sent by his father from a distant place on a mission. And though the world did not take notice of this baby, his human parents raised him, and he grew in strength and wisdom. One day, though, the world would know the identity of this incredible man. He would confront evil and protect the weak. He would stand for truth, justice, . . . and the American way. That’s right, I’m talking about Superman.

It’s interesting how many parallels there are between Superman and Jesus. Superman was sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth from the planet Krypton, just as God the Father sent Jesus, his Son. Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which is very close to what in Hebrew means “voice of God,” while Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1). Kal-El, or Clark Kent, grows up in a small town in Kansas. Superman grew up in a small town in Galilee. The last Superman movie, Man of Steel, has many other allusions to the Jesus story, such as Superman being 33 when he starts his ministry—I mean, mission.[2] It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. I think there’s something in the human heart that realizes that things aren’t right. The world is not right. We’re not right. We need someone to help us. It’s no wonder superhero stories have been created. Superheroes are like us, but they’re much more. They’re more powerful, more heroic, more noble. We long for a hero like Superman who will come and make things right.

And we long for deliverance from the predicament that we’re in. A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, Interstellar. I don’t want to spoil the movie in case you plan on watching it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future. Something bad is happening to the Earth: a blight is preventing crops from growing and the food supply is growing short. So a plan is hatched: a select group of astronauts and scientists will try to find another planet where humans can live. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say this: the makers of the movie put their hope in science and humans. In this movie, there is no God; there are no superheroes. There are only humans, humans who have science, humans who are brave and risk everything for family, humans who evolve in ways that are impossible for any species to evolve. And it is this evolution that transcends the dimensions of time and space, helping humanity survive. We are our own saviors.

Granted, superheroes and sci-fi movies are fiction. But this hope for deliverance from the human condition and even death is found in the real world. Some people think that if only we get the right medicine or the right technology, or perhaps the right political leaders or public policies, we will make real progress. Consider the example of Ray Kurzweil. I first heard his name because he invented a high-end synthesizer, a musical keyboard. But he has also invented the flatbed scanner, among other things. He’s been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He believes that immortality is possible, that by 2028, we will be able to add one year to our lives per year, effectively keeping death at arm’s length forever.[3] He also believes that by 2045, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, so that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and computers. We’ll have little robots—nanobots—in our bodies, fighting infections, and in our brains, connecting our minds to cloud computing. And some people think the concept of God is far-fetched!

All of this shows that we know we need help, and we all put our hope in something, whether it’s a hero, or science, or God. I would say that this hope is religious, whether the object of faith is humanity, science, or a divine being. The makers of Interstellar and Ray Kurzweil cross the line from science to scientism, more of a philosophical position. We all put our trust in something. However, the human experience has been remarkably consistent for thousands of years: We live, we love, we fight, we die. In order to transcend our situation, we need something brand new—a brand new start, a brand new creation.

That is what the virgin birth of Jesus is all about. The Christian claim is a bold one: the human condition is in such bad shape that nothing short of God becoming man to rescue us will work. So, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to become man. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature, so he could identify with us in every way. Yet, unlike us, he remained morally perfect, never disobeying God. He lived life the way that we should. And here’s the crazy thing: the only perfect person died on the cross, to bear the penalty for our disobedience. He did this so that everyone who is united to him by faith will be spared the penalty for sin: eternal death in hell. That’s the Christian claim.

Recently, I read this wonderful quote from a theologian, Don Carson:

If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.[4]

And that is exactly what we see in the passage that was just read. In Matthew 1:18, we see that the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—causes Mary, a virgin, to become pregnant. Joseph, who was in the process of becoming her husband, assumed that she had an affair with another man. He was ready to divorce Mary. But an angel told him that what had happened: this was no normal pregnancy, but a supernatural one. What was the purpose of this miraculous conception? That Jesus would save his people from sin. That’s what his name means. In Hebrew, his name would be Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or, “The Lord saves.” Matthew also tells us (in verses 22-23) that this pregnancy fulfills something that was predicted roughly seven hundred years earlier (in Isaiah 7:14), that a virgin would conceive, and the child would be called “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In other words, Jesus is God in the flesh.

The other biblical account of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke 1. In that passage, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Son of God (v. 32, also v. 35). Then Gabriel continues, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32-33). Jesus is God the Father’s Son, which means he perfectly represents and obeys God. And he is the heir of David’s throne. That means he is the promised King who will reign over his people forever. This was something God promised to David a thousand years earlier.

So Jesus is a new type of man, a man completely unlike any other. Because he is God, he can be perfect in every way, and he is eternal and consistent: there never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when Jesus didn’t or will not exist. And he will remain perfect and faithful in every way, for God does not change. But because he’s man, he can be our substitute. In a sense, he’s the one who comes in to the world and cleans up the mess that we’ve made. He fills in for us. Imagine you’ve committed a horrible crime and are going to go to jail for the rest of our life. Then picture the most successful person you can imagine—whoever that is for you— taking on that sentence for you, going to jail so you can remain free. But not only that, he gives you all his success: his money, his fame, his social standing, his family—everything. That’s what Jesus does for his people, those who have a relationship with him marked by trust, love, and obedience.

We see in this episode with Mary that God takes the initiative. Just as God takes the initiative in creating the universe, he does the same in saving his people. Mary wasn’t looking for this special role that God gave her. No one was expecting that God would become a man to save his people. But God did it all. This is how he works.

Now, there is quite a bit of confusion about the virgin birth and there are many objections. Let me deal with the confusion first. Let’s clear up a couple of obvious things first. The Gospel writers—Matthew and Luke—knew that this was not how people normally became pregnant. They knew this was a miracle. Luke was a doctor. He may not have known, with great specificity, how women became pregnant, but he knew that a human father was needed. The other obvious thing in this passage is that, as opposed various legends concerning mythical gods, God did not have sex with Mary. We don’t know exactly, scientifically speaking, Mary became pregnant. The Bible doesn’t speak in scientific language, because it was written roughly two thousand to thirty-five hundred years ago. But it’s clear that any sexual intercourse was not involved.

There are other confusions, however. The Catholic Church has taught at least two errors regarding Mary that are related to the conception of Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was sinless. Catholic theologians thought that because she was the “Mother of God,” she would need to be without sin, for how else could Jesus be sinless? So they taught that she was sinless and that her own conception was “immaculate.” But this is not a teaching found in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church. It only became official Catholic doctrine fairly recently, in 1854.[5] The clear teaching of the Bible is that every human being—everyone outside of Jesus—has sinned (Rom. 3:23). What makes Jesus so unique is that he alone is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Even Mary realized that she needed a Savior, as she says in her famous song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

Put quite simply, the Bible does not teach that Mary was sinless. Rather, it teaches that all humans are sinful and in need of a Savior. If Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t need salvation and she wouldn’t call God her Savior.

The Catholic Church also teaches that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[6] Yet this claim is also unbiblical. First, Matthew 1:25 says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” That means they had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. That’s important because the Bible does not teach that sex, within the context of marriage, is sinful. Sex is a good gift to be enjoyed. Second, the Bible refers to Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 6:3; 13:55; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). The Catholic Church tries to say that the term “brothers” can mean something besides literal, biological brothers.[7] That’s really a stretch, and against the clear meaning of the text. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 says Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son, not “only” son.

Nothing in the Bible elevates Mary to a status above the rest of humanity. She is special because God chose her for a special, unique role. And she is a great example of faith and submission to God’s will. But if we elevate Mary to a higher status, we take away from Jesus’ unique standing as the only sinless human being.

Those are the confusions. Next, let’s consider the objections. Some people say that the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth in Matthew and Luke can’t be trusted. They say there are contradictions or inconsistencies between these accounts. I have written about some of these issues, and you can find those articles on our website. (If you missed last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go back and listen to that message, too.) The two accounts are not contradictory. Rather, they’re complementary: together, they give us a fuller picture of what happened at Jesus’ birth.[8]

Some people think that because the rest of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ conception and birth, these accounts must have been made up. Well, the only two birth narratives of Jesus are in Matthew and Luke, and nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts these accounts. Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all, and John starts off with something greater: Jesus is the preexistent “Word” of God who is God (John 1:1). So, this is a very weak objection.

Another objection, one that is far more common, is the claim that the story of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is becoming more popular, particularly on the Internet, but it’s been around for a while. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823 about Jesus’ birth:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.[9]

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom who was born out of her father Jupiter’s head. So, Jefferson considered the virgin birth of Jesus just as mythical. By the way, Jefferson, when he was president, created his own version of the Gospels. He stripped away all the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, so there were no miracles and no resurrection. That’s the kind of Jesus he wanted: a moral reformer, not God.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote this: “I do not think the evidence for the Virgin Birth is such as would convince any impartial inquirer if it were presented outside the circle of theological beliefs he was accustomed to. There are innumerable such stories in pagan mythology, but no one dreams of taking them seriously.”[10] More recently, the argument that the story of Jesus’ birth is based on myths was advanced in a 2007 “documentary” that has been popular on Netflix, called Zeitgeist: The Movie. This film has includes a lot of false information.[11] Just to give you an idea of what I mean: one part of the film states that 9/11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by the U.S. government. But this is the kind of stuff that circulates in the world.

It’s true that there are many stories of gods and goddesses who were conceived in odd ways. But these stories don’t really parallel the story of Jesus being conceived by a virgin through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These other stories are very different. Consider Mithra, a Persian god. (The Greek name is Mithras.) He was supposedly born out of a rock. That’s hardly like the story of Jesus. If you actually look at the stories of gods and their births, you see that usually, a god (often Zeus) impregnates a woman who had been, up to that point, a virgin. But this is not the story of Jesus. I already said that the Bible does not depict God as having sex with Mary. That’s what Zeus does, but it’s not what God does.[12]

These stories are also clearly myths, not rooted in history the way the Gospels are. This part of one of those stories, found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.[13]

This is clearly not an historical account. Mary Jo Sharp observes, “In Hesiod’s story, there are no clues as to whether these events took place in a physical location that could be found on a map, or somewhere otherworldly. There aren’t any recognizable landmarks or historical names that might be cross-referenced with historical records of the time period.”[14] But Matthew and Luke do provide physical locations, as well as the names of political rulers and events, so that we have some knowledge of where and when Jesus was born.

So, the argument that the Jesus story is based on myths is false. There are no true parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception in Mary’s womb. And the Gospels are historical documents, corroborated by other historians and archaeology.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this story is simply that it’s so miraculous. Anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist, or that miracles are impossible, simply can’t believe this story, regardless of the evidence. But what if there’s good reason to believe that God exists, and that he can do amazing things? Then what?

There are several arguments for the existence of God. One of them is called the cosmological argument. You can read all about it online at the church website: wbcommunity.org. Go to the “Media” tab and then click on “Articles” and you can read it there. The cosmological argument is about the universe, the cosmos. The basic argument is this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first point is simple. You and I came into existence at one point, and we had causes: our parents. And they had causes: their parents. And so on. In other words, nothing comes from nothing. If something had a beginning, another person or thing caused that something to come into being.

The second point has been proven by science. The universe, at one point in time, came into existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists assumed that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning. But a few discoveries quickly challenged that assumption. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. This theory was mostly concerned with gravity. Einstein was actually trying to prove that the universe was static, not expanding or contracting, but his equations actually showed that the universe was expanding. He didn’t like that finding, because it suggested that at some point, the universe had a beginning, so he fudged the numbers. (A few years later, a Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and a Belgian astronomer, George Lemaitre, both recognized that Einstein had made a mistake.)

Meanwhile, another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was using the most powerful telescope of his day, and he noticed that galaxies were receding farther away. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. All of this suggested that the universe was expanding. From this knowledge, scientists were able to create a model of the expansion of the universe. They suggested that at one point, long ago, the universe was extremely dense, and that a cosmic explosion resulted in the universe that is expanding today. In fact, at one point in time, all the mass, energy, and space of the universe came into existence.

Some physicists suggested that if this cosmic explosion actually happened, we would find some cosmic radiation on the edge of the universe. In 1965, a couple of physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this cosmic background radiation. They later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[15]

This is what Robert Jastrow, an astronomer and an agnostic, writes about this theory of the origin of the world:

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[16]

So, the universe came into existence at some point. Therefore, it had a cause. Yet some scientists believe the universe created itself. But that’s not a scientific position. It’s a faith position. Personally, I think it takes a lot more faith to believe the universe created itself than to believe that God created.

The only cause that could create a universe like ours is God: an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who is eternal.[17] God never came into existence. He has always been. That’s part of what makes him so unique. And if God can create a universe out of nothing—no matter or energy or anything else—why can’t he create a baby out of a virgin’s womb? The creation of the universe out of nothing, and the creation of a baby out of a virgin are unique acts, done for special purposes: to create the world, and to save the world.

I think the connection between the creation of the universe and the creation of baby Jesus is very important. In Matthew and Luke, there is a strong suggestion that when Jesus came into the world, he was a new creation. In the Genesis account of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth. The Holy Spirit “hovered” over Mary, coming upon her to create a baby. And when the baby grew up, he was baptized, to identify with sinful humans even though he never sinned. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, too, and God called him good, just as he called the universe he made good.[18]

The reason why Jesus became a baby was because that initial creation became spoiled through sin. Sin is disobedience, lawlessness. It’s a rejection of God. But it’s not just breaking individual laws and commands. Sin is a power. It’s a force. It’s what twists our desires and perverts our thoughts. And part of God’s punishment for sin is death and disease and everything else that’s wrong with the world.

So when Jesus became a baby, it was the start of a new creation. God was starting something brand new. Salvation couldn’t come from us. Fixing the world couldn’t happen just by improving our education, or our government, or our technology, or anything else. The solution had to come from God. He had to create something brand new. He had to create a man completely unlike any other man—or woman—who had ever been born. That’s who Jesus is—the new man, the perfect man.

When he entered into the universe, the creator entered into his own creation. That’s like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays so that he could die in place of, say, Hamlet. It’s an amazing thought. That shows the extent that God will go to rescue his people.

There’s much more to say about all of this. If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, keep coming. Keep listening to these sermons and reading some of the resources I’ve put on our website.

But I want you to think about this: If God can create the universe out of nothing, and if he can create a baby out of a virgin’s womb, he can do anything. There is nothing he can’t fix, and there’s no one he can’t save. That’s why the Bible uses the language of creation when it talks about salvation. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The God who can make the universe out of nothing can take spiritually dead people—which is how all of us start out—and make them into new creations. He can do that with anyone.

No matter what issue you are facing today, it is not too big for God. No problem is too big for him to solve. That doesn’t mean that he will solve everything in this life. Unless Jesus returns, we will all die. But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible ends with a recreation of the universe. The new creation won’t have death, disease, decay, pain, hunger, thirst, or any other bad thing. It will just be God and his people in a perfect world.

This universe is broken. Sometimes, it feels cracked, distorted, without hope and without sense. But God didn’t give up on his creation. God came down to us. He came into filth of this world, in the midst of animals. He lowered himself in order to lift us up. With such a God, there is always hope. That’s what Christmas is about: the promised hope of rescue came to earth in the form of a special baby.

If you don’t know God, call on him today. Ask him to make you into something new, a new creation. Ask him to transform your life. Ask him to give you faith so you can trust him.

If you’re already a Christian, what are some of the impossible issues you’re facing today? Bring them to God. Ask him to solve your problems. Ask him for strength. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him to create something new in your life.

Consider what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  2. Jordan Hoffman, “‘Man of Steel’ No Longer Man of Shtetl?” Times of Israel, June 13, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/man-of-steel-no-longer-man-of-shtetl/ (accessed December 20, 2014). For other parallels between Superman and Jesus, see Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 Ways,” Gospel Focus 289, https://gospelfocus289.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
  3. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Will Google’s Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html (accessed December 19, 2014).
  4. D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), 109.
  5. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. In part, it says, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491-93 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 123–124.
  6. This doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §499-500, 126. Even stranger, they claim that the birth of Jesus was supernatural. So Ludwig Ott, a Catholic theologian, claims, “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to her hymen, and consequently without pain” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch [Rockford, IL: Tan, 1960], 205, quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 133 n. 52).
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church §500, 126.
  8. Regarding the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, many biblical scholars have noted the Semitic character of Luke 1:5-2:52. Luke was a Gentile who wrote elegant Greek. After beginning his Gospel account, the language reflects a Hebraic background. Many scholars think that this reflects Luke’s sources. According to I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 46), “the narratives [of Luke 1-2] betray a Semitic background to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Lk.-Acts. The whole atmosphere of the story is Palestinian. The language too is strongly Semitic.” Regarding the poems, or songs, he writes, “the case for postulating Hebrew originals for the canticles is very strong” (47). He concludes, “It appears most probable that Luke had sources at his disposal, and that these came from Palestinian Jewish Christian circles which had links with the family of Jesus” (48-49). Therefore, it would appear that Luke used early, original, eyewitness sources in constructing his history of Jesus’ birth.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html (accessed December 18, 2014).
  10. Bertrand Russell, “ Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 200.
  11. For a thorough refutation of the claims of Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). By presenting false information about Horus, an Egyptian god, and other mythological gods such as Mithra(s), the movie tries to show that Jesus is but a myth. Here’s an example of the poor reasoning of the film: other gods were son gods. They were associated with the son. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Now, that sun/son wordplay works nicely in English, but in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the term for sun is helios and the term for son is huios. These don’t sound the same. Jesus is referred to as light in the Bible (most prominently in John 8:12), but his being Son has nothing to do with the sun. His sonship represents the perfect relationship he has with the Father: he perfectly represents God, and obeys him. The fact that Jesus is light metaphorically refers to the way he exposes and drives away darkness. It has to do with the revelation of truth and righteousness. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are not identical either.
  12. Mary Jo Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013) 193-94: “Here are the so-called virgin births of five of the gods who are frequently compared to Christ: Mithras is born out of a rock on the banks of a river under a sacred fig tree. Adonis is born out of a myrrh tree. Dionysius is produced from an incestuous relationship between the god Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Osiris is the product of an affair between an earth god and a sky goddess. And while Osiris and Isis are fetuses within the womb of the sky goddess, they have intercourse and produce Horus.”
  13. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (accessed December 17, 2014).
  14. Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed,” 188.
  15. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978; quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 106-107.
  17. It should be noted that many atheistic scientists and philosophers deny that God exists. They try to find other ways of explaining the universe. The Oxford-educated atheistic philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett writes, “What does need its origin explained is the concrete Universe itself. . . . It . . . does perform a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [New York: Viking, 2006], 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 151.) This claim is not scientific, and it expresses a faith position, one that excludes the existence of God.
  18. There are also connections between Jesus and Adam, who was formed out of dust through the “breath of life” (most likely the Holy Spirit). See Genesis 2:7. It is no accident that Jesus is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 10, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

 

Our lives can change in a moment. A single phone call, email, or text message could give us news that would alter our lives forever. A chance encounter with someone could do the same thing.

Have you ever noticed that many movies begin with an average person who gets caught up in some kind of intrigue? Perhaps the person witnesses a murder and then becomes a target for the bad guys. Or maybe the person meets a superhero or an alien. That’s what happened when Elliott met E.T., or when Jonathan and Martha Kent found the infant Kal-El, otherwise known as Superman.

Today, we’re going to look at a story of a very average young woman, perhaps a teenage girl, who is visited by an extraordinary being. She is given news that not only changes her life, but also changes the whole world. Of course, I’m talking about the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Last week, we began reading the Gospel of Luke together. We saw that Luke begins his history by saying that while others had compiled narratives regarding Jesus, he saw fit to write an “orderly account” of what God had done. He says that his account is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1–4).

Luke begins his story with an old priest and his wife, who was barren. While Zechariah is serving in the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife will have a child named John, who will turn people to God. John the Baptist will tell people to get ready for the coming King of Israel, the Messiah.

This week, we learn that Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, also receives news from the angel Gabriel. But her news is even more unbelievable. In Elizabeth’s case, her pregnancy was a miracle because she was past child-bearing age and had previously been unable to have children. But Elizabeth still conceived in the usual way. However, Mary’s pregnancy is more miraculous, because she had never “known” a man before.

Let’s find out what happens to Mary and how she reacts. We’ll do that by reading Luke 1:26–33:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[1]

In last week’s passage, we found out that Mary’s relative, Elizbeth, had become pregnant and had hidden her pregnancy for five months. It is now the sixth month of her pregnancy. The same angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary, who lived in a small city called Nazareth, which was at least 65 miles north of Jerusalem, where Gabriel had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Put it this way: if Jerusalem was Boston, Nazareth was Oakham. What, you’ve never heard of Oakham? I had never heard of it until yesterday, when I looked on a map and found that it’s about 65 miles west of Boston. The point is that Nazareth was Nowheresville.

And Mary wasn’t anyone particularly special. She was a virgin, probably still a teenager, and betrothed to a man named Joseph, who just happened to be of the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Being betrothed to someone was similar to being engaged, but much more serious. When a man was betrothed to a woman, he would pay the father of the woman a bride price, there would be witnesses, and the man would be known as the woman’s husband. Yet the marriage ceremony and the consummation of the marriage would come about a year later. In order to break off a betrothal, there needed to be a divorce. The point is that Mary was betrothed to Joseph but they were not married and had not consummated their relationship.

One day, this ordinary young woman was visited by an extraordinary being, an archangel. I say that Mary is “ordinary” because there is no indication in this passage or in the whole Bible that she is anything other than a normal person. This is one place where Roman Catholics and Protestants part ways. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary had an “Immaculate Conception” that made her free from all sin. Strangely, this didn’t become official Catholic doctrine until 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of
Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.[2]

The Catholic Church also teaches, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”[3] However, there isn’t even a hint of this in the Bible. Instead, Gabriel says that Mary is “favored” or “graced.” She has been a recipient of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean she was sinless. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). All, except for Jesus. What makes Jesus so special is that he alone didn’t sin.

I said this last week, but it bears repeating: God made a good world that became corrupted by sin when the first human beings turned away from him. When that happened, sin entered into the world. Sin is more than just bad choices. Sin is a power that has deep roots within each one of us. It distorts our desires. We were made to know, love, and worship God. But our sinful nature causes us to love everything but God. Instead of making God the center of lives, we make something else—something inferior—our objects of worship. We find our comfort, safety, pleasure security, meaning, and hope in something other than God. That is why God sent a Savior, his Son, to rescue us. There is no indication in the Bible that Mary was any different than you and me in that regard. She needed a Savior just as much as we do.

But Mary “found favor,” or grace, with God. The same is said of Noah (Gen. 6:8), and we have no reason to believe Noah was sinless. But Mary, like Noah, was chosen for a special purpose. Gabriel says she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. We’re not absolutely sure, but the name Jesus may mean “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”[4] At any rate, Gabriel says he will be great and will be called “son of the Most High.” In other words, this child Jesus is the Son of God.

Gabriel also says that Jesus will inherit the throne of David, the premiere King of Israel, who lived about a thousand years earlier. God told David that he would have a son who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13). The prophets promised that this offspring of David would be the perfect king, reigning with “peace . . . justice and . . . righteousness.” But not only that, he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7).

For those of us who are familiar with the Bible, we get so used to this message that we tend to forget how truly awesome it is. Imagine that you live in Nowheresville and you’re a Miss Nobody, and you’re told that your child will be the Son of God and a king who reigns forever. Forever is a long time. How can a mere human being reign forever? How can a mere human being also be called the Son of God? How could anyone believe such news?

Mary didn’t seem to doubt that this could be true. She might not have fully realized that this child would also be God, that, somehow, the eternal Son of God could be joined to a human nature. But she had a question. She wondered how she could have a child when she was just a virgin. So, Gabriel tells her. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary literally says, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?” She knows that in order to have children, a woman has to “know” a man sexually. Since she hasn’t known a man to this point, she’s wondering how she can have this special child. Will this child come from Joseph?

Gabriel gives her the answer. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Son. I hate to say this, but in our sex-obsessed culture, I must: There is no hint here of the Holy Spirit having sex with Mary, though there are myths in the ancient world of gods having those kinds of relationships with women. There is no hint of such strange things in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is immaterial, having no body. However, the idea of the power of God “overshadowing” is present in Scripture. That Greek verb is used in the translation of the Old Testament when the glory cloud “settled” on the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35). The idea also reminds us of the beginning of the Bible. The Bible famously begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then there is the second verse: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Mary’s womb, we might say, was “void,” until the Spirit of God “hovered” over it and caused life to emerge. Jesus is a new creation. The first creation was spoiled by sin, but Jesus will be unspoiled by sin. He will be holy, not because Mary was first unstained by sin. No, the reason why Jesus is holy is because he has a supernatural conception. This breaks the power of sin that has been passed on from generation to generation. This is the true miraculous conception. Without having sex, Mary became pregnant because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

People find this hard to believe. Are we really supposed to believe that a virgin could become pregnant? I gave a more thorough defense of the virgin birth three years ago in a sermon called “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin.” You can find that on our website under the sermon series, “Who Is Jesus?”[5] I would encourage you to listen to that sermon or read it to find out more. But if you’re wondering why something like this should be believed, let me ask you, how did the universe get here? The best mainstream science suggests that the universe began at one point in time. All matter, energy, space, and even time itself have a beginning. How did this come about? Many atheists try to dodge the question of the origin of the universe by suggesting that this universe is part of an endless cycle of universes being born and dying, but that just pushes the question further back. If that were true—and we have no evidence that it is—who or what sustains that cycle? Others posit the so-called “multiverse theory,” that our universe just happens to be one of countless parallel universes. But who created them? At least Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett was honest enough to make the claim that the universe “perform[s] a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.”[6]

So, which claim is more reasonable, that the impersonal, material universe created itself, or that a personal, all-powerful, eternal, immaterial God created a material universe out of nothing? And if God can create a whole universe out of nothing, what is creating a baby out of a virgin?

Let’s just say we believe the universe did create itself out of nothing, or that it’s always been around in some form or another, and that’s just the way it is. What about the origin of life? We now know that even simple life forms are incredibly complex. The simple single-celled organism, with its DNA and molecular machines, is spectacularly complex. What accounts for this?

In the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein interviews two atheists. One is Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and a former professor at Florida State University. Stein (perhaps best known as the teacher who keeps saying “Bueller? Bueller?” in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) asks Ruse how life emerged from an inorganic world. Ruse says one popular theory is that life emerged “on the backs of crystals.”[7] Richard Dawkins, another atheist and an evolutionary biologist, believes that life on earth could have been “seeded” by a “higher intelligence” from somewhere else in the universe. In other words, aliens could have planted life here.[8] Seriously. He doesn’t say how alien life started, so this again pushes the question back further. What is more believable? That a highly intelligent, all-powerful God designed life, that life emerged by chance “on the backs of crystals,” or that aliens—whom we have never seen and whose existence requires its own explanation—planted life on earth?

Yes, it may be hard to believe that a virgin could conceive, but I think it’s harder to believe that this universe could come from nothing or that life, with all its rich complexity, could emerge from some unintelligent, unguided process, or through the actions of ALF or E.T. If God can create a universe out of nothing and life where there was none, he can cause a virgin to become pregnant.

Perhaps the virgin birth isn’t the biggest miracle. Just yesterday I happened to read some of Martin Luther’s words on Mary. According to Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux said that there were three miracles in this passage. Luther writes, “Saint Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.” Then, Luther adds, “The last is not the least of the three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be the mother of God.”[9]

What’s amazing about Mary is that not that she was sinless or remained a virgin for her whole life. Neither of these things are true. What is amazing is that she believes. After she hears this news, she says the famous words that would inspire the Beatles: “let it be.” She says, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is a model of faith, a model of submitting to God’s plans for her life.

After the angel speaks to her, Mary goes to her relative, Elizabeth. Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant; perhaps Mary wanted to see that this was true. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived somewhere south of Jerusalem, some 80–100 miles away from Nazareth. This was no small trip for someone who would have to walk. Let’s read verses 39–45:

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Elizabeth is pregnant, with John the Baptist in her womb. And when Elizabeth greets Mary, John leaps. John’s role is to point to Jesus, and he even does this before he is born. The Bible consistently shows that the unborn are human beings.

Elizabeth, like John, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she says that Mary is blessed. Elizabeth also says that Mary’s child is blessed, and she wonders why “the mother of my Lord should come to” her. Elizabeth calls Mary’s baby “my Lord.” What a strange thing to say of an unborn baby! By my count, the word “Lord” is used twenty-seven times in the first two chapters of Luke. In the other twenty-six times, the word clearly refers to God. I think this is a hint that Elizabeth somehow knew this unborn child was not just the Messiah, an anointed king, but also God. Elizabeth also says that Mary is blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is blessed to be chosen as the mother of Jesus, and she is blessed that she believed.

I have to add the following as evidence that Mary is not a sinless superwoman. Later in the Gospel of Luke, a woman in a crowd says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). Now, this would be the perfect time for Jesus to say, “Yes, my mother is blessed because she is full of grace, immaculately conceived, without sin, and still a virgin!” But does he say that, or anything like it? No. He says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep” (Luke 11:28). Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus is told his mother and brothers are waiting to see him (Luke 8:19–20). Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

The point is that Mary believed God’s word and responded in faith, and that is what makes her blessed. And those who respond today to God’s word are blessed. We would do well to follow Mary’s lead.

Mary’s responds to Elizabeth’s blessing with a song, often called the Magnificat, after the Latin translation of the first word in Greek, “magnifies.” Mary probably didn’t break out into singing, but somewhere along the line her words were put into a poem. This happens often in the Bible. Truth can be expressed in verbatim reporting, but the essence of truth can often be captured in artistic form, in a poem, a song, a painting.

Let’s read verses 46–56:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

We can break Mary’s song down into three parts. First, she praises God for what he has done for her. She says she “rejoices in God my Savior,” which shows that she, too, needed salvation. She realizes that she is of “humble estate.” God has a way of choosing the unlikely, the nobodies, to do his will. He who is mighty has done great things for Mary, just as he has done great things for all who put their trust in him.

Second, Mary praised God more broadly for how he turns the tables. He scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their positions of power. Yet he exalts the humble and fills the hungry with good things.

Third, Mary praises God for helping Israel. God keeps his promises. He had promised Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that he would bless the world through his offspring. Mary realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham. Jesus is the only one who kept the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the true King, the Son of David who will reign forever.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we need to ask ourselves what it teaches us and how we can live in light of it.

First, this passage teaches us that salvation cannot be achieved except through supernatural intervention. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from a miracle. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from God coming to us. I realize that some people mock the idea of miracles. Some people think God doesn’t answer prayers. Some people think there is no God at all. But if there is no God who can intervene in our lives, there is no hope. There is no life after death. There is no hope that the world will be restored so that the curse of death is reversed. There is no hope that the brokenness of this world, including the brokenness in our bodies, minds, and hearts, can be healed and made whole.

Salvation from a world of death, from our own sin, and from God’s just and right judgment of that sin can only be found in Jesus. When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, he was the beginning of a new creation. As the Son of God, he has always existed, but when he became Jesus, he added a human nature and became the God-man. He is the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

This message humbles us, because it says we can’t save ourselves. The only way to be made right with God is for God to come to us. Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.[10]

The second thing this passage teaches us is that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Those who exalt themselves, who try to make themselves look great, will fall. Think of those atheists who reject the evidence that points to a Creator. They end up looking foolish, talking about crystals and aliens. But those who humble themselves and accept God’s offer of salvation will be made great. Jesus is the perfect example of that. Though he was and is God, he humbled himself to become a lowly human being, born to a very humble woman. He was raised a carpenter’s son in Nowheresville and lived a humble life. And he died a humiliating death when he was crucified. He was viewed as the scum of the earth. But after he died, he rose from the grave and is now exalted in heaven. Even though the world doesn’t see it, Jesus is King. He reigns forever. Will you humble yourself and come under his reign? Does Jesus rule over your life?

God still causes the proud to stumble. God still cares about the humble and the weak. Many people who have been power and powerless have found great hope in this message. They trust that one day they will be exalted because they have believed.

The third thing this teaches is the nature of faith. Mary is a wonderful example. We shouldn’t make too much of Mary. The story really isn’t about her. But she is a model of faith. She hears God’s message and she believes it. She says, “Do what you will. I am your humble servant. Let it be your will, not mine.” That is what true faith looks like. Faith trusts. Faith submits. Faith acts. If we have the faith of Mary, we are just as blessed as Mary. Mary realized that God had come to hijack her life, to take it over, and she agreed. Do we have that attitude? If we do, we are blessed. Jonathan Edwards, the famous Massachusetts pastor and theologian, once said, “’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the heart than in the womb. ’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the arms of faith and love than in the arms or at the breast as the virgin Mary had.”[11] You can have Jesus living in you through faith.

The fourth thing this passage teaches is that God doesn’t always act in flashy ways. Think about the differences between how God spoke to Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was an old man, a man of status. Mary was a young woman. Zechariah was a priest. Mary had no position. Zechariah was in the big city of Jerusalem. Mary was in the small town of Nazareth. Zechariah’s son, John, was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. But Jesus, Mary’s son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be righteous, obeying the law. Yet Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. By the standards of Jewish people, Zechariah had greater standing, and there was nowhere that God was more present than in the temple in Jerusalem. But God is not limited. He doesn’t act only in big cities and in impressive cathedrals.

When God comes to us, it might be in small ways. It might start by hearing a sermon, or reading a passage in the Bible. It might start through a prayer. We might not feel anything. But God works through humble people and God often begins something big by starting with something small. Salvation is a miracle. Faith is a miracle. Faith often starts with a small realization that this message about God is true. Faith starts with small acts of trust. And if you want that miracle of salvation, ask God for it. No matter who you are, not matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven of your sins against God. Jesus came to seek and save lost rebels against God like you and me. He died to pay for the sins of the worst criminals, if they would turn to him in faith. Do you want to start anew, to be a new creation? Ask God for it. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 124.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §493, p. 124.
  4. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 129–130.
  5. “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin,” December 21, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  6. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 151.
  7. You can view this exchange at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  9. Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary,” in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 26.
  10. Tim Keller, “The Gifts of Christmas,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 42.
  11. Jonathan Edwards, “To Be More Blessed Than Mary,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 59.

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things (Luke 1:26-56)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:26-56, which includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will have a child named Jesus who is “Son of the Most High.” Mary was just an ordinary woman whom God chose for a special purpose. Her acceptance of this role is a great example of faith. Also considered are reason why we should believe that the virgin conception/birth is true.

How Can We Know Jesus?

Brian Watson preached this message on December 14, 2014. How can we know the real Jesus? To know who Jesus was (and is) and what he did, we have to look at the evidence. Pastor Brian examines the evidence for Jesus in this sermon.

Faith Alone

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 12, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon prepared in advance.

Today, we’re resuming our series on the five “solas,” the major theological principles of the Protestant Reformation. Many churches, writers, and Christian organizations celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, which is supposedly the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s debated whether Luther nailed these to the church door, but we do know that on that date, he posted a letter containing the Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. These theses were short statements protesting the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of indulgences, which supposedly help shorten people’s time in purgatory. These were being sold, with the promise that the money could free the dead from purgatory and into heaven. At any rate, the Theses didn’t get to Albrecht until the end of November. So, it’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation even now. And, as we’ll see, these principles are always relevant.

One of those principles is “faith alone.” We are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That means that salvation is a gift. It cannot be earned. It can only be received by faith, by trusting in the only one who can save us, Jesus. It is his work on our behalf that puts us in the right with God, so that God is for us and not against us.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a monk, a priest, and a university professor, and his theology was undergoing a massive change. Prior to 1517, he had been wracked with guilt and he doubted whether he stood in the right with God. According to a recent biography of Luther, “There was in medieval Christian life the strong implication that if one could not earn one’s salvation outright, one could certainly go a long way toward earning it, and one had better do what one could.”[1] This was Luther’s mindset. He wanted to be sure he did everything he could to earn God’s favor. So,

Luther’s overactive mind was constantly finding ways in which he had fallen short, and so every time he went to confession, he confessed all of his sins, as he was supposed to do, but then, knowing that even one unconfessed sin would be enough to drag him down to hell, he racked his brain for more sins and found more. There was no end to them if one was honest about one’s thoughts, and Luther was entirely honest.[2]

Luther seemed some kind of unprecedented moral madman on a never-ending treadmill of confession. Instead of looking upward and outward toward the God who loved him, he zealously and furiously fixated on himself and his own troubling thoughts.[3]

That kind of anxiety over sin might seem foreign to many of us. I think most people go through life without thinking of sin too much. I suppose that’s because we don’t think of God as much as Luther did. I don’t know may people who would argue that the world was better five hundred years ago, but it was better in one way: people had an awareness of the existence of God and the problem of sin. In our modern world, it seems we have little room for God.

It’s only when certain things happen in our lives that we start to wonder about the wrong things we’ve done and where we stand with God. It may be when a loved one dies, and we think about our own death. It may be at a funeral. It may be in the middle of a dark night of the soul, when we’re tired and can’t sleep, and all our failures come to mind. It may be a rare moment of introspection when we think about what our lives amount to. In these moments, we may wonder if our lives mean anything. We may wonder if we are worthy. We may wonder if God loves us, if he will accept us as his children. We may wonder what will happen when we die.

Just yesterday, I was in Bridgewater at the Veteran’s Day parade. I happened to pass the funeral home and saw some of the people who work there. (They were outside giving out doughnuts and coffee.) The director of the home said they were doing some “community relations” and that business had been slow lately, because “they come in waves.” I said, “but they come in the end,” meaning they will always have business because everyone dies.

Now, back to Martin Luther. During this period of his life, he started to teach at the University of Wittenberg. He spent years teaching through the Psalms, the book of Romans, and the book of Galatians. During this time, he had a breakthrough. He realized that we are not acceptable to God because we confess all our sins to a priest and do numerous good works to work off our sin. In 1517, while wrestling with his guilt and his fear of—and even hatred for—God and his righteous judgment, Luther realized the apostle Paul’s message, that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4; quoted in Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Luther later recalled, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”[4]

Luther came to this realization while studying the book of Romans, and this message was confirmed when he studied and taught Galatians. I think it is easiest to see this message in the book of Galatians, so we’ll turn there this morning.

The apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to a church that he helped start on one of his missionary journeys. He preached to them the good news that we can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. If we trust that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and the world’s only Savior, and we trust only in his work to save us, then we are justified, or declared “in the right,” by God. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are no longer guilty of sin, and we are credited with all that Jesus did as the only perfectly righteous human being who has ever lived. This is what Paul taught. But the Galatians seemed to doubt this message. They turned to false teachers who claimed that they must have faith plus works in order to be saved.

In the first chapter, Paul writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6–9).

Those are strong words. He says to this church, “You’re turning to false teachers who are teaching a different message. There’s only one gospel and they’re not teaching it. I don’t care if an angel tells you something different. To hell with him if he does. And even if I come and tell you a different message, well, to hell with me.”

In chapter 2 of Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the only way to be reconciled to Jesus is by having faith in him. This is what he writes in verses 15 and 16:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul doesn’t mean that Jews aren’t sinners. He says, “Gentile sinners,” because that’s the way Jewish people like him would have looked at Gentiles. Paul means, “We’ve all sinned against God. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. It’s not an ethnic problem we have, it’s an ethic problem. We’ve all done wrong and God knows it! And the only way we can survive God’s judgment is to trust in the one solution he gave us, which is Jesus.

That’s seems pretty clear to me, but there are some theologians who think that the phrase “works of the law” doesn’t refer to the law in general, or to doing good works in general. They think it refers specifically to Jewish religious rites like circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and eating only certain foods. Those were boundary markers that kept Gentiles out of Israel. They think that Paul isn’t saying that good works don’t factor into what is called justification. (Justification is a term that comes from the law court. If you’ve been accused of a crime and a judge finds that you’re innocent, you are justified, pardoned, declared innocent.)

So, the question is, are we “in the right” with God because of Jesus’ work on our behalf, received by faith, or is God for us because of our faith plus something else?

I think Paul is clear that God is for us and not against, that we are adopted into his family, that we are united to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit not because of anything that we’ve done, but because of God’s grace. We receive the gift of salvation by faith alone. We see that in chapter 3 of Galatians.

Let’s read the first nine verses of that chapter:

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Paul calls them foolish because they turned away from the true gospel. When he says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified,” he doesn’t mean that the Galatians actually saw Jesus die on the cross. They were a long way in time and place from Jerusalem. Paul means that his preaching portrayed Jesus as God’s anointed one, sacrificed on the cross for sin. Jesus laid down his own life at the cross, and when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant it. There is nothing to add to Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death.

Then Paul asks them some rhetorical questions. The point is that the Galatians didn’t receive the Holy Spirit by “works of the law,” nor were they growing in their faith by those works, nor were miracles performed in their midst because of those works. All the benefits of Christianity came through faith. And this has always been the case. Just as it was for Abraham, so it is for all of God’s people. We are considered righteous in God’s sight because we trust him and his promises. Now that Jesus has come, we must trust Jesus, the Son of God, the one who is truly God and truly man. God’s plan was always to bless the nations through the true son of Abraham, Jesus.

Then, in the next few verses, Paul makes it clear why we cannot earn salvation through our efforts. Let’s read verses 10–14:

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Paul presents a logical reason why we cannot be justified by works. He says that all who rely on works are under a curse. That is, they’re condemned. Why is that the case? He quotes a verse from the law, Deuteronomy 27:26, which says that if the Israelites failed to do everything written in the law, then they would be cursed. Deuteronomy was written right before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. At the end of the book, there are promises of blessings and curses. If they obeyed God, they would live and be blessed. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed and would perish. Paul’s implied point is that the Israelites failed to obey all the law.

And I think the implication is that if Gentiles were given this law, they would fail, too. It seems to me that the law given to Israel was a particular expression of God’s moral law. The Ten Commandments are representative of God’s moral law (Deut. 5:1–21). Worshiping idols, dishonoring parents, coveting, stealing, and lying are all wrong and we’ve all broken these commandments. We may not have murdered someone or committed adultery, yet Jesus tells us that hating someone and lusting after someone are like killing a person and committing adultery, because these things reveal problems in our hearts (Matt. 5:21–30). We’re all guilty.

What Paul doesn’t explicitly say here is that God requires the perfect obedience of a covenant partner. That is, if we’re going to have fellowship with God, we need to be perfect. And, clearly, we’re not. I don’t have time to explain covenant theology right now, but the idea is that God wants humans to relate to him through covenants, and humans are represented by covenant heads. All merely human covenant heads—Adam, Noah, Abraham, David—are not perfectly obedient. Israel covenanted with God, but they were disobedient, too. All these covenant partners broke covenant with God.

You may wonder why God requires perfection. The answer is that God is too pure to dwell with evil. Sin, or evil, corrupts and destroys. Yet God is holy, perfect, and pure. He cannot allow his special presence to coexist with the corrupting power of sin. As David said,

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you (Ps. 5:4; see also Hab. 1:13).

God requires perfect obedience and if we are going to trust in our own efforts, we need to be perfectly obedient. That’s why Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, which says, “if a person does them [God’s “statutes and rules”], he shall live by them.”

Paul also says that God’s people have always been saved by faith. Abraham was credited righteousness because of his faith (Gen. 15:6). And “the righteous shall live by faith,” (Hab. 2:4). The Old Testament’s witness on justification is that it comes by trusting God and his promises. So, the righteous can live by perfect obedience or faith. Those are the options. And our sinful desires will not allow us to take the first option. And, if we try to take it, it shows that we don’t trust God’s provision. That is why Paul can say “the law is not of faith.”

If you’re tracking with me, you may wonder how that works. You may think, “That doesn’t make sense.” Or, in the words that my seven-year-old son likes to say these days, “It’s not fair!” How is that that disobedient people can be declared innocent, as if they have done the right thing and not the wrong? Shouldn’t we at least try to earn our standing with God?

Those questions are good ones to ask. As for that second question, I already said that our trying to earn God’s favor is bound to fail because we don’t do what is right. Even if we started right and now and had a perfect record from here on out, we would have to do something about our past failures. Our current efforts cannot erase our past sins. And even if we did the right thing now, our sinful character guarantees that we do things for the wrong reasons, or for the wrong motivations. For example, we may give to the poor in order to look generous or altruistic. As Isaiah 64:6 says,

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.

As to that first question—how can guilty people be declared innocent—Paul gives us the answer. He says that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law—if we have faith—by becoming a curse for us. In other words, Jesus took our condemnation for all who trust in him. Paul quotes one more verse from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 21:23, to demonstrate this truth. In that passage, we’re told that a person who has been given the death penalty for sin and has been hanged on a tree is cursed by God. Apparently, the perpetrator was made an example of, which is why he would be hanged. Paul takes this little bit of information and shows that Jesus, by being crucified on a “tree,” a piece of wood, not only took our curse but became a curse. God regarded him as our sin and Jesus was condemned in our place. Jesus was crushed so that we don’t have to be. This was the Father’s will and the Son’s will.[5]

The point is that God can declare the guilty just because Jesus took their penalty and paid it in full. Not only that, but Jesus gives us his perfect obedience, his righteousness. Only Jesus, the perfect God-man, kept covenant with God. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled God’s law and God’s design for humanity. Yet, as Paul says, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus, God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was regarded as sin and he died—and rose from the grave, showing he paid our penalty in full. And we are regarded as God’s righteousness, as having his perfect moral character. This has been called “the great exchange.”

It is also called the “sweet exchange” in an early Christian document, probably from the second century, called The Epistle to Diognetus. This is part of that letter:

He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, “the just for the unjust,” the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners![6]

There’s another way of expressing this truth. When we are united to Jesus, we are his bride and he is our bridegroom. Of course, this is a metaphor. Our relationship to Jesus is only analogous to the way a bride relates to a groom, and there are limits to analogies. But I think it’s true to say that when two people get married, they share all their lives together. Jesus, though sinless, takes on our sin; and we, though sinful, take on his righteousness.

When Kathy and I married, she had debt and I was blessed to have inherited money from my grandparents. One of the first things I did was pay off her debt. Her debt was erased; she had equal share to my money. But here’s where the analogy starts to break down. When I paid off Kathy’s debt, I had less money. But when Jesus pays off our debt, he doesn’t have less righteousness. Because Jesus is not only man, but also God, he’s infinite. He can pay for an infinite amount of sin and he never loses any righteousness. His righteousness knows no end and can be credited to a multitude.

I think the idea of union with Christ and the picture of a marriage help us to understand the nature of faith. If you’re married, did you earn your spouse’s love? I think it would be strange if you said yes. You were the object of your spouse’s love because, well, he or she loved you. Love is hard to explain that way. When you entered that relationship, you received that love. You didn’t work for it. If you loved this person in return, you trusted this person enough to marry him or her. And when you have that kind of trust and love, your life changes. Again, this is just an analogy, but it helps us understand the personal nature of faith.

And it helps us to understand that the object of our faith matters. We can’t have a generic “faith.” Sometimes people talk about their faith. They say, “She has great faith,” “I’m relying on my faith,” and things like that. But our faith doesn’t save us. The object of our faith can—if it’s Jesus. We must have faith in the one who saves. We must be united to him. There is no other savior. There is no other person who is perfectly righteous for us and who takes the punishment we deserve for us. Our faith is personal, and it must be in the only person who can save, Jesus.

Also, faith isn’t mere head knowledge. Yes, faith involves believing that what the Bible says about sin and salvation is true. It involves knowing that Jesus is the only Son of God, who is truly God and truly man, who lived a perfect, sinless life and atoning death, and who was raised to life on the third day for our justification. But faith is more than just knowing facts. Faith trusts a person. And real faith leads to action. Real faith will lead to obedience and good works. Those don’t save us. They don’t put us into a right relationship with God. But once we’re in that relationship, they will come quite naturally. Just as a healthy tree will bear fruit, a person who has been restored to spiritual health will produce spiritual fruit.

That’s why James, in his letter, says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Then he goes on to say this, in James 2:18–24:

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Here’s what James means. Real faith isn’t believing some statements to be true. The demons know truths about God, but they’re not reconciled to him. Real faith leads to action. Abraham was credited righteousness because he believed. But that faith also led to obedience. This doesn’t mean Abraham was perfect, because he wasn’t. But his faith led him to do some very hard things. He was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, because God was testing him. (God didn’t actually require Isaac to be sacrificed, by the way. The story foreshadows that God’s only Son would be the sacrifice that God would provide.) This obedience demonstrated that he had true faith. In that way, Abraham was justified by works. We might say his faith was demonstrated to be true because he had some obedience to show for it.

But it’s important to say that our good works don’t add to our right standing with God. When we first believe in Jesus, we are completely justified. Our right standing is based on Jesus’ perfect work for us. And when we come to real faith in Jesus, we our transformed. We have the Holy Spirit. We are united to Christ. And this new status will inevitably lead to good works.

In the end, this isn’t any different from what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–9. Paul says that we were saved by grace through faith, and that this is a gift from God. We cannot boast about it. We can’t even regard faith as some wise choice that we made because that is part of the gift. But why were we saved? The next verse, Ephesians 2:10, tells us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were saved to do good works. We should do them out of love and gratitude and trust.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the nature of faith, but I have to wrap things up for now. So, let me ask you to imagine something. Imagine your time has come. You have crossed the bar from life to death. And imagine that it’s Judgment Day. You are before God, and your life is now coming under God’s scrutiny. God is the Judge, and he is perfect. Because he’s all-knowing, he knows every bit of your life, all your thoughts, desires, words, and actions. He sees all the evidence and it’s clear you’re guilty. What will you offer in your defense?

This day will come for all of us, whether we’re Christians or not. So, what is your excuse? What is your defense? What is your plea? Will you protest and say that you’re innocent? Will you give excuses and try to justify why you did some wrong things? Will you shift the blame to others? Will you claim ignorance of God’s commands or inability to do them? If so, you don’t really understand the nature of God, human nature, and the problem of sin. I would invite you to take a more honest, more sober look at your own life. You can fool other people, or even yourself, but you can’t fool God.

Perhaps you won’t say you’re innocent. But instead of acknowledging that you have a debt that you could never repay, a guilt you could never work off, you boast about all the things you’ve done. You might say, “God, you can’t condemn me because I said I believed in Jesus and I was baptized at age 12. I repeated a prayer someone told me. And then I attended church every Sunday. I even gave ten percent of every little bit of income I ever had. Surely that means something, right?” If that is your posture, I would also invite you to reconsider how serious your sin is and how tainted your good actions are with bad motivations. I would also say that if you are trusting in your own efforts, you’re not a Christian.

Jesus told a parable about this. In Luke 18:9–14, he describes two men who come to the temple. One is a Pharisee, and when he prays, he simply boasts about how he’s obeyed the law. The other man was a tax collector, known for taking more than they should. And all he said in his prayer was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And this is Jesus’ verdict: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

That’s why this matters so much. If you trust your own efforts, you’re not trusting God’s provision. And, I would add, you don’t understand the truth about the depth of your sin and the insufficiency of your good works, whatever they are. You can’t be part of God’s family and kingdom if you don’t live by faith. No one here today can say they don’t understand this message of the gospel, the good news of Christianity, which says that sinners can be in the right with God by trusting his Son. Everyone here has heard that the only way to be right with God is through God’s grace, expressed in Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death, received by faith. Accept God’s grace by faith. You’ll never have a right standing with God if you think you can earn it.

Perhaps when you stand before God, you’ll rightly say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” You might say, “God, I know I rebelled against you. I have done more wrong things than I even know. My only hope is Jesus. I know he is the Righteous One, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior. I know he died for my sins and rose from the grave for my justification. I have put my faith in him.” That is good. I hope we all can say something like that and mean it.

But what if God were to ask us, “How do I know you have faith?” How would you demonstrate that you have faith? In other words, what in your life are you doing that requires faith in Jesus? Being here is a good start. So many people who claim to be Christians aren’t committed to a local church, which simply makes no sense to me. Part of living by faith is submitting to the leadership of a local church and serving—and being served by—that body of believers. I think it takes faith to give generously to the church and to those who need. That shows that you’re willing to do with less in this life because you know being generous is good and right. Serving in the church takes faith, because we don’t always see the fruits of our efforts. Sometimes, we’re not thanked for what we do. It takes faith to stay in a marriage that doesn’t feel perfect. We do that because we know it’s right and ultimately good for us, and we hope and pray and work to make that marriage better. It takes faith to tell other people about Jesus, because they may reject us and call us names. It takes faith to deny yourself pleasures that other people indulge in. You trust that such things will ultimately harm you and those around you.

Many other things take faith. The point is that real faith cannot be separated from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Real trust leads to real action. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and we are saved to do good works to the glory of God alone. May we all trust in Jesus only for salvation, and may our lives show that such faith is real.

Notes

  1. Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 43.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 47.
  4. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986), 34:337, quoted in Metaxas, Martin Luther, 96.
  5. Over two years ago I preached a sermon on Galatians 3:1–14. This sermon, “The Righteous Shall Live by Faith,” was preached on July 12, 2015 and is available at https://wbcommunity.org/galatians.
  6. Epistle to Diognetus 9:2–5, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 547–549.

 

Is the Devil Real?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message answering the question, “Is the devil real?” He provides an overview of what the Bible says about Satan, focusing on who he is and what he does. He also tells us the good news of how Jesus conquers Satan and evil and how Christians can guard themselves against the devil.

Justification (Galatians 2:15-21)

Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 2:15-21 on July 5, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul says that a person isn’t made right with God through works, but through faith. Once a person has faith in Jesus, that person is changed and it is now Christ who lives in that person. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The True God and Eternal Life (1 John 5:13-21)

Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.

The Testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.