Jesus tells his people not to fear, because he is with them, he was killed and rose from the grave, and because he is in control. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Revelation 1:9-20 on January 10, 2021.
It’s interesting to see how people react to this pandemic we find ourselves in. Some people don’t take it very seriously. There were stories of college students on spring break who weren’t going to let a virus stop them from their vacations. And some of them became sick. It’s not surprising that some young people wouldn’t think much about their own mortality and the mortality of others. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are very afraid. Some people are afraid of getting sick, or they’re afraid of their loved ones getting sick. I think more of us are afraid that this situation will cause other problems. We think we’ll lose our jobs, run out of money, or run out of food and basic household supplies. Why do people hoard? Because, at the end of the day, most people fear death.
This pandemic only highlights what was and has always been a reality: We will all die. That’s a hard truth. But I think it’s a good thing to think about death, for the very reason that we will all die. In one of the most fascinating books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, we read these words:
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart (Eccl. 7:2).
Death is a great teacher. Since we’re all going to die, we should think more carefully about what matters most in life.
One of my favorite philosophers, Blaise Pascal, thought deeply about the meaning of life. He uses this illustration to shock us to think about the meaning of our lives:
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under the sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.
That’s a cheery thought, isn’t it? We’re all sentenced to die, we see other people much like us who receive that sentence, and we know our time is coming.
Since that is the case, it’s foolish not to think deeply and carefully about death. If death is a great teacher, what should it teach us? There’s a great book called Remember Death, written by Matthew McCullough, that came out a couple of years ago. In that book, McCullough writes these words: “Death makes a statement about who we are: we are not too important to die. We will die, like all those who’ve gone before us, and the world will keep on moving just as it always has. No one is indispensable. It’s a harsh, even terrifying statement.” Let those words sink in a bit: “we are not too important to die.”
But those are not the last words that McCullough writes. He also writes this: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.” The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” We’re looking for good news these days. And the best news is that God would send his Son to die in place of his enemies.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, I urge you to keep listening. It’s ironic to think that anyone’s death could be good news. But that’s what Christians have always believed. At the heart of the Christian faith stands Jesus. And the central act of Jesus is to sacrifice himself for his people, which is what we’ll talk about today. The other act that is central to what Jesus has done is to rise from the grave in a body that can never die again. We’ll talk about that next week, on Resurrection Sunday, better known as Easter.
Today, we’re going to continue to study the Gospel of Luke. We’re going to look at Luke 23:44–56. I invite you to turn there in your Bibles, or your Bible apps. You can find the passage easily enough with a Google search, too. If you don’t have a Bible, would you let us know? You can send a private message or contact us through our website. We’ll mail a Bible to you to make sure that you have your own copy.
Let’s start by reading Luke 23:44–49:
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
Over the past two months, as we have studied the closing chapters of Luke, we have seen that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples, arrested by Jewish leaders who didn’t believe that he was the Christ, the anointed King of Israel, or the Son of God, that he was put on trial for making himself out to be those things, and that he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate in order to satisfying a bloodthirsty mob. Last week, we saw that Jesus was crucified, nailed to a cross as if he were a threat to the Roman Empire.
Jesus was crucified at the third hour (Mark 15:25), which would be about 9 a.m., three hours after sunrise. At the sixth hour, at about noon, darkness appeared until the ninth hour, 3 p.m. Obviously, this is an unusual event. Why is darkness appearing in the middle of the day?
This darkness has everything to do with how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. Light and darkness have deeper meanings in the Bible. Throughout the Bible, we’re told that the human condition is one of darkness. Think about what light does. It shows us what is real. Without light, we couldn’t see. Light exposes what is truly there. Light also gives life. Without any light from the sun, life on earth would end rather quickly. The Bible says that our real condition is that we’re separated from God. We have broken a relationship with God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. That relationship is broken by our failure to love him, honor him, and obey him. Instead of coming into the light, into a true relationship with God, we hide from him in the darkness (John 3:19–20). It is our running away from God, our hiding in darkness, that is ultimately responsible for what is broken in the world. That is why we die. We run from the source of light and life.
But Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12). Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus came to bring light to those who were in darkness (Luke 1:79). God the Father sent God the Son to reveal what is true, and to shine a light on the path back to God. In fact, Jesus is not only the light, but he is also the way to God (John 14:6). It was appropriate that when Jesus was born, in the middle of the dark night, the sky was filled with angels and glory, a brilliant light (Luke 2:8–14).
But now it becomes dark in the middle of the day. Why does this happen?
The answer is that this darkness is a sign of judgment. If you’re familiar with the story of the Bible, you know that Israel was rescued while they were slaves in Egypt during the time of Moses. God delivered Israel out of Egypt through a series of plagues. The ninth plague was darkness that covered the land for three days (Exod. 10:21–29). This darkness was a sign that judgment was coming. And, indeed, the next plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land (Exod. 11:1–10). So, this darkness that lasted for three hours as Jesus was hanging on the cross was a sign that God was judging sin, rebellion against him.
God, as the perfect judge, must punish wrongdoing. He must punish crimes. And this is a loving thing to do because sin is destructive. A loving person will want to crush that which destroys. God has promised that in the end, he will do that.
In fact, that judgment against sin was often foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament. They referred to a “Day of the Lord,” a day of salvation for God’s people and a day of destruction for those who rebelled against him. These prophets spoke of what would happen when God judges sin, and this often involved darkness. Here are a few passages. This is Isaiah 13:9–11:
9 Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
and to destroy its sinners from it.
10 For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
11 I will punish the world for its evil,
and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless.
And here is another word from God about the Day of the Lord. This is Amos 8:9:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
Again, here is another word about this day of judgment. Here is Zephaniah 1:14–16:
14 The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.
So, what is happening here in Jerusalem, when the sky turns dark in the middle of the day as Jesus is dying? It is a sign that God is judging sin. But, as we saw two weeks ago, and as we’ll see again today, Jesus is completely innocent. He never did anything wrong. He never sinned. So why is God judging him?
Remember those words I shared earlier: “If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us.” Jesus was dying in our place. He was enduring the judgment of God that we deserve. All rebellion against God and all the destruction that comes with failing to love him and love others, failing to live life on the Creator’s terms, will be judged. But God did something amazing. He sent his Son, who came willingly, to bear the penalty that we deserve. Jesus was enduring the Day of the Lord on the cross. He was dying to pay the penalty for sin, a penalty that all of us should face.
There’s another sign that Jesus was atoning for the sin of his people. We’re told that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The temple was where God dwelled among his people. It was a place of worship, where people taught God’s word and prayed. It was also a place of sacrifice. God told Israel to sacrifice animals, symbolically transferring their guilt to animals who would die in their place. Now, an animal can’t bear the penalty for a human. So, these sacrifices did not actually satisfy justice. But God told the Israelites to do this, and it was a sign that sin deserves to be killed. It also was a sign that the death penalty could be taken by another.
When Jesus died, he fulfilled the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. His death made the temple obsolete. (The book of Hebrews makes this abundantly clear.)
In the Old Testament, for people to approach God, they had to go to the temple. They had to go through priests. But now, to go to God, we only need to go to Jesus. So, the curtain’s tearing was a sign that there is now open access to God. You don’t have to go to a special building. You don’t have a go to a priest. You have direct access to God through Jesus. In fact, Christianity says that all Christians are part of God’s temple. The Spirit of God does not dwell in some manmade building that you must visit. The Holy Spirit dwells in God’s people. And the Bible says that all Christians are royal priests. Jesus is our High Priest, and we must go to him to get to God, to be reconciled to God. This doesn’t mean that there is no longer any kind of structured religion. Jesus gave the church pastors to lead, teach, and protect his people (Eph.4:11ff). And his people do often meet in buildings. But none of these things are necessary to know God and have a right relationship with him. All you need is Jesus.
Though Jesus seems to be passive in his dying on the cross, he is in control. He lays down his life. He yields his life to God the Father. He continues to trust in the Father, even as he’s enduring hell on earth. When he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” he’s quoting something from the Old Testament. He’s quoting a part of Psalm 31. This is what Psalm 31:1–8 says:
1 In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
3 For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
4 you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
6 I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the Lord.
7 I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul,
8 and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
Even as Jesus is enduring the greatest physical suffering we can imagine, and even as he’s enduring greater spiritual and psychological pain that we can ever imagine, he trusts in God. God is his refuge, his help. He knows that God will deliver him. Even as Jesus saves his people, he serves as an example of how to trust God even in our darkest moments.
When Jesus dies, we see another example. We see a positive reaction to Jesus. A Roman solider, a centurion, a leader of a group of one hundred soldiers, sees Jesus suffer and die, and he comes to this conclusion: “Certainly this man was innocent!” This is the seventh time that someone claims that Jesus is innocent. Luke makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t dying for his own wrongs, crimes, or sins. He was dying for ours. If you want to know why Jesus’ innocence is important, go back and listen to my message from two weeks ago. Jesus fulfilled God’s designs for humanity by living the perfect life, and he takes the penalty of sin for all who trust in him, so that his people, those who believe that he is Savior, Lord, and God, those who trust in him and are willing to follow him, are regarded by God as perfectly righteous, and their sins are removed from them, so that they can be forgiven by God and reconciled to him.
We also see other reactions to Jesus. The crowd leaves the site after Jesus died and they lament. And we see women watching Jesus’ death. This is important for at least three reasons. One, Jesus had female followers (Luke 8:1–3). While his inner ring of disciples consisted only of men, Jesus loved women and treated them with respect. Sometimes you hear how the Bible is misogynistic or somehow against women. But that’s not true at all. It’s also important to see that Jesus’ faithful followers are willing to follow him to the end. That, too, is an example for us. And, third, it shows that these women witnessed Jesus’ death. Jesus truly died. Some people claim he didn’t. Islam teaches that Jesus only appeared to die, that either he didn’t die or that someone else who looked like him took his place on the cross. But that’s not true. These women knew Jesus, they knew what he looked like, and they saw that he actually died.
Now, let’s read the rest of today’s passage in Luke. Here is Luke 23:50–56:
50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
This passage is important because it talks about Jesus’ burial in the tomb. We’re now told of a man named Joseph, who was good and righteous. He was a member of the Jewish council that was opposed to Jesus. And he didn’t agree with their decision. We don’t know if he actively worked against them, or if he silently disagreed. But it’s clear that he knew that Jesus did not deserve to die. In the other Gospels, we’re told that he was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57; John 19:38).
Joseph wanted to honor Jesus by giving him a proper burial. Jesus would have been buried in a shallow, common grave if Joseph hadn’t stepped in. To be thrown into a ditch is dishonoring. It was particularly dishonoring in the view of Jewish people, though we would think the same thing today. Just recently I watched a documentary on the Holocaust, and that documentary showed footage of the emaciated corpses of Jews being pushed by a bulldozer into a ditch. It was a horrific thing to see. Though these people had already died, it was a further offense not to treat their bodies with care.
Joseph, a follower of Jesus, wanted to honor Jesus, to treat his body with respect. After all, the body is no less a creation of God than the soul. So, Joseph asks for Jesus’ body. In Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that Joseph “took courage” to do that. Pontius Pilate, the Roman leader, might have treated Joseph poorly for asking for the body of an enemy of the state. But he doesn’t do that. Joseph is allowed to take the body, and he puts it in his own, unused tomb. This is important because we see that Jesus’ body had a specific location after he died. He was put in a tomb, one that these women saw, a tomb that would be empty less than forty-eight hours later.
It is also important because it shows that even Jesus’ burial fulfills a prophecy of the Old Testament. Isaiah 53:9 says this:
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Jesus really died. Joseph would be able to see this. Jesus’ female followers saw it. They saw exactly where Jesus was entombed. We’ll see why this important next week, when we consider Luke 24 and Jesus’ resurrection.
Luke also tells us that Jesus that it is now the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, a day of rest. In Jewish law, all work was to be done on six days. The seventh day was for rest and worship. So, Jesus died on the sixth day, when his work was done. He accomplished all the work that is necessary for us to have a right relationship with God. As Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And then, on the seventh day, Jesus rested in the tomb. On the eighth day, or the first day of a new week, Jesus will rise from the grave, to begin a new era.
Now that we have looked at this passage, I’ll ask the question that I always ask: why does all of this matter?
It’s important to see why Jesus dies. He dies to satisfy God’s justice against sin. Since he is innocent, he didn’t die for his own sin. So, he must have died for the sins of others. And he did. All who come to Jesus in faith, who are willing to confess their sin, to acknowledge that they are not God, that Jesus is God and the world’s only Savior, and who are prepared to follow Jesus like these women and Joseph, are cleared of all their wrongdoing. They are innocent. They are reconciled to God. Our greatest need to is be connected to God, to have a right relationship with Jesus. And Jesus gives us that. He gives us open access to God. We simply need to come to him.
The death of Jesus is also very important to people who fear death. And I think all of us fear death in some way. There’s a book in the Bible called Hebrews, which talks about how Jesus is all that we need to be in the right before God. Jesus is greater than angels, prophets, and priests. He is the true temple, the true priest, the true sacrifice for sin. Early in that book, the author of Hebrews says that the Son of God was made to become like us. He became a human being, to live a perfect life and to die in our place. And Hebrews 2:14–15 says this:
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Through his death, Jesus destroyed the work of the devil (also 1 John 3:8). The devil wants to tempt us to sin and then accuse us of our sin. In other words, the devil wants to separate us from God. And we willingly separate ourselves from God when we hide in the darkness. But Jesus came to destroy Satan’s work and to bring us back to God. If you have put your trust in Jesus, you have no reason to fear death. You are delivered from the fear of death, which is a form of slavery. And that is so important in this time.
If you’re a Christian, you should find the idea of Jesus’ death comforting. That’s not only true because he died to pay the penalty for your sins. But Jesus knows what it’s like to die. Jesus can relate to us. He knows what it’s like to die.
You may wonder how it is that the Son of God can die. Well, we should remember that dying isn’t ceasing to exist. Death is the dissolution of the body, a separation of body and soul, something that is not God’s ultimate plan for us. Christianity says that the body is important, because God made it. That’s why it’s important to honor the body, even after death. So, Jesus was separated from his body, but he continued to exist. There’s never a moment when the Son of God hasn’t existed. But he did take on a human nature over two thousand years ago, and that meant having a human body, one that could die. But even as a man, Jesus never stopped existing. His soul endured and went to paradise, which was opened up by Jesus’ death. The curtain is torn, heaven’s gate is open, and Jesus invites you to come in.
If you do fear death, trust in Jesus. Jesus has died. He knows what it is like to be mortal. But he came back to life. And Jesus has reported what happens after death. He knows what lies beyond the curtain of death. That’s not a frontier that scientists or politicians or journalists can tell you about. Science is important. I would say it’s a gift from God. But it has its limits. It cannot tell us what lies beyond the grave. We need someone to report that to us, someone who has died and come back to life, someone who knows everything because he’s God. Jesus is that someone.
We’ll talk more about the resurrection next week, but I think it’s important to say this even now. Jesus once told someone mourning the death of her brother these very important words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). That is a question for you, too. Do you believe? If not, I urge you to. At the least, learn as much about Jesus and the Bible as you can. I would love to help you do that.
- David Montgomery and Manny Ramirez, “44 Texas Students Have Coronavirus After Spring Break Trip,” New York Times, April 1, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/us/coronavirus-texas-austin-spring-break-cabo.html.↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées 434/199, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, rev. ed. (London: Penguin, 1995), 137. ↑
- Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 28. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/i-find-no-guilt-in-this-man. ↑
Let me start with a question: What is your biggest fear? What are you most afraid of? Take a moment to think about it. Chapman University conducts an annual survey of American fears. Here are some of the results in 2018’s survey:
73.6 percent were afraid of corrupt government officials.
61.6 percent and 60.7 percent were afraid of pollution of bodies of water and pollution of drinking water, respectively.
57 percent were afraid of not having enough money for the future.
56.5 percent were afraid of “people I love becoming seriously ill.”
56.4 percent of people were afraid of “people I love dying.”
As you go down the list, you see other items that aren’t surprising: about half of people are afraid of terrorism and wars, a significant number of people are afraid of accidents, and people are increasingly concerned about privacy issues related to personal data and identity theft. Surprisingly, only 27.9 percent said they were afraid of dying and 23.7 percent said they were afraid of hell. Even more surprisingly, only 8.4 percent said they were afraid of zombies, 8.3 percent said they were afraid of ghosts, and 7.1 percent said they were afraid of clowns.
I think most people are afraid of embarrassment, pain, and loss. A lot of people are afraid of public speaking—26.2 percent in that survey—because they’re afraid they’ll be embarrassed. People are often afraid of what others will think about them. People are afraid of physical and emotional pain, which could come from accidents, terrorist attacks, abuse, and deaths. And people are afraid of loss—loss of money, loss of sensitive personal data, loss of a job, loss of a relationship, loss of loved ones, and loss of life. Those fears are all understandable, and some of us in this room have had some big fears realized in our lives.
What someone fears tells you a lot about what a person values. So, what do you fear the most? And what does that say about you?
I bring this issue of fear up because in the passage that we’re studying today, Luke 12:1–12, Jesus tells us who we should not fear, and who we should. And since Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and the Son of God, I think we should pay attention to what he has to say about fear.
We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a while now, and we’re in the period of Jesus’ life when he’s teaching and when he’s starting to have more and more conflict with the Jewish religious leaders of his day, in particular the Pharisees. Last week, in Luke 11:37–54, we saw that Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the religious legal scholars because of their hypocrisy. This week, we see Jesus warn his disciples not to become like the Pharisees, and to think very carefully about how they will live. And he says that who we fear will dictate how we live.
Let’s begin by reading the first three verses of Luke 12:
1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. 2 Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.
Last week, at the very end of Luke 11, we read that the Pharisees and the scribes were plotting to trap Jesus, to trip him up and cause him to say something that would condemn him. Of course, they couldn’t succeed in doing that, because Jesus spoke perfectly. He answered all their insincere questions in ways that shut them down.
But as they were scheming, Jesus kept drawing crowds. Luke tells us that thousands of people gathered around Jesus, so much that they were “trampling one another.” And I’m sure it was his recent criticism of the Pharisees plus the large crowds that led him to warn his disciples about becoming like the Pharisees. He tells them to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” In the Jewish context, “leaven” was a bit of fermented dough which could taint a whole lump of dough. A little bit of leaven, like yeast, can affect a large lump of dough.
It’s interesting that the apostle Paul also uses the phrase, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” a couple of times in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 5, he warns the church about allowing sin to continue in the church (1 Cor. 5:6–8). In Galatians 5:9, Paul warns Christians not to try to earn a right standing with God by obedience to the old covenant law, the law that God gave Israel at Mount Sinai (Gal. 5:9). In the Didache, an early Christian document from the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), it says, “Throw out, therefore, the bad leaven, which has become stale and sour, and reach for the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted with him, so that none of you become rotten, for by your odor you will be examined.” Then it makes it clear that the old leaven in mind is Judaism, specifically adherence to the old covenant. While the meaning of the phrase is different in each context, the saying shows that certain ways of doing things are not compatible with Christianity. Hypocrisy, outrageous and damaging sin, and the old covenant are not compatible with the way of Jesus.
In this case, Jesus is warning against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Jesus’ twelve disciples might be tempted, in order to please a large crowd, to act one way in public while they lived a different way in private. They might have been tempted to lead double lives, and Jesus warns them about that. Nothing that is covered up will not be revealed. Whatever is in the dark will come to the light. That’s true of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. It’s true of Christians who are hypocrites. And it’s also true of Jesus’ identity and the truth of the Christian message. All that is true will be revealed in the end, when Jesus returns to this world and there is a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. What is inside a person will be laid bare, exposed before God. There will be no fooling God, for he knows everything about us. And the truth about Jesus will be undeniable, because we will stand before him in his glory. And it’s Jesus that we should most concerned about, not what the crowds think and what the crowds approve.
Let’s now read verses 4–7:
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 7 Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Again, Jesus must have the Pharisees and crowds in mind when he tells his disciples not to fear people, but to fear God instead. The Pharisees would prove hostile to Jesus, and Jesus knew that those who hated him will hate his followers. The Roman Empire was largely hostile to Christianity, too. In time, many of the original disciples would die for their faith. Others, like Stephen (Acts 7), James (Jesus’ brother), and Paul would die for their faith. Later in this Gospel of Luke, Jesus will tell the twelve that before the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, they would be persecuted (Luke 21:12). So, that people had the power to kill the bodies of the disciples is not some empty rhetoric. This was something that would happen to many, though not all of them.
Even though that threat of persecution was real, Jesus tells his followers not to fear people. The worst that people can do is kill you. Instead, fear God, who has the ability to cast you into hell. This is the only time that Luke uses that word, hell, which is literally Gehenna (Greek: γέεννα). It’s a reference to where people are punished after that great day of judgment. The name comes from a physical location, a valley south of Jerusalem called “the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” It’s a place where wicked Israelites had sacrificed their children to a false god, an idol named Molech (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31–32; 19:4–6; 32:34–35). These were burnt sacrifices: the children were burned. So, the image of Gehenna is a place associated with wickedness and burning, but it came to be used of people who would be condemned by God, cut off from him and everything that is good forever. The book of Revelation calls it the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10–15). But the torment of hell is far greater than fire, and sometimes it’s called “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12). In either case, whether the image is fire or darkness, hell is an awful fate, something far worse than we can imagine, and it’s a fate reserved for those who reject have sinned against God—which is all of us—and who don’t embrace Jesus.
Essentially, Jesus is telling his followers not to worry about the masses of people who don’t have real power. Worry about God, who has our eternal destiny in his hands. And if you belong to God, you are valuable. God knows and cares about small things like sparrows, which apparently were things that the poorest people would buy to eat, and even the number of hairs on your head. He knows these things and he cares about such little details. And if he cares about such little things, how much more will he care for his children. If you trust in Jesus, believing that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, the worst fate you can experience is rejection by others, torture, and death. But you will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world, a renewed and restored creation in which there is nothing bad—no hunger or pain, no diseases or wars, and no death. But if you live to please the masses instead of God, you will have an unending experience of decay, torment, isolation. You’ll be permanently trapped in darkness, something like solitary confinement—but far worse, and without a moment of relief.
Jesus says that everyone who has ever lived will fall into two camps: they will embrace him or deny him. Let’s look at verses 8–12:
8 “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Those who acknowledge Jesus will be acknowledged by God. Those who deny Jesus will be denied by God. When Jesus says “acknowledge,” he doesn’t mean that those who know Jesus lived will go to heaven when they die. The devil knows Jesus is alive. Knowing facts about Jesus is not what he has in mind. Acknowledging Jesus means knowing who he is and responding appropriately. We talk of faith or belief. If you believe that Jesus is Lord and God, you will trust that he is a good King, and you will come under his rule. If you believe that Jesus is the Savior, you will trust that he is the only one who can make you right with God, who can take care of your sins so that they are wiped away and who can credit you with his righteousness so that God will regard you as having done what is right and good. If you trust Jesus, you will not only obey him and believe in his work on your behalf, but you’ll love him.
Jesus even forgives those who have spoken against him. Look at verse 10 again: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” If we take this verse out of context, we might be confused and even very afraid. But we have the rest of the New Testament to help us make sense out of what Jesus was saying. We can even think about specific cases. Think about one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. But after he became aware of what he had done, he had great sorrow, and he repented. He turned back to Jesus. He was forgiven. Think of Paul. Paul was a Pharisee who first had persecuted Christians. He surely spoke against Jesus many times. But when he saw the truth about Jesus, he was changed. He was forgiven. Those who had spoken against Jesus and turn back to him are forgiven. And that turning back to him must occur in this life.
On the other hand, those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus says this, he says in the context of people believing that his miracles were performed by the power of Satan. So, it appears that speaking against the Holy Spirit means ascribing his power to the devil. But the Holy Spirit does other things besides empowering people to perform miracles. The Holy Spirit later empowers the disciples to preach the good news about Jesus. We see that in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit leads some of those apostles, and others like Luke, to write the books of the New Testament. Denying the Holy Spirit means denying the gospel, denying God’s word. And not just denying once. Paul denied the gospel message for a while. But he repented and put his faith in Jesus. Jesus must have in mind those who continue to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, even to their deaths. If you continually deny God’s activity, which comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, throughout your life, there is not hope for you. And as we’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel, to deny God all you have to do is be apathetic about Jesus. Denying God may not look like hostility. It may look like a shrug and indifference.
Perhaps Jesus has something more specific in mind in the context of this passage. He might mean that the disciples might be tempted to change what they believe in the context of persecution. When the masses turn against them, and the powers that be are threatening their lives, they may be tempted to deny Jesus, to change their tune. That’s why Jesus says, in verses 11 and 12, not to be anxious about what will happen when the stand before Jewish and Roman authorities. In that day, the Holy Spirit will teach them what they are to say.
Later in Luke’s Gospel, shortly before his death, Jesus teaches the disciples that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. The Roman Empire did this in the year 70, about forty years later. And Jesus tells his disciples this, in Luke 21:12–19:
12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
Jesus says that they will be persecuted. He doesn’t sugar coat things for his followers. He says that some of the twelve would die for their faith, and yet, not a hair of their head would perish. Of course, he didn’t mean that literally. He just said some of them would die. But that’s the worst that could happen to them. And, in light of eternal bliss, what is a bit of momentary pain? It’s nothing. It’s better to have momentary pain and eternal joy than to deny Jesus and have eternal torment. And in that context, Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Don’t think about what you’ll say. The Holy Spirit will be with you, and he’ll take care of you.”
Some Christians have used this to say that when we share our faith with others, we shouldn’t think in advance what we’ll say. But that’s not what context of this passage. When we tell people the gospel, we should prepare. We should study. We should know what we believe. We should learn how to communicate it well. We should learn how non-Christians think, what their questions are, and what their objections to Christianity are. Jesus is not excusing laziness and anti-intellectualism. Just last night, I was reading a portion of a new book on apologetics, which is a rational presentation or defense of the Christian faith. At the beginning of the book, there’s a reference to recent surveys which suggest that young people are leaving the church because the church is often anti-intellectual. Jesus is not saying, “Don’t think. Don’t prepare in advance what you’ll say in any given situation.” If that were so, all my sermons would be extemporaneous, and they would be pretty lousy.
But Jesus is talking about the context of persecution, when your life is being threatened. He’s talking about a situation in which an authority, who has the power to throw you in prison or kill you, is pressing you to deny Jesus. And Jesus says, “Don’t worry.”
Maybe you’ve never thought about what you would do in that situation. I have. I have thought about it because I’ve studied enough history to know that people have been martyred. People have been pressured to give up their faith. We will likely see this more and more in this country. We won’t see Christians get the death penalty. More likely, we’ll see Christians being refused employment, losing their jobs because of their faith. A relatively small number of Christians will die each year for the faith. But many more will be beaten, imprisoned, robbed, fired, or cut off from family.
If your life was on the line, would you deny Jesus or continue to believe in him? Settle it in your minds, right now. But don’t worry about what you would say in that moment. Just focus on Jesus, and the right words will come.
When I think about this issue, I think about a recent movie by Martin Scorsese, called Silence. Scorsese is a Catholic, and I don’t know what he truly believes. But the film is thought-provoking and it’s worth seeing. It’s based on a novel which is rooted in history. In this story, some Jesuit priests travel from Portugal to Japan in the seventeenth century to check up on another Jesuit priest, a missionary who has disappeared. In Japan, the priests witness Japanese Christians being tortured and killed for their faith. The Japanese government pressured Christians to renounce their faith by stepping on images of Jesus called fumi-e. If I remember the film correctly, Christians were also forced to spit on the cross. If they didn’t perform these physical acts of renunciation, they would die. The film doesn’t present great theology, but it raises a lot of interesting questions, and it gets you to think about what you would do if you were in that situation. Settle it in your mind to believe in Jesus to the end, never to renounce him. But don’t worry about what you will say.
Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think a bit more about fearing God.
One thing we must realize is that there will always be a temptation to change what we believe in the face of public pressure. There will always be a large amount of people who believe things that aren’t biblical. And this creates tension for Christians. Do we yield to the masses, or do we continue to believe what Jesus taught? Do we give in to public pressure, or do we remain faithful?
This is a question the apostles had to deal with. It’s one that the apostle Paul knew well. And he often had to confront false beliefs. About four years ago, I preached through the book of Galatians. You can find all of those sermons online at our website, by going to wbcommunity.org/galatians. In that letter, Paul was confronting false beliefs taught by others, who were teaching that in order for Gentiles to become Christians, they first had to obey all of the law of the old covenant. Specifically, men had to be circumcised. And Paul said that that message was not the gospel. The gospel is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and this is a gift from God. It’s not based on our doing, but on God’s doing. Yet these false teachers were persuasive, and Christians were starting to change their beliefs. And that’s why Paul writes these words (in Galatians 1:6–10):
6 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— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 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. 9 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.
10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Paul is saying that there is only one gospel message. There is only one message about Jesus, about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus, and it’s the message that has been preached since Jesus died and rose from the grave. There is only one gospel. And he says that even if he changes his message, and even if an angel comes to them and tells them a different message, not to believe that person. He says that false messenger will be condemned. And then he says he is not trying to please men, but to please God. If he was trying to please others, he would change his message based on public opinion. But if he was trying to please God, he would hold fast to the truth.
Paul could have used the language of fearing God. He could have said, “Do I fear man or God? If I feared man, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ. I would say what people want to hear. But if I fear God, I must tell the truth that God revealed to me.”
The fact is that public opinion does not decide the truth. Everyone could believe something was true and they could still be wrong. There was a time when everyone thought the sun orbited around the Earth, instead of the other way around. They were wrong. The truth doesn’t change based on what others think. So, 99 percent of people could believe that something is true, and they could still believe a lie. The truth never changes. It doesn’t care about what we think or how we feel. The truth is what is real, and we don’t get to decide what is real. We may be tempted to question the truth of the Bible because others don’t believe what we believe. We’ll be tempted to alter the Bible’s message because it is offensive to some. But if what the Bible teaches is true, then to deny its message is to deny the Holy Spirit. And if we persist in that, we will be cut off from God.
So, I urge you to cling to the truth. Do that because you love Jesus. Do that because you fear God.
Some people don’t like that phrase, “fear God.” What does that even mean? Does it mean being frightened by God, being afraid of him? I think, in part, that is the case. If we understand exactly who God is, and if we understand our sin, we may be frightened. God is perfect. He is wholly other. He is above and beyond his creation. God doesn’t have a body, but it’s helpful to think that God is bigger than the universe. He has more power than all the energy in the universe. Have you ever seen the power of nature unleashed? Have you been in an earthquake? Have you witnessed a hurricane or a tornado, or even a powerful thunderstorm? Even if you’ve only seen those things in videos, you get some sense of God’s power. God is not to be trifled with.
And if you realize that you have often failed to live for God, not seeking to live life on his terms, not seeking to do what pleases him, but often ignoring him, avoiding him, and certainly not loving him, then you start to get a sense of the offense of your sin. If you really know God, you’ll start to see the ugliness of your sin. And if you know God and your sin, there should be a bit of fear in you—not a paralyzing fear, but a healthy fear. Sadly, this fear is lacking. In the survey I referred to earlier, only 14.2 percent of people said that they feared God.
But God invites us to become his friends. It’s interesting to see that Jesus calls his disciples friends (in verse 4) in the context of fearing God. We must have a healthy sense of awe in the presence of God, but we can also be Jesus’ friend. We can be his friend if we trust him. Jesus came to bring us to God. Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to remove our fear of death. He did that by becoming like us. Jesus is the Son of God who has always existed, yet who, over two thousand years ago, also became a man. And he experienced temptation and suffering. He knows what it’s like to obey God, to fear him in a healthy way. And though Jesus never sinned—and he’s the only human who has never sinned and who never had the power of sin at work in him—he died by crucifixion. He died on the cross, an instrument of suffering and shame, reserved for enemies of the state, not because he was guilty, but because we are. His perfect righteousness is credited to those who trust him. And his death wiped away the record of sin of those who embrace him. If you trust Jesus, you don’t have to fear the crowds. And you don’t have to fear death. This is what the author of Hebrews tells us:
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14–15).
Fear of public opinion and death is a kind of slavery. And Jesus came to break those chains. If we trust him, there is nothing to fear but God. And that fear of God is a healthy fear, a sense of awe and wonder and love. Jesus was able to endure the cross because he had a healthy fear of his Father. If we trust Jesus and have that healthy fear, we can endure whatever suffering we may face. And if we do that, God will acknowledge us. He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
If you fear God, turn to Jesus and trust him, and you will live forever. If you fear humans, you will be enslaved forever. The choice is yours.
- Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5, “The Complete List of Fears, 2018,” https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/fear-2018/Complete-Fears-2018-ranked.pdf, accessed on April 6, 2019. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 157. ↑
- Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 13. This observation is made by J. P. Moreland in his foreword to the book. ↑
Jesus tells us not to fear other people, but to fear God, who has our eternal destinies in his hands. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 12:1-12 on April 7, 2019.