A Great Chasm

This sermon was preached on August 4, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

One of the great questions that people have is, “What happens after I die?” At least, that should be a question that we ask ourselves. Yet many people avoid talk of death and the afterlife, and that’s unfortunate. There was a comedian who was interviewed by Time magazine a few years ago. He was asked why he spoke so often about death in his stand-up acts. He said it’s because we’re all going to die. He made this analogy: it’s like we’re all getting on a bus that’s headed to Pittsburgh. The bus says “Pittsburgh” on the front, but when we get on the bus, no one is talking about Pittsburgh. Then, when someone starts to talk about that city and what they’re going to do there, people get uncomfortable and they ask, “Why are you talking about Pittsburgh.” And you say, “Because that’s where the bus is going. It says it right on the tickets!”[1]

This morning we’re going to talk about Pittsburgh, metaphorically speaking. Actually, we’re going to talk about what is beyond death. We’re going to hear from Jesus about two eternal destinations, what we would call heaven and hell. We’ll do this by considering a story that Jesus told, found in Luke 16. The story is something like a parable. The actual events are somewhat fictitious, like the events in his other parables. But this story teaches some very true things, things that Jesus wanted his original hearers to know, and things that God saw fit to record in the Bible.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. This is one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. At this point in Jesus’ life, he is teaching about the proper use of wealth. God has given us everything to be used wisely, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the sake of God’s kingdom. In this story that we’re looking at today, Luke 16:19–31, we see how a rich man failed to do that.

So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 16:19–31. I’m going to read the whole passage, and then I’m going to go back and make four points about the text, and then some comments about what this has to do with the work of Jesus.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”[2]

As I said earlier, I want to make four points about this passage. The first is that we see two very different men. First, there is a rich man, who isn’t named. We’re told that he wore purple clothing, which might not seem like an important feature, but purple dye was very rare. So were linen undergarments. In short, this man was clothed in very expensive clothing. He also “feasted sumptuously every day.” In the ancient world, this simply wasn’t possible. Most people ate a simple diet. But this man lived it up every day. The second man is Lazarus, a very poor man. This isn’t the Lazarus found in John 11, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is, after all, a fictional character. But perhaps it’s not surprising that they bear the same name. Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God has helped,” or “God is my help.” God helps this Lazarus, but not before he has a miserable life. He was covered with sores, and his lot was so bad that wild dogs came to lick his sores. David Garland, in his commentary on Luke, says, “Dogs [from a Jewish perspective] are regarded as unclean animals and are often mentioned as eating the bodies of the dead (1 Kgs 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23, 24; 22:38).”[3] In a way, this man was left for dead. Lazarus was brought to the gate of the rich man, with the hopes that he could eat some scraps from this man’s table. We’re led to believe that he never got those scraps.

Now, we’re not told a lot about these men other than these bare facts. But from what we see here, the rich man knew who Lazarus was. He even calls him by name. So, he was aware of this man’s plight, and it seems that he repeatedly saw Lazarus lying in terrible condition outside his gate, but he did nothing to help the man. We don’t know anything about Lazarus other than his poverty and terrible physical condition. He never speaks in this story. But he must have been a man of faith, a man who trusted in the God of Israel. The story doesn’t tell us everything about why people go to either one of two destinations in the afterlife; we have to draw some inferences based on our knowledge of the rest of the Bible. For now, it’s important to pay attention to what this story says about these two men.

We see that both men die, but they go to two different places. The poor man dies and is taken to “Abraham’s side.” This is what we would call heaven. There are times in the Old Testament when we’re told that someone who died was “gathered to their fathers” (Gen. 15:15; 47:30; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:10; 1 Kgs. 1:21). Abraham was the forefather of all of Israel, a man of faith, someone who trusted in God’s great promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring. So, Abraham here is a representative of people of faith. But, more than that, in this story he’s also representative of God.

By contrast, when the rich man dies, he goes to Hades. (We’re told that the rich man was buried, but we’re not told that about Lazarus, which suggests that he didn’t have a proper burial because he was so poor.) In the Old Testament, Hades is called Sheol. It’s the realm of the dead. But while in the Old Testament, Sheol is a rather neutral place for all the dead, Hades is known as a place of torment. The rich man says that he is “in anguish in this flame.” We might call this hell.

It’s probably best to think of both places as provisional stations of the afterlife. At the end of the Bible, we’re told that the final destinations of all who live are either the new creation, a renewed and perfected physical world in which God’s people dwell with God forever, or the “lake of fire,” best thought of as a place of torment that exists beyond the world. But the Bible teaches that before the new creation and that final lake of fire, there is an intermediate state. For those who die trusting in Jesus, their spirits are in heaven. We’re not given as much information about those die not trusting in Jesus, but it seems there is some kind of provisional place of torment, Hades. And that’s what is being pictured here. Sometimes, this place is pictured as being one of fire. Other times, it’s a place of darkness and isolation and pain. It’s best to think of it as a removal from anything good, apart from any of God’s blessings.

What’s interesting is that the rich man, though he’s suffering in Hades, does not seem to show any sign of change. Yes, he does say, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.” That’s because he’s suffering. But he never suggests that he was selfish and greedy, that he lived a life of comfort and ease while he ignored the plight of a suffering man who was right outside his gate. In fact, the rich man still treats Lazarus poorly. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him even a drop of water to cool his tongue. He’s treating Lazarus like a lackey, and not like a person made in the image of God. The rich man shows no sign of true remorse, no sign of repentance. He’s trying to control the situation in the afterlife.

As for Lazarus, we’re not told about his devotion to God and his faith in God. But we are given a picture of the rich man’s poor character. Everything seems to be about him. Yes, he later shows concern for his five brothers who are still alive. But earlier in Luke, Jesus said this:

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same (Luke 6:32–33).

The rich man should have realized that Lazarus was his brother. In the Old Testament, fellow Israelites were regarded as “brothers and sisters,” and there were commands to help the poor. Here is just one example, from Deuteronomy 15:

7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:7–8).

And beyond commandments of the law, we find other statements in the Old Testament that show that a failure to help those in need is ultimately an insult to God. Here is Proverbs 14:3:

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

When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus, Abraham responds tenderly, by calling him “child.” But he reminds the rich man that he had a life of ease and failed to help Lazarus, and now he is in anguish. Lazarus had a life of poverty and pain, not to mention the same of being licked by dogs, but now he is comforted. There is a great reversal. This is what Mary sang about in chapter 1:

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 (Luke 1:51–53).

It is also what Jesus said would happen: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).

The rich man’s problem is that all this thoughts and cares are about himself. Theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther have noted that this is what sin does. The power of sin curves us in upon ourselves, so that we don’t look to God, who made us to live for his sake, and we don’t truly look to the welfare of others. We are selfish and proud, arrogant and greedy. At this point, I’m reminded of some lines from C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce. It’s an interesting book, one that imagines a busload of condemned people given a chance to visit heaven. They are offered another chance to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in the God of the Bible. But they don’t. The book is a fantasy, not a work of systematic theology, so it’s not the place to go for clear answers on heaven and hell. But like all of Lewis’s writings, it has some powerful insights. At one point, a character says, “a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself.”[4] The unredeemed soul shrinks, curved in on itself, shut up in itself. By contrast, the redeemed soul loves God and loves God’s creatures. At another point in The Great Divorce, it is said, “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”[5]

So, these two different men end up in two very different places, one of torment and one we must assume is a place of rest. The third thing we see is that there is a chasm fixed between these two places, and this chasm cannot be crossed. Abraham says, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” C. S. Lewis imagined the possibility of that chasm being bridged, but the fact is that the Bible is consistent in its teaching: once someone has died, it is too late to repent, too late to turn to God in faith. The book of Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no passage in Scripture that suggests that the citizens of hell want to be in heaven, nor does any passage suggest there is a way to get out of hell into heaven. Upon death, one’s eternal destiny is sealed with an utter finality, and this should be sobering to us.

There are many people who claim to be Christians who think that there is some way for people who haven’t turned to God in this life to be saved in the next. Universalists believe that everyone will be saved. Others believe that, somehow, God will save more people, who will ultimately be won over by God’s great love. Yet there really is nothing in the Bible to suggest that this is possible. In fact, given what we see in the Bible, those who are condemned don’t want God. They don’t want to repent, just like the rich man. They don’t see the error of their ways. The book of Revelation says that even while God is pouring out his righteous wrath against sin, people still refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20–21; 16:9–11). The greatest passage in Lewis’s The Great Divorce captures this reality:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock, it is opened.

The Bible says that God gives people over to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Basically, God says, “You don’t want to live life on my terms? You don’t want to love me and live for me? You don’t really want me in your life? Fine, go your own way.”

Now, the very notion of hell and judgment is off-putting to some people. But I don’t think those people are considering things carefully. Imagine that the world that God created is like one big house. It’s God’s house, and he made the rules. And his rules are good, because God not only created the house, but he designed all of life. Now, there are some people in God’s house who decide to break the rules. This isn’t just an insult to God. It’s also dangerous. It’s harmful to the other people who live in the house. The rule-breakers are messing up God’s house and hurting other people. And the fact is, they don’t even want to be in God’s house. So, at the end of the day, God will say to them, “Get out. You don’t want to be in my house. You don’t want to obey my rules. You don’t truly love me or the people I have made. You must go.” God is right to do such a thing. He’s protective of his creation. And he’s protective of his own glory. We exchange the glory of God for the lesser glory of created things. We don’t worship the Creator. Instead, we make other people or things in this life more important to us. All of this is wrong, and God is perfectly right to kick us out of his house. Yes, there’s anguish and torment outside of God’s house. But the fact is that though people experience that torment, they won’t want to live by God’s rules. It seems like the torment of hell goes on forever because the people there keep sinning forever.

Now, to get back to the story, we see something very interesting at the end. As I said, the rich man shows some concern for his five living brothers. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to warn them to change their ways, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” At least the rich man has some awareness that how he lived led to his current state. But notice that he’s still treating Lazarus like an errand-boy at best. Nevertheless, Abraham, who is representing God in this story, tells the rich man something interesting. He says of the man’s brothers: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” He means that these brothers have the Old Testament, which should be sufficient to warn them against living like their dead brother.

The rich man protests. He says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham knows better. He says, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Think about that for a moment. Imagine that someone you know to have died appears to you, telling you, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll end up like me, condemned and in anguish.” If you’ve seen any of the many iterations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, you know that this is basically what Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge. Imagine how powerful that would be. Of course, this isn’t going to happen. God could make it happen if he wanted; he is the God who made the whole universe out of nothing. He can cause the dead to come back to life. But God knows that sinful hearts are so hard that not even a messenger from the grave would turn people away from sin and back to him.

But what’s stunning is that Jesus says God’s word is sufficient. Abraham tells the rich man that if his brothers will not pay attention to the Old Testament, they wouldn’t listen to a resurrected Lazarus. The Old Testament has plenty of warnings about misusing wealth and treating the poor poorly. The Old Testament has many calls to repent, to turn back to God and seek him with your whole heart. If people won’t listen to that, they won’t pay attention to a miraculous messenger, whether that’s a dead person risen back to life, an angel, or a vision of Jesus himself.

This should tell us a lot about the importance of God’s word. The Bible is enough to tell us everything we need to know about God to be reconciled to him and to live a life that is pleasing to him. Yet many people don’t realize this. At this church, we try to conform our practices to that idea. That’s why we don’t have gimmicks here. Many churches rely on entertainment. They try to make a big splash with events that have nothing to do with Jesus. But here, we make much of the Bible, because we try to make much of God. We spend time reading the Bible and talking about it because we want to hear from God. I preach messages that explain the Bible because I realize that the Bible is God’s word to us. It’s a message from him. Why spend time on cute stories, or funny anecdotes, when they don’t have the power to save us from condemnation? They don’t have the power to transform us. Yet when God’s word is applied by the Holy Spirit to hard hearts, God can change a person. He can warn a person to repent. He can show a person the errors of his or her ways. He can comfort a person with the promise that all who come to Jesus can rest from striving to be their own gods and saviors. God makes wonderful promises in his word that all who come to Jesus in faith can be forgiven of sins, can be adopted into God’s family, and can come back into God’s house. In Jesus, we can come back home, to a place of comfort and rest. We wouldn’t know that apart from the Bible.

Before I close, I want to show how this passage connects to Jesus. In this story, we see the reason why the rich man went to Hades. He didn’t love his fellow man, a man whom he knew by name, who was laid outside his gate in the worst of conditions. The reason he was selfish and didn’t care for Lazarus is because he didn’t truly love God. We may not all be rich, but all of us have been selfish, fixed upon ourselves. We have all failed to love God and other people as we should. This passage doesn’t teach that every rich person is bound for hell. What matters is not how much money we have, yet how we use our money is a reflection of where we stand with God.

In a similar way, it would be wrong to conclude that every poor person goes to heaven. We don’t have any reason to believe that Lazarus went to heaven simply because he suffered in this life. What I mean is, if we read this passage in light of the whole Bible, we shouldn’t come to that conclusion. The Bible makes it clear that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), and that includes both rich and poor. I think that we’re supposed to conclude that Lazarus was like Abraham, the man of faith. If you read about Abraham in the Old Testament, you realize that he was a pagan for much of his life. He probably worshiped false gods, just like his forefathers did. But the true God called him, and Abraham believed in God’s great promises. Abraham wasn’t perfectly obedient. He could be afraid. And his trust in God’s promises wasn’t perfect. His fear was a reflection of some doubt. And yet, in Genesis, we’re told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was not righteous, yet he believed God’s word. As a result, God gave Abraham the gift of righteousness, of a right standing before him.

This is the way that sinful people are reconciled to God. None of us are righteous (Rom. 3:10). All of us have rejected God and rebelled against him. Just think of how often you ignore God. Think of how often we haven’t sought him out. Think of how often we haven’t looked to God for direction in our lives. Many of us don’t wake up every day thinking, “God, how can I obey you today? How can I serve you? How can I bring you honor and praise today?” We often do what we know is the wrong thing to do, or we fail to do what we know is the right thing. God would be just to condemn us all. But the amazing thing is that God loves us so much that he gave us a way to be regarded as righteous in his sight. God didn’t say, “Clean yourselves up and you’ll become acceptable to me.” God knows we could never do that. And God knows that if we did do that, we would become even more proud—“Look what I did!” So, God sent his beloved Son into the world.

Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who every lived a perfect life. He was never selfish and greedy. He always loved God the Father perfectly. He loved people so much he cared for their physical needs and he told them the truth about their condition. He warns us today not to be like the rich man, but to turn to him in faith. If you trust Jesus, if you realize that he is the Son of God, that he is the King of kings, that he alone can make you right in God’s eyes, that he alone is the gate of heaven, then you are credited with his righteousness. You are regarded as being perfect in God’s sight. But God is a perfect judge. He must punish all wrongdoing. He must punish sin. God punishes the sins of his people through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus was treated like a criminal, rejected, mocked, tortured, and crucified, not because he had done anything wrong, but because we have. On the cross, he descended into Hades. He endured the hell of God’s righteous wrath as darkness covered the earth. He did this so all who turn to him in faith have their sins forgiven. Jesus’ sacrificial death paid for all the sins committed by Christians. If you don’t know Jesus, you can turn to him today and be forgiven of all your sins, even the worst things you’ve ever done, not to mention the worst thoughts and desires you’ve ever secretly harbored.

None of us deserve heaven, yet God opened up a way to that place of rest, beauty, and comfort. That way is Jesus. If you haven’t put your life in his hands, do so now. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.

If you do know Jesus, consider what it would look like to show more concern for those who are in anguish in this life. We may not have a dying man lying outside our house, hoping for a few scraps of food. But we are aware of needs throughout the world, and there are ways that we can help the poor, by giving to agencies dedicated to helping them. There are many Christian organizations that help the poor.

But let us not forget that the greatest need everyone has is to be reconciled to God, to have their sins forgiven. We can feed, clothe, and house the poor in this life, but if they don’t know Jesus, then they will be poor, naked, and in a place of anguish for eternity. If we truly love God, we’ll truly care about where others are going to spend eternity. Heaven and hell are real, more real than this life, and we should see that every soul is bound for one place or the other. The chasm between those two places is one that cannot be crossed. Let us tell others to cross over to Jesus in this life while there is still time.

Notes

  1. James Poniewozik, “Louis CK Interview, Part 2: Money and Mortality,” Time, June 23, 2011, http://entertainment.time.com/2011/06/23/louis-ck-interview-part-2-money-and-mortality.
  2. All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 670.
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (originally published in 1946; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 139.
  5. Ibid., 100.

 

A Great Chasm (Luke 16:19-31)

What happens after death? Jesus teaches some important facts about the afterlife in a famous passage, Luke 16:19-31. This passage doesn’t tell us everything about heaven and hell, but it tells us enough to warn us about how we live our days. To understand this passage in light of the whole Bible, listen to this message given by Brian Watson on August 4, 2019.

Will Those Who Are Saved Be Few?

This sermon was preached on May 26, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Imagine you’re trying to organize a family reunion. You have a large family with a history of not getting along. You want to make sure that everyone comes to this reunion, so you plan carefully. You’re very worried about what kind of food and drink to serve. First, you think about what snacks to serve. You know that a lot of people in your family love peanuts. But then you think of that cousin with the severe peanut allergy, and you want him to come, so you decide there can be no peanuts. That’s not such a big deal. People can go without peanuts for a day. So, you settle on some other snacks. You remember there are some people who have a gluten intolerance, but they don’t mind if other people eat gluten, so you make sure to have some gluten-free options. But then you think about the meal you’re going to serve. Traditionally, the family reunion has been a cookout, and you were thinking of barbecuing hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken. You start calculating how much meat to buy when you remember that there are two people in your family who are vegans. And they’re not quiet, unassuming vegans. They are the zealous, nobody-should-kill-and-eat-animals kind of vegan. They refuse to be with people who eat meat. They won’t to go to any restaurant that serves meat. And if you’re barbecuing anything but corn on the cob, they’re not coming. Can you really have a family reunion without the barbecue? If everyone is eating no-pork-and-beans without hot dogs and veggie burgers, will everyone be happy?

You start to think that you can live with this vegan solution, and then you start to think about beverages. You’ll have bottles of water and soda, and perhaps some iced tea. But traditionally, reunions in your family have had beer. You start to calculate how much beer you would need to buy when you remember there are some recovering alcoholics—and perhaps some not-so-recovering alcoholics—in your family. And, like the vegans, if they know that alcohol is being served, they won’t come. You start to think about some other people in you family, the kind that expect to have a hamburger and a beer. How will they respond to an invitation promising them all the fun they can have with a black bean burger and a glass of iced tea? Will they come?

And, forget about food, the real issue is that some people in your family might not come to the reunion if they know that other people in your family will be there. They might not care if you’re serving liver and onions; but they do care if your uncle Sal will be there.

The point of this story is to show not that it’s impossible to please everyone. We already know that. It’s to show that it’s pretty much impossible to include everyone. In our time, the idea of inclusion has become very important. Exclusion is a dirty word. We don’t want to exclude anyone. No child is to be left behind. Some people don’t think anyone should be excluded from entering our country. In sports, people are afraid of excluding transgender women, biological men who identify as women. So, in some cases, biological men are beating biological women in track and field and in weightlifting, among other things. In that case, the desire to include transgender women ends up excluding biological women from winning these events.

The reality is that in nearly every case, there will be always be people excluded. And that is certainly the case in the kingdom of God. The reality is that not every human being will enter the kingdom. Not every person will be included among God’s people. This is a very clear principle, from nearly the beginning of the Bible all the way to the end. And we see this in the passage that we’re looking at today, Luke 13:22–35. But though there will be some people who are excluded from God’s kingdom, it is not because God doesn’t care or because he’s cruel. No, we’ll see Jesus lamenting over the fact that some people will not enter. God may be an exclusive God, but he longs to include everyone, even though he can’t.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 13:22–30:

22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”[1]

Luke begins by stating that Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem. This has been the case for about four chapters now. Luke’s main concern isn’t about geography. If Jesus wanted to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, it would only take three days of walking. He could have been there by now. But Luke is more concerned about what Jerusalem means to Jesus. Jerusalem is where Jesus is going to die. And Jesus knows that. That’s why, in Luke 9:51, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what’s coming, and this is Luke’s way of reminding his readers what Jesus is going to face.

As Jesus is making his way through towns and villages, teaching people about the kingdom of God, someone asks an important question: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” This question makes sense in light of Jesus’ teaching that unless you repent, you will perish (Luke 13:1–5) and that there are barren trees that will be cut down (Luke 13:6–9). Will many survive the judgment of God and enter his kingdom, or will it only be a few?

Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. He turns it around to say, “Don’t worry about the numbers. Make sure that you enter the kingdom!” He says that the door to the kingdom is narrow. Many will attempt to enter it, but they won’t be able to get in. And there will be a time when it is too late for them to enter. The master of the house will shut the door, and at that time it will be impossible to get in. Still, people will say, “Let us in!” Then the master of the house, who is surely Jesus, will say, “I do not know where you come from.” Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. Jesus, as the Son of God, knows everything. But he means, “I don’t know you. I don’t have a personal relationship with you. You’re not on my team. You didn’t accept the invitation to the family reunion while you still had time to come. And once the party has begun, it’s too late to come in.”

The people who are shut out will say, “We ate and drank in your presence, you taught in our streets.” It’s their way of saying, “But we spent time with you. We hung out with you. We even had meals with you. We heard your words.” But for Jesus, it’s not enough that you spend some time with him. It’s not enough that went to church for some time, or even took the Lord’s Supper and were baptized. Jesus wants faith. Faith is trusting in him, not just knowing facts about him. Real trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior leads to obedience. It leads to a changed life. It’s not enough to say you believe in him. Anyone can do that. You have to mean it, and if you mean it, there will be things in your life that demonstrate that truth.

Jesus says that this master will say, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.” The line comes from Psalm 6:8, a Psalm in which David says that his enemies will be ashamed (Psalm 6:10). You may think it’s strange that these people, who apparently want to get into the party, are called workers of evil. But to ignore Jesus’ calls to repentance is evil. To reject Jesus is to reject God. Rejecting God is evil because he is the very reason why we exist.

There’s a great illustration that by a pastor and author, Tim Keller, that I would like to read. This is what he says:

Imagine a widow has a son she raises and puts through good schools and a good university at great sacrifice to herself, for she is a woman of very slender means. And as she’s raising him she says, “Son, I want you to live a good life. I want you to always tell the truth, always work hard, and care for the poor.” And after the young man graduates from college he goes off into his career and life—and never speaks to his mother or spends time with her. Oh, he may send her a card on her birthday, but he never phones or visits. What if you asked him about his relationship with his mother, and he responded: “No, I don’t have anything to do with her personally. But I always tell the truth, work hard, and care for the poor. I’ve lived a good life—that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

I doubt you would be satisfied with that answer. It is not enough for the man to merely live a moral life as his mother desired without having any kind of relationship with her. His behavior is condemnable because in fact she gave him all he has. More than just a moral life, he owes her his love and loyalty.

And if there is a God, you owe him literally everything. If there is a God, you owe him far more than a morally decent life. He deserves to be at the center of your life. Even if you are a good person but you are not letting God be God to you, you are . . . guilty of sin. . . . You are being your own savior and lord.[2]

We often ignore God. Though he has given us life, and though we exist to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him, we take him for granted. That is wrong. And because we do this, the world is cracked. We fight, we argue, we’re selfish, we’re greedy. Things are not the way they ought to be.

And that puts us in a bind. If God is going to fix the world, he has to remove all evil. If we’re evil, God would have to remove us. Is there a way for God to remove the evil from us without removing us?

That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t. He always put his relationship with God the Father first. He was never selfish. Yet he died as a criminal. He was literally regarded as sin (2 Cor. 5:21), so that when he died, God could destroy sin without destroying all sinners. And if you have a right relationship with Jesus, your evil has already been punished. And God has given you the Holy Spirit to start changing you from the inside out, to start replacing evil desires with good ones.

Jesus is telling these Jewish people that they should have known that he is the promised Messiah, the one that was prophesied to come. The Old Testament promised there would be a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David, who would be the anointed King, the one who would defeat the enemies of God’s people. But the Old Testament also promised a suffering servant of God, someone who would come and take the punishment that God’s people deserved for their sin, so that they could be healed and delivered from condemnation. They should have known that Jesus fulfilled these roles. But so many didn’t. And Jesus warns them here that while their faithful forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will be in the kingdom of God, along with all the prophets, not every Jewish person will be there. No one gets an automatic ticket to the kingdom of God. It’s not based on your genes, or whether your parents had faith. It’s not based on church attendance or how many good works you’ve done, because even your best acts are tainted with selfish motives, and we have all sinned in many ways. The one thing that gets us a ticket to the great family reunion, when we are reunited and reconciled to God the Father, is whether we know Jesus. Or, more accurately, whether Jesus knows us.

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C. I happened to walk by the White House, but I didn’t get in. I admit I didn’t try to get in, but if I had tried to get in, I wouldn’t have been allowed in. I wouldn’t have been allowed in even if I said, “I know the president. I’ve seen Donald Trump on TV! I’ve watched The Apprentice! I’ve stayed in a Trump Hotel! I even went to one of his rallies!” (Those last two things aren’t true, by the way.) None of that would matter to the Secret Service agents. But if, while I was standing outside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump came out of the White House and said, “I know him,” then I would get in.

That’s how it’s like with Jesus. If he knows us because we trust him and have been following him, he will let us in to the kingdom. He has the keys to the kingdom of God. Or, as it says in Isaiah, he has “the key to the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa. 22:22). Jesus says that many others will enter into the kingdom and eat. They will come from east and west and north and south. He’s probably referring to Jews who were scattered throughout the world, but also Gentiles—anyone who has faith in him.

Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last. It’s not how you start out in life; it’s how you end up. We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. They have a race, and the hare starts out fast. Quite naturally, he’s faster than the tortoise. But he is arrogant and proud and perhaps lazy, so he takes a nap. And when he finally wakes up, he realizes the tortoise has won the race. Some people appear to start out life quite well. They may have been raised in the church and baptized at an early age. But then they grow up and don’t go to church and don’t really seem to be obey Jesus. They don’t care that some people don’t know Jesus. They don’t obey Jesus in ways that only Christians do. Some people start out life poorly. They’re the obvious sinners, the people who do terrible wrongs, the people whom you might consider to be the real “workers of evil.” But if they turn to Jesus in faith, knowing that he alone can bring them forgiveness and reconciliation with God, then they enter into God’s kingdom.

Jesus makes it clear that there will be some excluded from the great party that is eternity with God. For them, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, a terrible fate we don’t want to know personally. Those excluded are those who didn’t put their lives in Jesus’ hands in this life, while there’s still time to turn from sin and turn to the Savior.

This idea of exclusion is rejected by some people who claim to be Christians. They believe in what is called universalism: somehow, in some way, everyone will be saved. But this goes against the grain of the whole Bible. God is continually making a division between his people and those who are against him. On Wednesday nights, we’re reading through Exodus, and we saw this in chapter 8, when God makes a distinction between his people, living in Goshen, and the Egyptians. The Egyptians suffer the fourth plague and the Israelites don’t (Exod. 8:20–24). The tenth plague is the worst, the one that causes Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of slavery. That plague had the firstborn of all families die—unless they obeyed the word of God and sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood of the lamb on their door frames. This was a sign that they trusted in God’s word. This trust led to obedience. And it was also a sign of atonement. The Israelites and anyone who joined with them were sinners, but a substitute could die in their place, taking the penalty they deserved for sin.

As the story of the Bible progresses, God makes divisions within Israel itself. It is clear that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” to use the apostle Paul’s words (Rom. 9:6). Not everyone in Israel had faith in God and his promises. God knew that. We’re told in both the Old and New Testaments that Lord knows who are his (Num. 16:5; Nah. 1:7; John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor. 8:3; 2 Tim. 2:19). Jesus says that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). In John 10, he says that he is the shepherd who brings his sheep through the gate. The gate keeper opens to him, and he leads his sheep, who follow his voice, into safe pasture (John 10:2–3). There are others who try to sneak into the sheepfold by another way, but they are thieves and robbers (John 10:1). Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). He tells the Jewish people he has other sheep—Gentiles—and they will be become part of the one fold of God. He says that those who don’t pay heed to his voice are not his sheep (John 10:26), but, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Jesus clearly includes some and excludes others. The irony is that if a pastor disagrees with Jesus and says that all will be saved, he is including a Jesus of his own making and excluding the real Jesus. And he will be including people into his church who don’t believe in the real Jesus, and he will exclude ones who do, for they will seek out a church where the truth of the Bible is taught. Even attempts to create a “radically inclusive Jesus” end up excluding people.

To some, the idea of an exclusive Jesus might seem cruel or cold. But even though Jesus does exclude some, we can never accuse him of not caring, of being indifferent or unloving. We see this in the next few verses, verses 31–35:

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Some Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, tell him that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. Herod was the ruler over Galilee, and he will eventually figure into Jesus’ death. Jesus gives them a message: “Tell that fox Herod that I’m not afraid. I’ll continue to do my work until it’s done.” Jesus will continue to perform miracles, to cast out demons and heal people. He will continue to teach. And his course will be finished on the third day. That could be just a figure of speech. But it’s also an allusion to his resurrection. Jesus knew he wouldn’t die in Galilee. He would die in Jerusalem, where prophets and apostles are killed. He would die on the cross, because some Jewish leaders wanted him dead, and because neither Pilate nor Herod stepped into rescue an innocent man. He died because Satan wanted him dead. But ultimately, he died because it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. The Father sent the Son, his dear, loved, one-of-a-kind Son to die in the place of sinners. And Jesus came to lay down his life, since it was no less his plan than the Father’s. Jesus knew what was coming, and he wasn’t afraid of any man who might get in his way. He knew that his course included death on the cross and resurrection from the grave.

But even though he knew what was coming, and that many people would not enter the kingdom, he still laments. Jerusalem stands for the whole nation of Israel. Jesus laments that not all of Israel would come under his wings. He yearned to protect them the way a hen protects her brood. But they were not willing to come under his wings.

Now, the truth is that no one is willing to come under Jesus’ wings unless they are first changed by God. Paul says that no one seeks for (Rom. 3:11), and the fact is that no one would seek after him were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit. And some may wonder why God doesn’t change everyone’s heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. Some might say that such a thing would violate free will. But the Bible never says that. In fact, the Bible says: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21; 9:12; 10:1; 14:8). And God has hardened and softened other hearts as he sees fit. So, it’s not as though God is helpless. Yet, for some reason, God has chosen to bring some people to faith and not all. In a similar way, Jesus chose to let his friend Lazarus die. He did this so he could later bring Lazarus back to life. This was all for God’s glory and to show what Jesus could do and what he would do by dying and being raised back to life himself (John 11:4, see also John 11:21, 37). But Jesus still wept (John 11:35). And then he raised Lazarus back to life.

We might say that God, in one sense, wants all people to be in his kingdom, but in another sense, he wants something else, something greater. Again, some people would say that this greater thing is to respect a person’s free will. But the Bible doesn’t say that clearly, and I don’t think our will is as free as we sometimes think it is. But the Bible does say, in different ways, that God desires his own glory above all else. And this is a good thing. God is the most glorious being. If God glorified someone else more than he glorified himself, God would be an idolater, and therefore a worker of evil. But God doesn’t just love and glorify himself. He loves sinners, and he has chosen to bring some sinners to glory through the door that is Jesus. We can accept that truth, and trust Jesus, or we can complain about God and show our true selves, that we don’t love him and trust him. We may not understand all God’s ways. In fact, if God is God and we are finite beings, we shouldn’t expect to understand God completely. But we should trust that God is good and wise and that he always does what is right. And we should run under the protection of Jesus, because he is the only way to get into the kingdom. He is an exclusive God, but he’s also a God who cares, who loves so deeply that he would die for sinners, and who even laments that other sinners will not be part of his kingdom. This is a God you can love, a God you can trust, a God who is worth following.

This message of exclusivity is one that challenges our society. And it challenges all of us. It’s heavy. We should feel the weight of it. Some people will be shut out of the kingdom of God. And this is their own choosing. They didn’t want to enter under God’s terms. They thought that they God would allow them to do whatever they wanted and respect what they believe are their rights. This should cause us to lament. It should cause us to warn other people about this reality, to urge them to trust in Jesus.

And it should cause us to make sure that we are following Jesus. The truth is, we don’t know how many will be reconciled to God. It may be very few. But Jesus doesn’t want us to speculate about that. He wants us to consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14). He gives salvation as a gift, but it’s a gift that’s hard to receive. Receiving it means acknowledging that we’re sinners who can’t rescue ourselves. It’s a blow to our pride. And the way of Jesus isn’t easy. When we follow Jesus, some people will hate us. We have to continue repenting, turning away from the allure of the world and all the things it promises us will make us happy. It means putting our old selves to death so Jesus can make us into new people, the people we should be.

What we should do today is consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. Are we truly following Jesus? Are there ways that we have been following the world, walking that broad path that leads to destruction? If so, it’s not too late to turn around and get on the right path. As long as there is life and breath in a person, it is not too late to change paths, to walk toward heaven’s gate, Jesus himself. He stands waiting. If we knock on his door in faith, he will let us in. Those who truly seek him will never be excluded. If we know this, we should tell others. In that great feast of heaven, there is room for more.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (New York: Dutton, 2013), 36–37.

Will Those Who Are Saved Be Few? (Luke 13:22-35)

Jesus is asked about the number of people who will enter the kingdom of God. He doesn’t answer directly, but he says the door the kingdom is narrow. The truth is not everyone is included in the kingdom. Strive to enter through the narrow door.

Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on May 26, 2019.

Fear Him!

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

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.[1]

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. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 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! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. 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:

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 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.[4] 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):

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.

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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 157.
  4. 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.