The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy. Why does Matthew begin his story of Jesus with this family tree? We can learn a lot about who Jesus is and what he came to do by paying attention to this introduction. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 13, 2020.
How do we handle our emotions wisely? The book of Proverbs speaks about the heart and various emotions. God cares about how we feel. Our feelings often betray us, but the hope of the gospel strengthens our weary hearts. Brian Watson preached this message on October 11, 2020.
When death penetrates our humdrum existence—when it bursts the bubble of our daily routine of work, errands, chores, diversions, entertainments, eating, and sleeping—we start to think.
But we try not to think about death much at all. There’s no time for such thought. We’re a click away from another channel to view, another site to surf. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, once wrote,
As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.
Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.
Additionally, though we are surrounded by the news of someone’s death, by violent digital simulations of gore and explosions, we don’t really see death all that much. How many of us have seen someone take their last breath? Unless you’re a doctor, a nurse, a police officer, a soldier on the front lines, an EMT, or an undertaker, you probably don’t have contact with dying people and corpses, do you?
Yet when someone we know dies—whether that person was beloved or simply who lived and breathed in the same circles we inhabit—we must think of death. We think of the loss of that particular life, but we invariably think about our own looming death—unless we distract ourselves from thinking that long.
There’s an interesting book by a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. The book is called A Brief History of Thought. He begins by saying that the great problem for humanity is death. He says we’re different from animals because “a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, and almost unimaginable.” He asks, “what do we desire above all else? To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.” He says that the fear of death keeps us from really living, because we’re anxious about the future.
These thoughts of death give rise to troubling questions: Why do we die? What is the meaning of death? What, if anything, happens after death? Where can hope be found? I intend to answer these questions here.
Why Do We Die?
Whatever your own personal experience with death is, if death has come close to you, you surely recognize that death is a damned thing. I don’t say that lightly. Death is literally part of condemnation, the price to pay for sin. It hurts. It stings.
Christianity claims that we die because of the presence of sin in the world. God first made a perfect world, a world without death, disease, and pain. But when the first humans turned their backs on God and disobeyed him, the presence and power of sin entered into the world. There is a power at work within us—the power of sin—that gives us disordered hearts. We often desire things that are contrary to what God wants. And part of God’s judgment on sin involves our physical deaths. God told the first human after he sinned, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:17–19). In other words, life is going to be difficult; work will be hard; and eventually you will die. Unfortunately for us, we will all face that same fate. As Ecclesiastes 3:20 states, “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”
I realize that some people don’t believe this is why we die. Some people don’t think there is a God. They think we are the products of chance. We just happen to exist, and we have evolved from animals, and, like all animals, we die. Yet if this is so, why does death bother us so much? Why do we fear it? Why do we often avoid talking about our own deaths? If death is such a natural part of the world, why does it feel like an alien intruder? Why does the news of someone’s death produce such indignation and grief?
Many individuals place their trust in science. But science can’t tell us why we die. Science can tell us how we die. Science can tell us what happens at the cellular level, but it can’t tell us the meaning of death. We need someone to reveal the meaning to us, or else we’re just guessing.
What Is the Meaning of Death?
If you assume that after death lies nothing but nonexistence, you may not be bothered by your own death. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone convinced that death is nothing but a long, dark sleep from which you will never awake. If that were so, our own deaths might not seem so bad. It would simply be nothing at all. It’s hard to say whether nonexistence is better or worse than existence. What would it be like to cease to exist? Whatever it is, we wouldn’t know. But there would be no pain, no agony, and no memories of any kind.
However, even if someone were to hold consistently to such a position, it does make sense to mourn the loss of those we love. After all, we’re still alive, and even if the deceased cease to exist, and are therefore not in pain, we still miss their presence in our lives. To mourn the loss of a relative or friend is understandable, regardless of what you believe regarding the possibility of the afterlife.
But we also respond to the deaths of strangers with a bit of indignation. This is certainly the case when there’s a shooting at a school, some terrible natural disaster, or a terrorist act. Now, if death is nothing, and those people are essentially nothing to us because they were not a part of our lives, why do we care? It makes little difference to our lives. Are we worried that something similar could happen to us? Is that it? I think there’s more to it.
If we’re honest, we fear death. Most of us try never to think about it. We distract ourselves with work, family obligations, hobbies, or frivolous entertainment in order not to think about death and the big questions that are often associated with death. Those big questions include: What is the meaning of life? What is truly important? What happens after death? Why are we here? I think most of us don’t have a philosophy that can answer such questions, so we don’t ask them.
But the way we react to death—the specter of our own death, the deaths of loved ones, and the deaths of strangers halfway around the world—indicates that we know death is wrong. It’s evil. It is simply not the way things are supposed to be. There is something very unnatural about death, even though we know all living things die.
I think the biblical view of death is the one that matches our experience. Like I said before, death is a damned thing. That is, the reason why we die is because of the presence of sin in the world. Sin is not just doing something “bad,” though it is that. Sin is a power. It is at work in our hearts and our minds to make us desire and think things that are contrary to what God has commanded and what he desires. Because of this power, and because we act on these urges and thoughts, the result is everything bad we experience: disease, decay, fighting, a lack of peace, natural disasters, and, yes, death. Part of the punishment for our rebellion against God is death.
Rebellion? Yes. “But I don’t rebel against God; I don’t even believe he exists!” Exactly. God made us to worship him, to know him and love him and make much of him. That is the purpose of our existence. That is what is meant when we are told that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). But many of us go around acting (and even believing) like he doesn’t exist. If we aren’t fulfilling our purpose, we are in rebellion.
Imagine a hammer refusing to drive nails into wood. You would say that’s a rebellious hammer. Okay, a hammer isn’t a person and can’t do that. But you get the point. It would be like a person dressing in a US Postal Service uniform, collecting a pay check from the government, driving around in a little white vehicle with a bunch of letters and packages in it, and refusing to actually deliver that mail. That’s a mailman (or mailwoman, of course) in rebellion. You may or may not think he is a “bad” person, but refusing to do the very thing you were made to do is indeed very bad. And that’s the state we all find ourselves in.
So, though God made people who initially were not created to die, death came as a judgment against our rebellion. This is seen in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve, the first human beings disobey God. And it’s quite famously stated in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death.” Death is something we’ve earned because our sin. (Likewise, James 1:14–15 tells us that our own twisted desires give birth to sin, which, when fully grown, brings forth death.)
So, that is why we die.
What Happens After We Die?
Scientists can never tell us what happens to our souls after we die. By definition, whatever existence we may or may not have after death is beyond observation and experimentation. Science cannot tell us whether we have souls or not, or whether there is a heaven or a hell. Science has its limits. Not all truth is confined to the natural world of observation and experimentation.
It is therefore necessary for someone to reveal to us what happens after die. We need to hear from someone who knows what does and does not happen, or else we could never know with certainty. Some people put a lot of stock in what they hear from people who have been clinically dead for a few minutes and then are revived. Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about that. I’m just not sure I trust that those people weren’t experiencing something in their minds that may or may not be true. What if they were dreaming or imagining something that was based only on their hopes or what they had heard from others? What if their experience of the afterlife was only a projection of what was already dormant in the recesses of their minds?
The exceptional experiences of those people aside, for the rest of us, death is an “outside the box” issue. Imagine that all of our experiences—everything we can observe and touch and discover—are enclosed in a box. Our planet, our galaxy, and our universe—these are all “inside the box” things. True, most of us will never explore all the contents of that box, but the point is that everything that we could possibly know through the greatest human discoveries fits inside that box. But there are “outside the box” issues, such as whether God exists or not, what the meaning and purpose of life is, and what happens after death. Those are things that we can’t discover on our own. Of course, we can speculate. But our speculation could very well be wrong, and those are issues that are too important to get wrong.
But this is where Christianity gives us great hope. God has revealed the truth of those issues to us. God is outside the box, but in no box of his own. God made the box. God sustains the box, keeping its form and shape and structure intact. And God works within the box, sustaining everything in it, too. God has sent messages into the box, by means of the Holy Spirit, an invisible, divine person who directed God’s messengers to say and write what he wanted them to. And here’s the most amazing thing of all: God became man and stepped into the box. And what happened after that gives us great hope.
Where Can Hope Be Found?
The Bible describes death as an enemy. This shouldn’t surprise us. As I said earlier, we already have this sense. If death is an enemy that conquers all human beings, our only hope is if someone—no mere mortal—can defeat this enemy. Can death ever be defeated? That sounds too good to be true. But it is true.
Our hero, the one who will defeat death, is Jesus. Jesus is God who became man. That’s what we celebrate every Christmas: the miracle of the incarnation, when God took on human form. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature. This is like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays. Why would God enter into a world of death, of disease, and scores of other wrong, painful things? God entered into his creation in order to rescue us. He entered into his creation in order to pay the penalty for our rebellion. Every crime deserves a punishment, and because God is a perfect judge, he must punish the crimes. But if we were all punished for our crimes against God, there would be no hope for us—certainly no life after death.
Yet Jesus came to life the perfect life that we don’t live and to die the death that we deserve. In other words, as God the Son, he always obeyed the God the Father. Yet he died on a cross—an instrument of torture—in order to pay the penalty for us. God was satisfied to take the penalty that we deserve and to place it upon his Son. And the Son willingly came to take on that penalty himself.
But there’s something else: Jesus didn’t just die. On the third day, he rose from the grave. His resurrection from the dead shows that he has power over death. It shows he paid the penalty for our sin. He walked out a free man, and his empty tomb says that he paid the penalty for sin in full.
“O Death, Where Is Your Sting?”
Jesus later returned to heaven to be with the Father. But one day he will return and he will destroy the death.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul, when talking about Jesus’ resurrection, says that Jesus’ work isn’t done yet. When he returns, he will deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (vv. 24–26).
Death is an enemy to be destroyed! And it will be destroyed. Remember, this message that Paul is relaying to us comes from God. Jesus commissioned Paul to be his representative, his apostle. Here, Paul is giving us this “outside the box” message regarding death. One day, Jesus will defeat it.
What does that mean for us? Those who have put their hope, their trust, their faith in Jesus, will one day have their own resurrection. We will all die—unless Jesus returns before we die. But those who have put their lives in the hands of Jesus will come back to life, in perfect bodies that can never die again. Here is what Paul says about that:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:51–55)
One day, death will have no victory. Death will have no sting. When death dies, there will only be life. But this promise only holds true for those who have put their trust in Jesus.
What is Faith?
What does trust, or faith, in Jesus look like? Faith in Jesus must agree with a certain set of facts, a bare minimum, so to speak: there is one true God who created us; we have all gone astray (we have sinned against God); we therefore deserve judgment; Jesus is the God who became man, lived a perfect life, died a death in the place of sinners, and rose from the grave; therefore, it is only through Jesus that one can be saved.
But faith is more than believing a set of facts to be true. Faith is a relationship. In this context, faith in Jesus means loving Jesus, humbling one’s self before him, and possessing a willingness to follow him by obeying what he says. No one is saved by being good, by being obedient. One is saved from judgment by God’s grace, which operates through the instrument of faith. But real faith results in a transformed life, one marked by doing good. (This can be seen in Ephesians 2:8–10, and also James 2:14–26.)
Contrary to what some may believe, not everyone goes to heaven after death. Not everyone is in paradise, with God and with their loved ones. Only those who have true faith in Jesus will be in heaven. Only those who trust him for salvation and submit to him as Lord will be spared the wrath that is to come.
We Can Trust Jesus
If you read the four Gospels—the biographies of Jesus—you will find that Jesus is the most amazing figure that ever walked this earth. There are many good reasons to believe that these accounts of Jesus are true, that the Gospels themselves come from God. But perhaps the greatest one is this: Who would make up a story about God becoming man and dying for you? And if this story is true, who better to trust than the God who became man to die for you?
There’s one more passage I want to share. The book of Hebrews has much to say about Jesus. It tells us that Jesus is greater than angels and Moses and any other priest. He is truly the great High Priest, the one who mediates between God and human beings. And one of the works of Jesus was to destroy the power of evil, Satan himself, and the power of death. Hebrews 2:14–15 says that Jesus became a human being and died so “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
All of us fear death. I don’t know an honest person who says he or she isn’t afraid of death. Therefore, we are slaves to that fear. We like to think of ourselves as free, but we’re not. We’re enslaved to all kinds of things—addictions and fears chief among them. And we’re enslaved to our fear of death. But if we put our hope in Jesus, we don’t have to fear death. Jesus came to deliver us from death and the fear of death.
Do you believe that? Do you believe Jesus died for you and rose from the grave? Do you believe he will return to put an end to all evil, including death? If you trust Jesus, you have a hope that cannot be shaken, that can never be taken away. You will live a perfect life without end in a perfect world with God and every other person who trusted in the one true God. What a great day that will be.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées¸168-169, in The Harvard Classics 48: Blaise Pascal: Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, ed. Charles W. Eliot, trans. W. F. Trotter, M. L. Booth, and O. W. Wight (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1910), 63–64. ↑
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3. ↑
- Ibid., 4. ↑
Many of us have been spending more time at home than we’re used to spending. Some of us have spent more time at home than we want to spend. A few weeks ago, my wife said she felt like she was “in prison.” Isn’t it strange to think that we don’t feel at home while at home? Shouldn’t home be where we feel best?
Perhaps what we’re longing for is something more than being home. Perhaps we’re longing to be in our real home, the place where we really feel best.
C. S. Lewis addressed this issue in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” He said that we have this “desire for our own far-off country,” our real home. What we’re longing for cannot be found in this world. But still we try to find it here and now. We try to something that will satisfy our longings in beauty and pleasures. Some of us may try to find what we’re looking for in the past. If only we could back, then everything would be right. Lewis says, “But this is all a cheat. . . . These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
We all need a people, a place, and a purpose. Without those things, we will never be satisfied. We were made to be God’s people, to dwell with him, and to live for him. What we really need to be satisfied is a right relationship with God. We were made for God. Being with him is our true home. Taking pleasure in praising him is our purpose. As Augustine prayed over sixteen hundred years ago, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 
The story of the Bible is a story about leaving home and getting lost in our wanderings. It is a story about God calling us back home. He sends things into our lives to get our attention, to summon us back to himself—if only we would listen and return to him. It is a story about God coming to take us back home. And the end of the Bible is a depiction of that glorious homecoming, when all things will finally be well.
Today, we’re going to focus on the part where God sends things into our lives to call us back to himself. I think that’s appropriate in the age of the coronavirus. I don’t know exactly why this virus exists, but I think it’s possible that God is using this event to get our attention, to remind us of how much we need him.
Today we’re going to look at the book of Amos, from the Old Testament. Amos is one of the so-called “minor prophets.” However, I wouldn’t use that name. Some people refer to the “major prophets,” like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They use that name because these are some of the longest books in the Bible. And then they refer to the “minor prophets,” the last twelve books of the Bible, which are significantly shorter. But it’s a mistake to think of these books as “minor.” They are very important.
Let’s get a little historical background for this book. It begins with these words:
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake (Amos 1:1).
Amos was a shepherd who lived in the eighth century B.C. During this time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and during this time Jeroboam II was king (793–753 B.C.). The southern kingdom was called Judah, and during this time Uzziah was king (791–740 B.C.). Both kings reigned for over forty years, which meant that this was a time of unusual stability. It was also “a period of unprecedented prosperity.” Both kingdoms were wealthy. But these kingdoms were surrounded by enemies. In particular, the northern kingdom was threatened by the Assyrian empire, which was becoming the world’s superpower.
The book begins with a word of judgment against the nations around Israel and Judah. This is what the second verse of the book says:
And he said:
“The Lord roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2).
Amos is sharing a word of judgment against the nations, a word from God, whose voice “roars” from Jerusalem.
First, there is a warning against Syria, represented by their capital city of Damascus (Amos 1:3–5). This was the country north of Israel. Then, there is a warning against the Philistines who lived to the west (Amos 1:6–8). There is also a word of judgment against Tyre, also to the west (Amos 1:9–10). Then, God promises to punish nations to the east: Edom (Amos 1:11–12), Ammon, (Amos 1:13–15), and Moab (Amos 2:1–3).
Why was God going to punish these nations? The Philistines helped Edom by exiling Israelites there (Amos 1:6). The Edomites fought against Israel (Amos 1:11). And the Ammonites did, too. In fact, Amos says “they have ripped open pregnant women” (Amos 1:13). That’s how brutal war can be.
Now, if you lived in Amos’s day, and you lived in Judah and Israel, you would be happy to hear that God’s judgment was coming against these nations. You would think, “Finally, God is doing something to punish these people!” It would be like a Christian who is a Republican hearing that God is going to punish Democrats. God was finally going to punish all the enemies that surrounded Israel.
But then Amos delivers some shocking news. God is going to punish Judah (Amos 2:4–5) and Israel (Amos 2:6–15). Why? Look at Amos 2:4–5:
4 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Judah,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.
5 So I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.”
Judah rejected God’s word, his law. They didn’t keep his commandments.
Then, look at Amos 2:6–8:
6 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;|
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
The rich and powerful in Israel bought and sold people. They “trampled the poor.” There was also sexual immorality. Father and son had sex with the same woman. This might have been connected to pagan worship practices. Strange as it may seem, sex was part of the worship in some religions. And the people committed idolatry, which is spiritual adultery. God was supposed to be their only object of worship, but they cheated on him. They worshiped at all kinds of altars built to worship foreign gods.
These are specific charges against a specific people at a specific time and place, but these are some of the major sins in the Bible: using and oppressing people, usually through some kind of economic means; committing sexual immorality; and worship false gods. In fact, you could say that misusing money means that your god is money. Having sex outside of the only proper context for sex—marriage between a man and a woman—means that sex is your god. When anything other than the true God becomes the most important thing in our life, the thing that causes us to love, trust, and obey it, that is our god. That is what we’re worshiping. But we were made for God. And God has every right to punish us when we’re destroying ourselves by failing to live according to his design.
Failing to love God and live for him is also a failure to acknowledge what he’s done for us. God says that he brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and sustained them until he led them to their own land (Amos 2:10). For all of us, he has given us life and sustains our lives. He is our Maker, the one who sustains every breath and heartbeat, every second that we live. Yet we run away from him.
In chapter 3, we read this:
1 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
2 “You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;|
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities (Amos 3:1–2).
God reminds Israel that he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And he says that of all the people on the earth, they alone were the ones he “knew.” Now, God is omniscient. He knows everything. He knows everything about us. What this means is that the Israelites were the only ones he made a covenant with. He revealed himself to them. He gave them promises that were tied to his commandments. If they would trust him and live life on his terms, they would live. But they didn’t.
So, God says, because you were my special people and turned away from me, I will punish you. The reason why they are going to be punished is because they should have known better. God had been exceedingly kind to them, and they didn’t appreciate him.
So, God warns them of punishment, punishment that will come through their enemies. He wants them to know that when enemies defeat their cities, it is because he has brought that about. In Amos 3:6, God says,
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
Nothing happens unless God has somehow planned it, or even caused it, to occur. That was true of the judgment that would come upon Israel.
But God doesn’t punish because he is unloving. He punishes in order to correct us. He was sending disaster upon Israel to get their attention.
Let’s look at Amos 4:6–13:
6 “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
7 “I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
8 so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
9 “I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!
God gave his people famine, bad crops, pestilence, and military defeat—“yet you did not return to me.” That is such as sad refrain. God caused these things to fall upon Israel so that they would return to him, but they didn’t.
I want us to see that God has the power to control all these events. He controls the weather. He causes rain to fall, and he also causes drought. He can direct kings and armies. He uses these things to bring people back to himself.
Now, you may think, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament. God in the New Testament wouldn’t do such a thing.” But look at Luke 13:1–5:
1 There were some present at that very time who told him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
People tell Jesus that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Jews. That’s a form of moral evil, the kind of evil that people do to each other. Jesus asks if this happened because these Jews were worse sinners. The answer is “no.” And he says something like that will happen to everyone who doesn’t repent, who doesn’t turn to God. Then Jesus mentions how eighteen people died when a tower fell. We don’t know why the tower fell. Maybe it fell because it was poorly made. Perhaps the people who made it made it on the cheap, or they didn’t calculate how strong the tower needed to be. Perhaps it was a minor earthquake that caused the tower to fall. It could have been a form of natural evil, the bad things that happen in nature. Again, he says that the people who died that way weren’t worse sinners. But everyone who fails to repent, to turn back to God, will experience something similar.
In short, every time that some evil occurs, it is a reminder to turn back to God. The reason why these evils occur is that humans turned away from God from the very beginning. God made us to love, trust, and obey him and we don’t do that. We want to be our own gods and goddesses. So, God uses evils to punish us, to get our attention, to cause us to turn back to him.
This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes,
What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t withhold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
So, after these words of warning in Amos, God says to Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4). “Seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6). And,
14 Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15 Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14–15).
God tells the people to seek him, to seek good and forsake evil, so that they may live. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can return to God by doing good things. We cannot get to God through our own efforts. We know this from the rest of the Bible. Our sin, our rebellion against God, runs deep and it taints every part of us and everything we do. We can’t drive out the evil from within us. But if we seek God, we will want to do what is good.
But when we return to God, it’s more than just paying lip service. God wants more than just for us to do a few religious things. He wants our hearts. He wants changed lives. Look at Amos 5:21–24:
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One of the sins of Israel was religious hypocrisy. They thought they could worship God and also worship other gods. They thought they could go through the motions by praying and singing and offering sacrifices to God, and then go and live like all the pagan nations around them. But that isn’t pleasing to God. In fact, God says he hates that. He hates religious festivals when they aren’t done from the heart. He hates singing, even songs that are about him, if it comes from unclean lips. He doesn’t want sacrifices made by people who aren’t sacrificing their whole lives. Instead, God wants people to love him and to live according to his word. That’s what justice is.
You may notice that Amos quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. here. That’s a joke, of course. Martin Luther King quoted Amos as a call to justice. But this justice isn’t just “social” justice. There’s only one form of justice in the Bible, and that is loving God and loving people the way that God wants us to. If we do justice in the public square but do immoral things in our private lives, that isn’t justice. It won’t do to provide for the poor and then engage in sexual immorality, for example. God isn’t impressed by that. He sees our condition. He demands righteousness.
And that leaves us in a bind. We aren’t perfectly righteous. We are not just. Even when we try to praise God, there’s still some taint of sin. Amos knew this. When he was shown visions of judgment in chapter 7, he says, “O Lord God, please forgive!”
How can we be forgiven by God? Perhaps the clue comes in Amos. In chapter 5, God says there will be a “day of the Lord,” a day of “darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18). This will be a day of punishment, but it’s also a day of salvation. In chapter 8, we read these words:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9)
On the day of the Lord, a day of punishment and a day of salvation, the sun will go down at noon. Darkness will cover the earth at a time when there should be broad daylight.
This day of the Lord came almost three thousand years ago, when the only righteous man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, was put to death. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He came from a far-off country, from heaven, to bring people back to their God. He did this by living the perfect life that we should live but don’t, and then by dying in our place, taking the punishment for our sin that we deserve. When Jesus was crucified, darkness came upon the land at noon, a sign that he was enduring the wrath of God that we have earned. He didn’t do this for everyone. Only those who turn to Jesus in faith, who seek the Lord, are forgiven of their sins and will live with God forever.
We know Jesus is the one who brings us back home to God because in chapter 9 of Amos, God promises that after punishment, there will be a day of rebuilding. Look at Amos 9:11–12:
11 “In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this.
God promises to rebuild “the booth of David.” That’s a reference to David’s kingdom. David, the second king of Israel, was a great king. But David had already died, and his kingdom was divided. Yet God promised that a descendant of David would come and build a kingdom that will never end. This perfect king would defeat Israel’s enemies and bring about peace and justice that would last forever. We know from the New Testament that Jesus is that King. And he is calling a remnant of people “from all nations” into his kingdom. This passage is quoted in the Acts 15 when Jewish Christians are trying to figure out how Gentile Christians should live. The point is that the true Israel is everyone—Jew, Gentile, American, Chinese, black, white, male, female, rich, poor—who is united to Jesus by faith.
And those people will go home. They will live with God forever in a perfect world. Look at the end of the book, Amos 9:13–15:
13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,|
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.
This garden imagery reminds us of the garden of Eden, where humanity was first “planted.” We were kicked out of the garden because we didn’t love, trust, and obey God. How do we get back to the garden? Jesus. We’re told that he will come back to earth one day to make everything right. Those who trust in him will live in this perfect world. The images here are just a taste of what this perfect world will be like, a world of prosperity and pleasure. But most importantly, it will be home because our God dwells there.
Why do things like viruses occur? Why is the world disrupted economically? We could provide naturalistic answers, answers that only appeal to what we can see with our own eyes. Or, we could say, “Well, there’s no good reason.” Or, we could spend our time blaming politicians. But ultimately, God sends these things to get our attention. They are the megaphone he uses to rouse a deaf world. Are we listening? Are we turning back to God?
God lets us go our own way, running away from him to pursue our false gods. But God uses difficult events to bring us back to him. Will we answer his call? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to God while there is time. Learn about Jesus and follow him. If you want to know what that would look like in your life, send me a message and I’ll help you any way that I can. Christians, take God seriously. Don’t just pay him lip service. He deserves more than that.
Turn to God while there is time. If we continue to run away from God, he may very well let us go our own way—forever. And that will be a dreadful thing. Even in the book of Amos, there is a famine that is worse than lack of food, and there is a drought that is worse than lack of water. Amos 8:11 says,
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
The most horrifying thing is not to have God in your life, not to hear from him. Now, if you’re not a Christian, you may think that you don’t have God in your life and that you don’t hear from him now. But that’s not true. God is everywhere and all of creation speaks of God (Ps. 19:1–6). But there will be a day when all who have rejected God will be removed from him entirely. To be cut off from God means to be cut off from love, beauty, truth, light, and life. It’s worse than we can ever imagine.
But God has come to do everything you need to be put back into a right relationship with him. And right now, he is calling you back home. Come to Jesus, the truth, the life, and the way back to your God.
- C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper One, 2001), 29. ↑
- Ibid., 30–31. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 423. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
The book of Amos tells us that God brings difficult things into our lives to turn us back to him. Are we listening? Will we turn to God and find our way home, or will we resist him still? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on May 3, 2020.
Why do we suffer? Where is God when we’re in pain? What is the answer? These are questions that we ask ourselves, even subconsciously. They’re answered, at least in part, in the book of Job. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 26, 2020.
What does Jesus have to do with the coronavirus, or any sickness, and death? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on John 11 to show what Jesus did when his friend got sick and died.
I want to begin by asking you three questions. One, how are you feeling today? How are you doing? Some of us might feel great: We’re three weeks into spring, warmer weather is coming, and the Red Sox haven’t lost a game yet this season. Others might not feel so great, especially in this time of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us may feel anxious, or trapped in our own homes, going stir crazy. Some of us may be worried about finances. Others may be worried about our loved ones. And some of us might not feel well in general. We’re battling health problems, we’re lonely and depressed, and we don’t feel very hopeful right now.
That leads me to my second question: What are you putting your hope in? Many of us are looking forward to getting back to what we usually do, such as spending time with people we love, working outside of the home, going out to eat, going to the gym. We may put our hope in little things, like eating a nice meal, reading a book, or watching a new movie. We may hope for bigger things: Some of us are hoping that our health will improve, or that we’ll get a promotion. Some of us are looking forward to graduating, or moving, or getting a new job. Some of us may not see hopeful things on the immediate horizon, so we’re putting our hope in ultimate things, that one day God will make all things right. Some of us may have little hope at all right now. Though it’s the beginning of spring, some of us are stuck in fall, where everything is decaying. Some of us are stuck in winter, where everything is dead and barren.
That leads me to my third question: What is troubling you today? What has disappointed you? What has you feeling down? Sometimes we feel troubled simply because we live in a world where things go wrong. We live in a world where our bodies break down and we die. We live in a world where people treat each other poorly. We may also feel down because we had our hopes set on something, and then that hope was crushed. Often, it’s that gap between our expectations and reality that troubles us. We hoped for a relationship that ended. We had hopes for a job that we didn’t get. We had hopes that seeing a new doctor, or even having surgery, would fix our bodies, and yet we’re not healed.
Today, it’s Easter. We remember the resurrection of Jesus. And as we remember that, we’re going to look at a passage that speaks to our troubles and our dashed dreams, but also speaks to a great hope that we have.
Today, we’re going to look at Luke’s Gospel, one of the four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. If you’re not used to reading carefully through the Bible, this may be new to you. Christians believe that the Bible is ultimately from God. The Bible is the way that God reveals himself most clearly. So, we consider it carefully. Otherwise, we would simply be making things up about God. And that’s one of humanity’s biggest problems. We try to make God in our image, after our likeness. But God has said that he has made us in his image. We’re supposed to conform to him, and not the other way around.
Today, we’re going to read Luke 24. We’ll start by reading the first twelve verses:
1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
The setting is a Sunday, just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus had been crucified on a Friday. Though he had done nothing wrong—as Luke makes clear (23:4, 14, 22, 47)—he was treated as a criminal. The Jewish religious leaders didn’t believe that he was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel. They didn’t believe he was the Son of God. They thought he was blaspheming. They also were jealous of him. So, they wanted to kill him. To do that, they brought him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Empire’s governor over Judea. Pilate didn’t think Jesus was guilty or a threat to Rome, but he wanted to make sure that the crowds in Jerusalem didn’t break out into a riot. So, he had Jesus killed. After Jesus died, he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. We’re told that a number of women who had followed him saw where he was buried.
Now, we see that the women come back to the tomb on Sunday morning. They were going to anoint Jesus’ body with spices, which was a practice that people did at the time, in part to keep the decomposing body from smelling. You can imagine their surprise when they return to the tomb and find it open and empty. They see a couple of angels. They remind the women that Jesus had predicted his own death and resurrection (Luke 9:21–22; 18:31–34). So, the women go and tell Jesus’ eleven apostles what had happened.
How do the apostles respond? Do they say, “Of course! We have absolutely no problem believing that dead bodies come back to life!” No, they don’t respond like that. We’re told, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (verse 11). Why wouldn’t Jesus’ own apostles believe? After all, Jesus had told them at least twice that he would be raised from the dead. I suppose there are three reasons why they didn’t believe. One, people knew then, just as people know now, that dead people simply don’t come back to life. Anybody would find this news hard to believe. Two, people in Jesus’ day weren’t expecting that one person would come back to life in the middle of history. British theologian N. T. Wright has talked about this quite a bit. He says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing. He says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23–24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’” So, the apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history. Here’s the third reason they didn’t believe: In that day, women were not regarded as trustworthy witnesses. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases. Now, to be clear, the Bible has a very high view of women. The Bible doesn’t teach that women can’t be believed. But at this time and in this place, a woman’s testimony wasn’t credible. In fact, that’s one of the more significant bits of evidence that shows that this story is true. If someone were making up this story, they wouldn’t have chosen women to be witnesses.
What’s interesting is that most of the objections that people have to the resurrection of Jesus are brought up in the Gospels: “We can’t believe it. Those people who saw the empty tomb or the resurrection must have seen a vision. They were really hallucinating. Someone must have stolen the body. This is simply too good to be true.” But it is true, and there are many good reasons to believe it’s true. If you want to learn more, go to wbcommunity.org/resurrection.
Luke leaves that scene with Peter, one of the apostles, confused. Then he shifts to another scene. Later that day, two other disciples were heading to Emmaus, and on the way there, they were met by a stranger. We read about that in verses 13–24.
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
Here, we find two disciples, one of whom is named Cleopas. They are returning from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus. At first, they don’t recognize Jesus. And they’re sad. When Jesus asks them what happened, Cleopas starts to say that Jesus was a prophet who worked miracles and spoke amazing things. He says, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Even though they had heard the report from the women, and even though they knew the apostles had found the tomb empty, it seems like they’re crushed. They don’t know what to believe. They certainly don’t seem hopeful. The reason they were so crushed is because they thought that the Messiah would come and deliver Israel out of captivity to the Roman Empire. They were hoping for a political savior, and Jesus obviously didn’t defeat the Roman Empire. They don’t understand why Jesus died, and they can’t believe he was raised from the dead. You can tell they really didn’t believe the women’s report, because Cleopas says they had a “vision” of angels. He doesn’t say they actually saw angels. And though the disciples found the empty tomb, no one seems to have seen Jesus alive.
Now, before we move on, try to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you had your hopes set on something. Your dreams seemed to be coming true. And then, suddenly, those dreams are dashed. Now, today you may very well be hoping for a political savior. You may have your hopes wrapped up in who wins the next election. You may hope that your health will improve, or that you’ll get a better job. Some of you may hope that a relationship will improve, or that you’ll find the man or woman of your dreams. But what happens when the thing you hoped for doesn’t come true? What happens when you get the thing you hoped for, but that thing—or that person—turns out to be a disappointment? What happens then?
And let’s push this further. What happens if you get a great job, and make a lot of money? What then? Are you happy? What happens if you have a great family? Will you be completely satisfied? These things don’t last forever. The fact is that we live in a world where we lose things. We lose money and jobs and good looks and good health. And, eventually, we will lose loved ones and our own lives to the grave. In a world where even the best things can disappoint us, and when the best things have an expiration date, where you put your hope? Do you have an answer? Or do you just refuse to think about it? It’s something worth thinking about. In a world of death, where do we find hope?
There’s an interesting book by a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. The book is called A Brief History of Thought. He begins by saying that the great problem for humanity is death. He says we’re different from animals because “a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits. He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, and almost unimaginable.” He asks, “what do we desire above all else? To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.” He says that the fear of death keeps us from really living, because we’re anxious about the future. What is the answer to this problem? Is there an answer? We can either hope that there is answer or we can give up hope and assume there is none. What is the answer for you?
I’ll come back to that idea, but first let’s come back to Luke’s words to see what happened next. I’ll read verses 25–35:
25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
When Jesus first encounters these two disciples, they don’t recognize him. They don’t see him. And they didn’t understand what Jesus had done in dying. They didn’t believe he had really risen from the dead. But now, they finally see who has been walking with them. But they don’t see Jesus until they do two things. First, Jesus tells them that they were slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken. He asks, rhetorically, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” The Christ is another way of saying, “The Messiah.” What Jesus means is that these two Jewish men should have known the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, well enough to know that the Messiah would suffer and die. Jesus was probably referring to the famous passage in Isaiah 53 about a suffering servant who would die for the sins of this people and make them righteous. He could also have referred to a number of Psalms that speak of one who suffered (such as Psalm 22). And then we’re told that Jesus has a Bible study with these men: He interpreted all that the Old Testament said about him, from the first five books of the Bible (“Moses”) through the Prophets and beyond.
Now, you won’t find the name “Jesus” in the Old Testament of your English Bibles, though the equivalent in Hebrew is “Joshua.” But what Jesus means is that, one way or another, all the Old Testament is about him. The Old Testament certainly shows the need for Jesus. The Old Testament reveals our condition, that we were made to have a relationship with God, but we’ve turned away from him. Therefore, we are separated from God and separated from each other. We fight, we experience pain, and we die. There are things like natural disasters and viruses in the world. But the Old Testament also promises that one day God would make things right. He would do this through a descendant of Abraham, the patriarch who lived two thousand years before Jesus (Gen. 12:1–3; 22:18; Gal 3:16). He would do this through a prophet like Moses, who would reveal God’s word (Deut. 18:15–19.) He would do this through a descendant of King David, a perfect king who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13; Isa. 9:1–7; 11:1–9). And he would do this through that suffering servant, who, though he was righteous, would die for his people’s sins, so that they could live (Isa. 52:13–53:12). Also, all the many kings, prophets, priests, sacrifices, the tabernacle and the temple—all these things point to Jesus.
Here’s the second thing that happens before these disciples can see Jesus. They eat with him. The words that are used—“he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (v. 30)—are very similar to the words used in Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples (Luke 22:19). What does this mean? Well, eating with someone means fellowship. It means sharing with someone. In a very real sense, these disciples are sharing something life-giving with Jesus. And Jesus is the one who is serving them the thing that gives life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the bread of life.” He says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. He means that he gives life. He gives spiritual life. He satisfies the hunger of our hearts. He quenches our spiritual thirst. And, as God, Jesus literally sustains life and can cause us to live forever. Just a few verses later in John 6, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-55). Now, Jesus isn’t advocating for cannibalism. He’s speaking metaphorically. He’s saying, if you want to live—truly live—I need to be your spiritual food. If you want to live forever, I need to be your spiritual drink. In other words, we need a steady diet of Jesus in order to have real life.
Now, why do I bring these things up? Here’s the point: In order to see who Jesus really is, we need to see him in the Bible. We need to spend time with God’s word. We need to read good chunks of it, not just little crumbs here and there. We need to feast on the Bible in order to know who Jesus really is. Otherwise, we’ll never really see Jesus. And we need to “feed” on Jesus, in the sense that we need to spend time with him. How do we do that? Coming to church is a great start. So is reading the Bible. So is praying. But the fact is people will never really know Jesus unless they’re willing to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; Heb. 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:3). If you’re not willing to read the Bible a bit and spend some time in a church that actually teaches the Bible, you’ll never really know Jesus. You won’t know what he’s like. And, according to Jesus, you won’t have the hope of eternal life. But if you’re willing to pursue Jesus, he may open up your eyes so you can see him as he truly is.
After Jesus opens the eyes of these disciples, he disappears. And the disciples go back to Jerusalem so they can tell the apostles what happened. And just as they do that, who shows up? Let’s see in verses 36–43:
36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.
Of course, Jesus shows up. Again, the apostles can’t believe it. They aren’t expecting to see Jesus, even after they hear reports from the women and from these disciples. At first, they think Jesus is a ghost. But Jesus says, “Look at me. Can’t you see it’s me in the flesh? Touch me, can’t you see this is a real body?” Ghosts don’t have real bodies. And they don’t eat. But Jesus does. Some people have claimed that the apostles actually hallucinated, or that they had some kind of spiritual vision of Jesus. But that couldn’t have happened. Groups of people don’t have hallucinations. And the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus actually rose from the dead, in a physical body (see 1 John 1:1–3). He rose in a body that cannot die again (Rom. 6:9).
And how do the disciples respond? They marvel. They were incredulous. It’s not that they didn’t believe in Jesus. It’s that they couldn’t get over the fact that a dead man was now alive again. They thought it was too good to be true. So, they “disbelieved for joy.” In the midst of their amazement, they experienced great joy. Their hope was still alive.
Then Jesus does what he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He tells the apostles that his death and his resurrection were in accordance with all of the Old Testament. He helps them understand the Old Testament. We see this in verses 44–47.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
When he says, “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” he’s referring to the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. This is the same content that we find in the Old Testament, but in a slightly different order. The point is that the whole of the Old Testament is about Jesus, and he came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Jesus’ death and resurrection were all part of God’s plan. Why did God have this plan? God sent his Son so that people from all nations would repent and find forgiveness in Jesus. Repentance is turning away from your present course and turning to God. It’s changing your mind about what is true and right and ultimate. But it’s more than changing your mind. It’s changing your heart and your actions. The Bible promises that everyone who turns from their old ways and turns toward Jesus will be forgiven. They will be forgiven for rejecting God, and disobeying him, and simply ignoring him. Those who turn to Jesus will have eternal life. Though they die in this life, that’s not the end of the story. One day, Jesus will return to fix everything. When he comes, everyone will be raised from the dead. And all who are united to Jesus—everyone who has repented of sin and trusted in Jesus—will live in a perfect world, where there is no more pain, and decay, and death.
So, what does it look like to repent and have faith in Jesus? The quickest way I can say it is this: Agree with God.
Agree that he made us in his image, and not the other way around (Gen. 1:26–28). He is the ultimate truth, not us. We’re not the center of the universe, but he is (see Rom. 11:36).
Agree that though he made us to have a right relationship with him, one that involves love and worship and obedience, we have not loved him and worshiped him and obeyed him as we should. At best, we ignore God. We don’t think of him. We don’t thank him. We don’t bother to learn what he’s like. We don’t spend time with him. We don’t try to please him. At worst, we know there’s a God, we know what he wants us to do, and we don’t do it (see Rom. 3:23).
Agree that because we don’t live as we should, God has every right to remove us from his good creation forever. And when we are removed from the source of all that is good, the source of life, we find death. That’s what we deserve (Rom. 6:23).
Agree that though we deserve that God sent his Son, Jesus, into the world (John 3:16)
Agree that Jesus is God and man (John 1:1, 14; Rom. 1:3–4).
Agree that he lived a perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22). He never failed to love, worship, honor, represent, and obey the Father. He is the only one who has done this.
Agree that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (Col. 2:13–14).
Agree that he rose from the grave, showing that his death was acceptable to God, that he is the only way to eternal life, and that all his people will one day be fully restored (Rom. 4:25).
Agree that Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God, and that turning to him is the only way to be accepted by God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
Agree that Jesus is your King and start living for him (Rom. 14:7–8; 2 Cor. 5:14–15).
I could go on and on, but that’s basically what it looks like to put your trust in Jesus.
The end of Luke’s Gospel brings us to where the book of Acts begins. I preached through that book four years ago, and you can find all those messages on our website. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, he tells his followers that they are witnesses to what he has done. He tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit to them. Then he blesses them and ascends to heaven.
48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
Earlier in the sermon, I asked how you’re feeling. I asked what was troubling you. Are you troubled by the past? Perhaps you have regrets about the wrong things that you’ve done. Look back further into the past, to the cross where Jesus died to pay for failures. If you turn to Jesus, he has already taken care of everything you’ve ever done wrong. Perhaps others have harmed you in the past. If you turn to Jesus, you can trust that Jesus will take care of all wrongdoing. He will judge everyone who has ever lived, and he will vindicate you.
Perhaps you’re troubled about the future. If you turn to Jesus, no matter what happens, in the end everything will work out for your good. You will be raised from the dead in a glorious body that can never die, and you will live in Paradise with him.
No other religion or philosophy offers what Christianity does. The good news, the gospel, addresses the problems of our past and the worries of our future. No other system of thought offers the hope that Christianity does. Earlier, I mentioned an atheistic philosopher named Luc Ferry. Even he acknowledges, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity.” Yet he then states that while he finds the faith appealing, he doesn’t believe it. What’s interesting is that earlier in his book, he acknowledges that when he studied as a university student, he knew nothing of Christianity. In his own words, “for years I knew more or less nothing about the intellectual history of Christianity.”
I find that is often true: Christianity is often poorly understood. It has not been weighed and found wanting. No, it’s simply not been weighed by many. It’s often misrepresented or marginalized and ignored. Whenever it’s portrayed in mainstream media, it’s almost guaranteed to be misrepresented. Often, even people who claim to be Christians misrepresent Christ. I’m doing my best to present it truly and thoughtfully here. All I ask is that you would take the time to learn about Jesus. You can read about the evidence for the resurrection on our website. You can learn about Jesus by making use of our website. You can explore a sermon series called “Who Is Jesus?” Most importantly, you can do that by reading the Bible. To know Jesus, you must search Jesus’ Scriptures and spend time with him. And if you taste and see, you will see that he is good.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- “The Jews did not embalm, so the spices and perfumes help to calm death’s stench and slow decomposition.” Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1877. ↑
- “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76. ↑
- N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192. ↑
- Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” ↑
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3. ↑
- Ibid., 4. ↑
- Jesus also says the Old Testament is about him in Luke 24:44; John 5:39. ↑
- To listen or read sermons in this series, visit https://wbcommunity.org/acts. ↑
- Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 261, 263. ↑
- According to Ferry, when he was a student in the last 1960s, “It was possible to pass our exams and even become a philosophy professor by knowing next to nothing about Judaism, Islam or Christianity” (ibid., 55). ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ, or https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
What is troubling us? Usually, we’re troubled because we expected something or hoped for something and didn’t get it. But if we understand who Jesus truly is and what he came to do, and if we put our hope in him, we will not be disappointed. Listen to this message from Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.
(The sound quality isn’t great. That is true for the last three or four weeks. We’ll work to improve sound quality going forward.)
Here’s something that most people don’t know about me: I have a ringing in my ears. It’s technically called tinnitus. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but I know that I noticed it sometime in 2006 or 2007. I was at home, at night, reading a book. It was quiet and no appliances other than the refrigerator were running. Yet I heard this high pitch. I got up and went to the refrigerator, which was relatively new, to see if it was making the sound. It wasn’t the refrigerator. I tried to think of any other electrical device that might be emitting that annoying, high pitch. It only slowly dawned on me that the ringing wasn’t outside me but was inside me. And it hasn’t stopped since that time. I suppose I tune out the noise when I’m busy or focusing on something. But it’s always there, sometimes a little louder, and sometimes a little softer. But I haven’t experienced complete quiet in over a decade.
Recently, I read an article about tinnitus online. The author of the article claims that between 15 to 20 percent of people will experience tinnitus in their lifetime. Then the author claimed that tinnitus was simply a symptom of a larger problem: noise pollution. Noise pollution leads to stress, which negatively affects our health: “Trying to filter unwanted sounds creates a chemical spike in our bodies. Glucocorticoid enzyme levels rise by as much as 40 percent when we’re separating noise from signal, resulting in fatigue and stress.” And I can relate to that: I’m sure I experience more stress now than when I did before the ringing in my ears. And there’s a lot of stress that is caused from all kinds of noise: noise from my family and, more importantly, noise from the world. And the noise I have in mind is largely metaphorical. We’re bombarded with all kinds of messages that assault us, causing stress. It’s hard to unplug from the world in order to find rest.
Perhaps your issue isn’t noise. Maybe you experience stress because of physical pain, or stressful relationships, or financial concerns. Jobs are often the source of great stress and fatigue. All of us have some source of worry, things that drain our energy. We live in a restless world. Yet we all long for rest, for healing and wholeness.
I mention this because today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see once again that Jesus enters into controversy on the Sabbath. Once again, he heals someone on the seventh day, the Jewish day of rest. And once again, the religious leaders of the day seem to be opposed to Jesus.
Today, what I want to do is look at the short passage before us, Luke 14:1–6, and explain what’s happening there. Then, I went to consider two things: how Jesus give us rest, and how we practice Sabbath. The two are intertwined.
So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 14:1–6:
1 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6 And they could not reply to these things.
It is the Sabbath day, and Jesus is eating in the house of a Pharisee. The Pharisees were influential lay leaders in Israel at this time. This isn’t just any Pharisee, but a leader of some kind. It’s surprising that Jesus would eat in the house of a Pharisee, because for quite some time now, Jesus and the Pharisees have been in conflict. Tension between the two has been mounting. We’re told at the end of Luke 11 that “the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say” (Luke 11:53–54). In other words, the Pharisees and the experts of the Jewish law were trying to trap Jesus, hoping to catch him doing or saying something wrong so they could charge him with a crime. They did this not because Jesus ever did anything wrong—he never failed, he never sinned, he never committed one act of evil, selfishness, greed, covetousness, or all the things that you and I do. No, they did this because they hated Jesus, because they were jealous of the attention he was getting, and because they didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. They certainly didn’t believe that he is the Son of God. These Jewish religious leaders were trying to set a trap for Jesus, and Jesus must have known that.
Yet Jesus goes to this man’s house and eats with him. Meal scenes are very common in Luke (Luke 5:29; 7:36; 9:16; 10:38; 11:37; 22:14; 24:30). So are parables that talk about meals (Luke 14:7–11, 12–24; 15:11–32). Meals are important because they’re intimate gatherings where something vital—life-sustaining food—is shared. Jesus is willing to dine with his enemies, even enemies who “were watching him carefully,” which suggests that they’re lying in wait, hoping to catch him doing something wrong. The Pharisees are embodying Psalm 37:32: “The wicked watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death.”
And when Jesus eats with the Pharisees, there among them is a man who has dropsy. Dropsy is an old-fashioned term for a type of edema, a swelling of tissue. Specifically, the body retains water, and this man’s limbs and abdomen would be obviously swollen. This condition is sometimes known as “thirsty dropsy,” because people who had it would have an unquenchable thirst. Often, this is associated with chronic heart failure. Strangely, though a person with dropsy would be full of water, they wanted more and more, and their thirst was never satisfied. That’s why dropsy was often associated with gluttony and greed. According to a theologian from 1,500 years ago, Caesarius of Arles (c.468–542), “all avaricious and covetous men seem to be sick with dropsy. Just as a man with dropsy thirsts all the more, the more he drinks, so the avaricious and covetous man runs a risk by acquiring more and is not satisfied with it when it does abound.”
Jesus sees this man, and it appears that he has compassion on him. We’re told he “responded to the lawyers and the Pharisees,” though they didn’t say anything. He’s probably responding to their thoughts, which he knows. He knows that they want to catch him working on the Sabbath, and in their minds healing this man would count as work. Jesus has already healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1–11; 13:10–17). Just three weeks ago, I talked a bit about the Old Testament background to the Sabbath. To recap quickly, in Genesis 1, we are told that God made or fashioned the world in six days. At the beginning of Genesis 2, we’re told that he rested. But that doesn’t mean God became really tired. And it doesn’t mean that he stopped working. God continually sustains his creation at every moment. Without God, the universe would cease to exist. And in John 5, when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, he says quite clearly, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). God’s seventh day has no end. In other words, God works on the Sabbath. But what rest meant was that everything was rightly ordered and in harmony, and God could, metaphorically speaking, sit on his throne and survey his creation, ruling over it.
The law given to the Israelites stated that they should keep every seventh day as a Sabbath, a day of rest, a day to cease from their labors. This is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were to do this after the pattern of Genesis 1:3–2:3 (Exod. 20:8–11) and also as a reminder that God brought them out of brutal, oppressive work as slaves in Egypt (Deut. 5:12–15). Jewish leaders took the Sabbath seriously and required that people not work, even creating a list of all kinds of things forbidden on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was one of the distinctive marks of Judaism, along with circumcision and dietary laws.
Now, Jesus knows all of this, and he knows the Pharisees’ hearts. And he knows that this man who has dropsy isn’t in an emergency. He didn’t need to be healed on the Sabbath. If Jesus wanted to heal him, he could have waited a day. But Jesus plans to heal him. So, first he asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” The Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest, a day of healing. It wasn’t supposed to be something that turned into legalism. The Pharisees and the experts of the law don’t answer Jesus. If they say no, they will appear not to care for this man who has dropsy. If they say yes, they can’t trap Jesus. So, they remain silent. And then Jesus heals the man.
Jesus then chastises them by asking a question: “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” If these men had an animal that was caught in a well, they would pull it out. If they had a son who had fallen into a well, of course they would pull him out. Jesus seems to be implying, “How much more should you heal a child of God on the Sabbath day.” Once again, the Pharisees and experts of the law couldn’t say anything. Their trap had failed. They knew Jesus did the right thing, but they couldn’t admit it, for fear of making Jesus look good.
It’s clear that Jesus doesn’t violate the Sabbath. He is actually fulfilling its intent. And it’s clear whose side God is on, the side of Jesus, the one who is miraculously healing people. The people who should have been the godliest have set a trap for the Son of God, which reveals how much they’re actually opposed to God. And their trap failed. But they won’t quit trying. Their conflict with Jesus will continue, and they will find a way to put Jesus on the cross.
But for now, let’s think about this: Why does Jesus continually heal on the Sabbath? And why does Luke tell us about this multiple times? Jesus didn’t have to heal on the Sabbath. These weren’t life-or-death situations.
I think the answer is that Jesus came to fulfill the Sabbath. Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament law, to obey the demands of the old covenant that Israel failed to obey (Matt. 5:17). Jesus does what Adam and Israel couldn’t do, perfectly loving God and loving other people, perfectly obeying God’s commands. Jesus is the end of the law, the one to whom the law pointed (Rom. 10:4). And Jesus not only perfectly obeyed the Sabbath, including God’s intent for that holy day, but he also fulfilled its purpose. I think it’s clear from the New Testament that the Sabbath day not only pointed back to the seventh day of creation, but also pointed forward to Jesus, the one who gives us true rest.
The word Sabbath basically means rest. In Matthew’s Gospel, before one of the occasions when Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And immediately after that, we’re told that Jesus’ disciples picked grain on the Sabbath and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. He told the Pharisees that he is the “lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). It seems that Jesus was trying to teach that the Sabbath, just like the temple and the animal sacrifices performed there, were meant to foreshadow Jesus. They had a purpose for a time. A large part of their purpose was to point to Christ. But now that he had come, their day was ending.
Significantly, the apostle Paul addresses the Sabbath. Paul was greatly concerned that Jewish and Gentile Christians be one the same footing. That meant teaching about the law. In Galatians, he makes it quite clear that we are not under the law. He was alarmed by the false teaching that said you need to put your faith in Jesus and obey the law in order to be justified, or declared in the right with God. So, Paul writes, in Galatians 4:9–11:
9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
“Days and months and seasons and years” must refer not only to Jewish festivals like the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, and things like the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee, but also to the weekly Sabbath.
In Colossians 2:16–17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” The Sabbath and the other holy days of Judaism were only shadows. They were things that foreshadowed the coming of Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, we should celebrate the substance, not the shadow. Jesus is the main event, and the Sabbath was the undercard. The Sabbath was a trailer, but Jesus is the full movie. So, Paul tells the Colossians, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to observe the Sabbath or continue to observe dietary laws. Trust Jesus and follow him.”
So, I don’t believe that we follow the Sabbath by taking a seventh day of rest, on which we don’t work at all. We should observe the Lord’s Day, Sunday, as a day to worship together. This is in honor of the day when Jesus rose from the grave. When Jesus died, he died on the sixth day, when he completed his work and said, “It is finished” (John 20:30). He died to pay the penalty that we all deserve because we are sinners and we have sinned. We are rebels against God, not living for him and loving him and obeying as we should. That crime deserves the harshest punishment. Yet Jesus, who never sinned, died in the place of all who put their trust in him, who come under his rule and receive his blessings. When he died, he was placed in a tomb, where he rested on the seventh day. And he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, inaugurating a new creation for which we are still waiting. According to Athanasius (c. 298–373), bishop of Alexandria, “The Sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord’s day was the beginning of the second, in which he renewed and restored the old in the same way as he prescribed that they should formerly observe the Sabbath as a memorial of the end of the first things, so we honor the Lord’s Day as being the memorial of the new creation.”
Some Christians believe that the Sabbath is still in effect, and that it moved from Saturday to Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The Bible never says this, and I think the passages that I’ve cited actually speak against this idea. Also, in the Roman Empire, Sunday was not a day of rest until the year 321. So, Christians had to work on Sunday for almost three hundred years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. They would gather to worship on that day, probably early in the morning or at night, but they would also have to work. If Sunday was the new Sabbath and work was forbidden, Christians wouldn’t be able to have jobs. They wouldn’t have survived. So, both biblically and historically, it doesn’t seem like the Sunday was the Sabbath.
But Christians are free to disagree about such matters. In Romans, Paul writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Paul doesn’t mean that everyone is right. Paul means that with some of these issues, even if people are wrong, it’s worth respecting other people’s convictions.
So, Jesus came to fulfill the Sabbath and to give us rest. How does he do this? He does this by addressing the root of what causes us so much unrest. What disrupts rest? What causes all the anxiety, the stress, the fatigue of the world? It’s sin. Before sin entered into the world, there was harmony: God and humans had a harmonious relationship. Creation was not marred by natural disasters. There was no death. All was well. But when the first humans failed to love and trust God, and when they disobeyed his commandment, sin entered into the world and flooded it. The consequences of sin include things like natural disasters. Creation isn’t always harmonious, and our relationship to it isn’t one of peace. There are floods and earthquakes and famines. We are often not at peace with one another. We argue and fight and covet and steal and kill. We’re not even at peace with ourselves. So much of the noise that I experience comes from within. And I’m not talking about my ringing ears. I’m talking about the many ways that my divided heart and mind are at war. And we are not at peace with God as long as we continue to rebel against him.
Sin is the cause of ringing ears, bad relationships, economic hardships, bad health, bad governments and politicians, and death itself. Sin causes unrest. But Jesus came to give us rest, and he said that everyone who comes to him in faith will receive that rest. He came to do the work that we can’t do because of our sin. He lived a perfect life. And he came to take on the punishment that we should receive, dying on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death. And he also bore God’s wrath on the cross, which goes far beyond physical pain. He experienced hell on earth so that all who come to him in faith won’t experience hell forever. Everyone who loves Jesus, trusts him, and starts to follow him (even if imperfectly) have their sins wiped away and forgiven, they are adopted into God’s family, and they will live with God forever, in heaven and in the new creation, when God restores the world. Those who trust in Jesus are at rest with God.
Though Jesus has inaugurated the true Sabbath in the spiritual rest that he provides for his disciples, the final fulfillment of that Sabbath rest is still future. The author of Hebrews writes, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9). Whoever has entered God’s rest, through faith in Christ, has already rested from his or her works, as God rested after his creative activity (v. 10). In Revelation 14:13 it is said that those who die in the Lord rest from their labors (Rev. 14:13), indicating a future rest, which is achieved when God’s people are with him after death and, ultimately, in the new creation.
So, what should we do with this message? If you are not a Christian, I tell you that you will never find true rest until you put your faith in Jesus. You can try every other solution in the world, every other thing that people tell you will bring you ultimate comfort and peace and satisfaction in life. And it will fail every time. The reason why money, a good career, a great marriage, great health, pleasures of all kinds, power, celebrity and everything else that people chase after won’t give you rest is because they were never meant to do that. A lot of those things are good things, gifts from God, but they can’t satisfy your soul. They can’t make you whole. They won’t heal you.
If you continue to chase those things and remain unsatisfied, you’re like the man who has dropsy. You drink and drink and drink, and you’re bloated with all the things of the world, but you remain thirsty. That’s basically the human condition. We’re sick and thirsty, but we keep drinking from the wrong well. But God beckons us to stop trying to fix ourselves, and to let him fix us instead. In Isaiah 55, he says,
1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live (Isa. 55:1–3a).
If you’re not a Christian, I would love to talk with you more about what it means to follow Jesus and how you can do that. I urge you to speak to God, tell him you realize you have sinned and you can’t save yourself, and ask him to forgive you and to grant you faith and repentance. Turn away from your old ways of living for yourself and live for God.
If you are a Christian, remember to rest in Christ. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the ways of the world, to get worried about all kinds of things, as if God is not on this throne and he is not on our side. We worry so much. A friend of mind, who is concerned about his job status, told me how he had applied for different jobs and was anxiously waiting to hear back from potential employers. He’s a Christian, yet he was acting as if God wouldn’t provide for him. I told him to rest in Christ. So many of us try to find rest in other things, even after we come to Christ. We need to remember what Augustine prayed to God: “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
So many of us are worried about health and death. We worry not only about our own health, but the health of our loved ones. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to look at a book of Charles Spurgeon’s letters. Spurgeon (1832–1892), was a pastor in London in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was famous and he is rightly regarded as the “Prince of Preachers.” He died at the age of 57, and as he was dying, he wrote letters to his church. In one letter, written 25 days before he died, he writes,
On looking back upon the valley of the shadow of death through which I passed so short a time ago, I feel my mind grasping with firmer grip than ever that everlasting gospel which for so many years I have preached to you. We have not been deceived. Jesus does give rest to those who come to him, he does save those who trust him, he does photograph his image on those who learn of him. . . . Cling to the gospel of forgiveness through the substitionary sacrifice, and spread it with all your might, each one of you, for it is the only cure for bleeding hearts.
That is my message to you. Trust in Christ. Cling to Christ. Rest in Christ. That is how we keep the Sabbath.
- Derek Beres, “Tinnitus and the Deafening Problem of Noise Pollution,”Big Think, May 16, 2019, https://bigthink.com/politics-current-affairs/tinnitus, accessed May 31, 2019.↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Sermo CCXXII, quoted in M. A. Riva et al, “The ‘Thirsty Dropsy’: Early Descriptions in Medical and Non-Medical Authors of Thirst as Symptom of Chronic Heart Failure,” International Journal of Cardiology 245 (2017): 187–189. ↑
- See the May 12, 2019 sermon, “You Are Freed,” available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
- The seventh day, in Genesis 2:1–3, lacks the phrase “there was evening and there was morning” that serves as a refrain in Genesis 1, marking the end of each day. ↑
- The Hebrew noun translated as “Sabbath” (šabbāt) is related to the verb šābat, which means to cease or rest. ↑
- Athanasius, On the Sabbath and Circumcision 3, quoted in Craig L. Blomberg, “The Sabbath as Fulfilled in Christ,” in Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views, ed. Christopher John Danto (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 310–11. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- Charles Spurgeon, The Suffering Letters of C. H. Spurgeon (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2007), 118–119. ↑
On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.
In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.
Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.
It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?
I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.
This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.
We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.
Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.
Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.
Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.
Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)
Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.
Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.
Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.
Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.
Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.
So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.
Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.
Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”
Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.
However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights. Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.
So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).
I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”
The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.
Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.
Let’s look at verses 32–34
32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.
But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.
And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.
However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:
53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.
Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.
And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303. ↑
- Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106. ↑
- Ibid., 107. ↑
- Ibid., 115. ↑
- For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016). ↑
- Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63. ↑
In this Easter message, Brian Watson shows from 1 Corinthians 15 what the good news of Christianity is and why it gives us hope. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and all who are united to him by faith will rise from the dead when Jesus returns to destroy the last enemy: death.
What’s the hardest thing that we can face in this life? I don’t think it’s loss of money or income. We can always get another job or hope that more money comes in. Is it rejection from people we love? I don’t think so, though rejection from loved ones is devastating. Even if our family and friends disown us and unfriend us, we can always find new people to love and be loved by. I think one of the hardest things we face in this life is the decay of our own bodies—and also of the bodies we love.
Many of us know what it’s like to be seriously ill, or to have had—or to have right now—some serious injury or condition that keeps us from being completely healthy. When your body is weak or in pain, it’s hard not to think about it. Other difficulties in life are ones that we can forget for some periods of time. Even those who are mourning or hurting over a rejection can have times when they laugh or feel happy. But a body in pain stays in pain always. And sometimes illnesses or conditions keep some people from getting out, from engaging in life the way that others do. In those cases, health problems can isolate us and make us feel alone, unproductive, and unwanted.
Of course, this hits home when it’s happening to our bodies. But it also hurts us when our loved ones have these major health problems. And regardless of whether we’re healthy or not right now, or whether our spouses or kids or parents or friends are healthy or not right now, all of us will die. Before we die, we will lose many loved ones to death. And that reminds us of our own impending deaths.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: there’s an interesting book called A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by a French philosopher named Luc Ferry, who happens to be an atheist. He describes philosophy as basically an attempt to figure out how to live in a world in which we will all die. He says this of man (and of woman, too): “He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.” What is it that all humans want? “To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.” Ferry says that all religions and philosophies are an attempt to find salvation from the fear of death.
Now, this might not be a very cheerful way to begin a sermon. But the reality is that all of us will face health concerns and all of us will face death. Those are things that every human being deals with, and some of us are dealing with that right at this moment. And if that was all there was to the story—your body breaks down, everything and everyone you love will pass away, and you will die—there would be no hope. But there is hope. Christianity has something amazing to say about hope in the face of illness, decay, and death. Luc Ferry, that atheist I just mentioned, says, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity—provided, that is, that you are a believer.” I suppose the reason he says that is because Christianity promises life after death to believers. It promises that death is not the final word. The problem for Ferry is that he doesn’t believe it. But he admits that French students in his generation weren’t exposed to Christianity and the Bible. He likely never bothered to read strong defenses of the truth of Christianity.
At this church, we try to think about why we should believe Christianity to be true. And the greatest reason to believe is Christ himself. And the best way to know Jesus Christ is to read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each one a biography of Jesus, focusing on his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave.
For most of the last thirteen months, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re look at Luke 8:40–56. We’ll see here that Jesus performs two miracles that show he has power over both illness and death.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:40–42a:
40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.
Jesus has returned from the eastern shore of Sea of Galilee, the Gentile region known as the Decapolis. Specifically, he was in a place called the Gerasenes, where he exorcised a large amount of demons out of a man. On the way there, Jesus had calmed a storm. We looked at these two miracles last week.
Here, back in Galilee, a man named Jairus comes to Jesus. Jairus was the ruler of synagogue. He would have been in charge of the services at the synagogue. He was something like a lay leader, the one who decided who could read Scripture at the synagogue. He wasn’t a Rabbi or a civil leader, but he provided order and he would have been a well-respected leader in the community.
This man falls at Jesus’ feet, which shows how desperate he is. His only daughter, about twelve years old, is dying. The Greek word that is translated as “only” is μονογενὴς (monogenes), the same word used of Jesus to describe him as God’s only Son or, in older translations, his “only begotten” Son. This man’s one, beloved daughter is dying, and he begs Jesus to help her. So, Jesus goes with Jairus to his house.
Now, let’s read the end of verse 42 though verse 48:
As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. 43 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Jesus has been drawing crowds because of his teaching and miracles. People are crowding him, pressing upon him. It’s like he’s a celebrity.
Among the people pressing against him is a woman “who [has] had a discharge of blood for twelve years.” In other words, she’s bleeding both during and between menstrual periods. I guess there’s a technical name for this: menometrorrhagia. It seems she had some type of hemorrhage that couldn’t heal. Luke tells us that she “spent all her living on physicians,” but “she could not be healed by anyone.” There’s some debate about whether “spent all her living on physicians” belongs to the original copy of the Gospel. There are some early manuscripts that don’t have these words, though most manuscripts do. Luke was a doctor, so if he wrote this, it’s quite stunning (Col. 4:14). Mark says the woman “had suffered much under many physicians” (Mark 5:26).
Now, some of you here might be able to relate to this woman. You might be thinking, “I know exactly what that’s like. I’ve seen many doctors who haven’t been able to help me.” We’ve all seen people who couldn’t be healed, regardless of how many specialists they had seen and how much money they have spent.
But this woman’s condition would have caused her greater problems than mere physical ones. This had been going on for twelve years, and I’m sure her condition was inconvenient and possibly embarrassing. But what made it worse was that in her Jewish context, this condition made her unclean. This is a hard concept for us to grasp, because it’s so foreign to the way that we think. In the book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions for how the Israelites should worship and live as God’s people. There are many instructions on how to be clean. The things in the book of Leviticus that make a person unclean are not necessarily sinful, but they are the result of sin in the world. One of the things that makes a person unclean is blood, which, when it’s outside the body, is usually related to death. Various conditions, diseases, and death itself are the result of sin in the world. And sin is our rebellion against God.
When God made human beings, he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means that we were made to worship God, to reflect his greatness, to rule over the world by coming under his rule, to love him and obey him because he’s a perfect Father. But the first human beings didn’t want to live for God; instead, they wanted to be like God, to be gods who lived for themselves. They didn’t trust that God is good. They didn’t do things God’s way. So, God removed them from Paradise and put his creation under a curse, which is a partial punishment for this rebellion. This is our story, too, for we often don’t want to live for God and do life on his terms. This is why we have health problems, diseases, and death.
The book of Leviticus specifically talks about a woman bleeding beyond the time of her menstruation. This is Leviticus 15:25–31:
25 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. 27 And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 And the priest shall use one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.
31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
This woman couldn’t be touched or touch others. She couldn’t worship at the temple and probably not at the local synagogue. She was isolated, and probably frustrated, embarrassed, and apparently broke from spending money on doctors who couldn’t help. When Mark’s Gospel says she suffered at the hands of doctors, it probably means that these doctors made things worse, not better.
This woman touches Jesus in the hopes that he can make her well. Like Jairus, she knew that Jesus was her only hope. She had probably heard that Jesus had healed many other people. In Luke 6, we’re told that people came to Jesus to hear his teaching and to be healed of their diseases. We’re told, “And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).
Perhaps this woman touched Jesus in this way so that her condition wouldn’t be found out by everyone. She wanted to be healed quietly, secretly. So, she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ garment.
But Jesus realizes someone has touched him. What this woman has done is not a secret to him. He senses that someone has accessed his power. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of battery with a limited energy source. What it means is that divine power was flowing through him and he was aware of it.
The disciples can’t believe that Jesus could discern that a specific person touched him and that power went from him to this person. There’s a massive crowd—how can Jesus know that one specific person touched him? But Jesus is the God-man, and he has the ability to know things that mere mortals wouldn’t know.
Jesus surely knew who it was who touched him. I say that because we’re told that the woman realized that she wasn’t hidden, that she couldn’t hide from Jesus. Jesus probably asked, “Who was it that touched me?” in order to draw this woman into making a public profession.
Like Jairus, this woman falls down, trembling, but probably for different reasons. She trembles in the presence of Jesus, the Lord who healed her. Even though she was probably afraid of speaking in public—she had been isolated for a long time—she decided to confess what Jesus had done for her.
Then, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She might very well have been older than Jesus, but he calls her, “Daughter.” She is part of his family. What made her well? Ultimately, it’s Jesus and his power, the power of God at work in and through him. But the instrument that she used to access this power was her faith. She trusted that Jesus could heal her. The doctors couldn’t. Only Jesus could fix this problem.
Does this mean that Jesus will fix all our health problems? If we trust him, yes, he will—ultimately. But not in this lifetime. He may heal some of us, usually through secondary causes—through doctors and nurses, through diet and medicine and surgery. Jesus cannot heal all illnesses without rooting out all sin in the world. Sin is the cause of illness. But if Jesus removed all sin, he would have to end human history as we know it. He would have to remove all sinners—or at least their sin. But God hasn’t done that yet because he is giving people a chance to turn to Jesus now, before that great judgment day when all of us will no longer be hidden, but will be exposed for all that we are, all that we’ve done, all that we’ve thought and desired. Our secrets will be laid bare. And only Jesus can cover up our sins.
Jesus didn’t perform miracles to eliminate all evil. He performed miracles to show his identity. He is the great physician who will heal all who come to him. He has not promised to do this now, in this life. But he will do it in the end.
Today’s story started with Jairus and his dying daughter. Then, we were interrupted by the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Now, let’s go back to Jairus and his daughter. What happened to her?
Let’s read verses 49–56:
49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” 50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.
After Jesus has dealt with the bleeding woman, a messenger comes, saying that the girl is dead, don’t bother Jesus anymore, there’s nothing that can be done. This messenger lacks hope. This messenger lacks faith.
Jesus says, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” This might have sounded like a bad joke. Apparently, Jesus said this before he took the parents and three of his disciples inside the house. Those who were weeping and mourning outside laughed at Jesus. They laughed because he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” “Yeah, right, Jesus. That’s a good one!”
But Jesus was serious. The girl was dead, but only temporarily. She was about to be “woken up.” (By the way, Jairus’ name, in Aramaic, would have been Jair, which means, “God will awaken.”) Jesus touched the dead girl—this would have made him unclean (touching a corpse made someone unclean; Num. 19:11). And at his command, the girl rises. Her spirit comes back to her. The “spirit” is generally thought to be the person’s immaterial self that continues after death, though “spirit” (Greek: πνεῦμα) can also mean “breath.” She truly was dead and is now alive. Jesus even tells people to give her something to eat—she’s really alive, in a physical body that needs sustenance.
The people are amazed, and rightfully so, but Jesus tells them not to tell others. He knows that people want someone who can bring dead people back to life. But people don’t want all of Jesus’ teaching. He doesn’t want followers who are attracted to him for the wrong reasons.
So, what do we learn from this?
First, Jesus has the power to heal. He can do what we cannot do. Of course, we have much better medicine and technology than people had two thousand years ago. But there are still many conditions that we cannot fix, or fix completely. And we will never solve the problem of death. Death is the shadow that hangs over all humanity. Only Jesus can fix that problem.
Second, we should know that Jesus has not promised to fix death right now. Even this girl, whom Jesus brought back to life, would die again. And God has certainly not promised his people that they won’t have a physical death. We will die, unless Jesus should return before the end of our lives.
Jesus’ bringing the girl back to life was a sign that he has power over death, that he can bring people to spiritual life, and that there will be a resurrection of the dead. All who trust in Jesus can never die spiritually, but they will live forever.
Jesus famously brought his friend Lazarus back to life. In talking to Lazarus’s sister, Jesus said, “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). He is the resurrection. He is life (John 14:6). He will bring life to all who trust him. We have that life now, even though our bodies may wear out and die. But he will give us new bodies, bodies that are indestructible, that will never grow old and never die. Death does not have the last word for those who follow Jesus.
But that indestructible life will only come when Jesus returns. Christianity takes a long view of life, an eternal view. And that’s so important to keep in mind. If there is no afterlife, Christianity is false and useless. But if Christianity is true, then it means we will live eternally, either with God or separated from him and all that is good and right. God promises his people not a quick fix, but an eternal fix.
Third, think of the ways that Jesus steps into our different problems. Jairus says his twelve-year-old daughter was dying. Twelve years in that case seems so short. We have a sense that people should live much longer.
The woman was bleeding for twelve years. Twelve years must have seemed like an eternity for her.
I’m sure there’s no coincidence that the woman suffered as long as this girl was alive. God has a way of orchestrating events like this, juxtaposing things so they cast light on each other. Whether our suffering seems long, or lives are taken short, Jesus cares. And Jesus can heal.
Fourth, Jesus is for everyone. Jesus heals the outcast woman. He heals the beloved daughter of the well-respected Jairus. All who come to Jesus in faith are healed, regardless of their age, gender, skin color, ethnicity, religious background, how much sin they’ve committed, or how much money they have. The key thing is faith.
What does faith look like? It looks like trusting in Jesus, even when the odds seem impossible. It means believing that only he can fix our problems. Yes, if you’re sick, go see a doctor, but a doctor can’t give you eternal life. He or she can’t make you right with God. No amount of science, technology, money, or other human accomplishments can do that. Faith means humbling yourself, falling at Jesus’ feet, and realizing that he is God, that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. Faith means coming to Jesus for the right reasons, accepting not just his healing, but also his teaching, his leadership, his path for us.
This life is hard. Illness, disease, physical problems are hard. Death threatens to swallow everything we love up. But death is not the last word, not for Jesus, and not for his people. Do not fear; only believe.
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, transs. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3. ↑
- Ibid., 4. ↑
- Ibid., 261. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This sermon, preached on January 13, 2019, can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
- http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=10&pid=10&gid=000100 ↑
Jesus performs two miracles in Luke 8:40-56. He heals a woman of a condition that plagued her for twelve years and he brought a girl back to life. Find out why this matters and what it means for us. Brian Watson preached this message on January 20, 2019.
Jesus does the unimaginable: he brings a dead man back to life. He can bring spiritually dead people to life through his word, and the dead will be raised at his command when he returns. Listen to this message on Luke 7:11-17, preached by Brian Watson.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow him, witness his acts and teaching, and to be his representatives. Who did he pick? A surprising group of men. Find out why this matters by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on September 23, 2018.
Our younger son, Simon, started playing soccer this fall. He’s only 6 years old and he’s playing in a league of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. He had his second game yesterday and it’s interesting to see how, even at that young age, different kids have different athletic abilities. Some are bigger and some quite small. Some are faster than others and some are more coordinated. Some have a good sense of the game, where the ball is going and where it needs to go.
I don’t know how these kids are assigned to different teams. But it would be pretty easy to pick which kids you’d want on your team. There was one kid yesterday, on the other team, who could dribble through traffic and who scored two goals—one with the right foot, and one with the left. I’d pick that kid first if I were building a team.
Did you ever have that experience as a kid when captains were picking teams to play a sport? Maybe you were the one who did the picking. You know how this goes: all the people who want to play are lined up and two people take turns picking these players to be on their team. Usually, the first choices are obvious. The fast, coordinated, strong players are picked first. If you’re playing basketball, you’d pick the tall people quickly. Then you pick the average players. Eventually, you pick the people who look like they couldn’t run if they were under cooked eggs. Maybe you were always the last one picked and this whole idea brings traumatic memories to mind.
But imagine for a moment that you were building your own professional sports team. Imagine you could build your own Dream Team of the very best players in that sport. Money is not an issue here, and there’s no salary cap. Most of your picks would be pretty obvious ones. You’d pick the fastest, strongest, most coordinated, winningest athletes.
Now, imagine you were building a company from scratch. Let’s say this is some kind of tech company. Who would you want on your team? You’d want the genius computer whizzes. You’d want the best designers, the best financial officers, the best marketing guys. You’d want people who could design a product, make a product, sell the product, manage the money, and manage the personnel. You’d want the smartest, the best educated, the most creative.
Imagine you were a political leader, and you’re assembling your cabinet. Who would you want? You also would want the smartest and best educated people. But you would want other people, people who were connected, people who were powerful, people who could get things done. You’d want public policy wonks and power brokers, ideas people and influence people.
Now imagine that you’re building something far more important than a sports team, a company, or even a nation. Imagine that you’re going to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Let’s say that you happen to be God, and you come to Earth and you want to pick a dozen guys who will witness the things you do and say, who will train with you, and who will carry on your work after you’ve gone back to heaven. Who would you pick? You’d pick the religious leaders, right? You know, the people who know the Bible the best. Or you’d pick powerful people, like kings and princes. Maybe you’d want some rich people, and you always need a few smart, egghead types. You’d want people who are calm-headed, even-keeled, not people who act rashly, right? So, who would you pick?
Well, those are very hypothetical situations. The bad news is that none of us will be owners of professional sports teams or Fortune 500 companies. I’m pretty not one of us is going to be president or governor. But there is good news: none of us is God. And when it comes to that last situation, it’s not so hypothetical. God did come to Earth and he did pick a dozen men to witness what he did and said, and they did go on to tell other people about this God. But the men God picked were not the kind of guys that you or I would likely pick. And that’s another thing about Jesus that is stunning.
Today, we’re continuing our series through the Gospel of Luke, and we’re going to focus only on five verses. In these verses, we see that Jesus, who is still toward the beginning of his public ministry, is going pray and then choose twelve men out of his larger number of followers to be his apostles, his specially-commissioned messengers. And, suffice it to say, the twelve men are not the most powerful, most influential, or even the smartest men there are. But God knows what he’s doing, and he has a surprising way of doing things.
So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 6:12–16:
12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
This passage is short, and if you don’t know who Jesus is and what he came to do, you wouldn’t understand the significance of this passage. So, I’ll give us some context.
We’ve already seen in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is unique. He is no ordinary man. He had a conception unlike anyone: he was conceived in a virgin, without sex. Miraculously, the Holy Spirit caused Mary to be pregnant. And even before that time, we have strong clues that Jesus won’t simply be a miraculously-conceived man. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And even before this, the prophet Isaiah foretold of a time when it would be announced, “For unto us a child is born . . . and his name shall be called . . . Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). How could a child be born who is called “Mighty God”? How can God be born a child?
Well, that’s one of the greatest claims that Christianity makes. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe. And over two thousand years ago, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Son of God became a human being, first as an embryo, then a baby, then a child, then a man. And he did this without ceasing to be God. It’s a bit hard to grasp that Jesus is both God and man. We say that he’s one person with two natures, one divine and one human. This is one of the hardest things about Christianity to grasp, along with the Trinity. Just as we believe that there is one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we believe that Jesus is both God and man.
We believe that because it’s revealed in the Bible, and we believe that the Bible is God’s written word. Already in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve had some hints that Jesus is God. Gabriel said he was the Son of God, and Jesus claims to forgive sins—sins that were not committed directly against the man Jesus. When Jesus makes this claim, some of the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). And that’s the point; Jesus is God. We’ll get other hints as we go through Luke. One of the clearest passages in Scripture that says that Jesus is God is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The “Word” here is the Son of God, Jesus. And he is somehow both with God and is God. He is God—the Son of God—and he was with the Father from what is known as eternity past.
What’s interesting here is that Jesus prays to God—to God the Father, more specifically—before he chooses twelve men who will serve as his apostles. We may wonder why Jesus has to pray at all. If he’s God, can’t he just go ahead and pick these men? Doesn’t he know who he’s supposed to choose? And even if he has to pray, why does he pray all through the night?
The answer is that though Jesus is God, he lived his life primarily as a man. He never stopped being God, but he didn’t rely on his divine attributes to go through life. Every once in a while, he could call on his divine powers to heal and to forgive and to know things that ordinary people don’t know. But most of the time, he lived as a man, using the same resources that are available to us all, things like reading Scripture and praying. The reason why Jesus became a man was to fulfill God’s design for humanity. He came to live the perfect human life, because no one else has. We were made to love God and represent him and worship him and obey him. But we don’t do any of these things well or often, and certainly not perfectly. So, Jesus comes to live the perfect human life, to be the true image of God. That’s one of the reasons why he came.
Jesus came to do the will of his Father (John 6:38). The man Jesus relied completely on the Father during his time on Earth. As the perfectly obedient Son of God, Jesus spent time with his Father in prayer. When he was about to do something important, he prayed. The man Jesus wanted to talk to God the Father. He wanted to know the Father’s will.
So, we see Jesus praying on a mountain all through the night. Perhaps he went up a mountain simply to get away from the crowds that were following him. Perhaps we’re supposed to see echoes of Moses meeting with God on Mount Sinai. But the important thing is Jesus is praying before making an important decision. He’s about to choose twelve men who will be spend the next two or three years with him, men who will go on to tell the world about Jesus. To but it bluntly, Jesus couldn’t afford to screw this choice up. He had to get the right men, the ones God wanted.
So, Jesus prays throughout the night. And when it was day, Jesus calls his disciples to himself. This must be a larger group of Jesus’ followers. Literally, a disciple is a student. There were people who wanted to learn from Jesus. And out of this larger group of people, Jesus chooses twelve men, whom he named apostles.
The word apostle means someone who is sent, usually to be a messenger. The apostles are later said to be people who were with Jesus the whole time of his pubic ministry and who saw him after he later rose from the grave (Acts 1:21–22). Jesus’ life, his miracles, his teachings, and, later, his death and resurrection are so important that there must be witnesses, people who could go to the world and tell what they saw Jesus do.
Before we look at who these men are, we should ask an important question: why twelve? Why does Jesus choose twelve? Why not ten or fifteen? Jesus chooses twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. We know that because toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, he’ll say this to his disciples:
28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28–30).
Jesus is restoring, renewing, and recreating Israel, the people of God. This reminds us slightly of the book of Numbers, when Moses and Israel were still at Sinai. At Mount Sinai, God told Moses to take a census of the people of Israel. God told Moses that he would be assisted by one man from every tribe (Num. 1:1–44). Something similar is happening here. That’s why at the beginning of the book of Acts, when there are only eleven apostles, they must name a twelfth apostle. Jesus is rebuilding Israel. He will use these unlikely men to gather the true Israel, the people of faith.
Now, let’s take a look at who these apostles are. We’ve already met some of them in Luke 5. The list begins with four fishermen. Simon is better known as Peter, a name that Jesus gives him. He is the leader of the group. He’s often bold, even acting rashly. When Jesus is later arrested, he takes a sword and cuts off a soldier’s ear (John 18:10). Yet after that bold move, he is cowardly and denies knowing Jesus so he can save his life (Luke 22:54–62).
Simon’s brother, Andrew, is not as prominent among the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ earliest followers. In John’s Gospel, we see that he introduced Simon to Jesus (John 1:40–42). That’s when Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means “rock.”
The next two disciples are another pair of brothers and fishermen, James and John. They were partners with Peter and Andrew. It’s possible that they were cousins of Jesus (compare John 19:25 with Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40). James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples, along with Peter. John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20), the one who wrote the Gospel of John and John’s letters and the book of Revelation. James and John were known as the “sons of thunder,” probably because of episodes like one we’ll see later in Luke. This is Luke 9:51–54:
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Jewish people looked down on Samaritans. Add to that the fact that the people in this village didn’t receive Jesus, and you can see why James and John might be a bit put out. They were probably thinking of the good old days of the prophet Elijah, when he would call fire to come down from heaven to consume God’s enemies (see 1 Kgs. 18:20–40; 2 Kgs. 1). But Jesus rebukes them (verse 55).
We don’t know a lot about the next disciples. Philip was from Bethsaida, just like Peter and the other fishermen. He invited his friend Nathaniel to meet Jesus (John 1:45–46). Bartholomew is probably the same man as Nathaniel, since we only read about Nathaniel in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew appears in the other Gospels.
Matthew is the same person as Levi, the tax collector we met in Luke 5:27–32. Tax collectors were known as traitors since they served the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that had power of Israel. They were also known as being dishonest.
Thomas is most famous for doubting that Jesus rose from the grave (John 20:24–25). But when he saw the risen Jesus, he made the great confession, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He had also said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16).
We know very little about James the Son of Alphaeus. The same is true of Simon, who was also called the Zealot. Some have assumed that he was a revolutionary, part of a group of people who were against the Roman Empire. But this group of Zealots didn’t emerge until a few decades later and it’s just as possible that Simon was zealous for the Jewish law. We also don’t know much about Judas the son of James. He’s called Thaddeus by Matthew and Mark (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). John simply refers to him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” so we don’t confuse him with the more famous Judas (John 14:22).
And that brings us to Judas Iscariot. He was the treasurer of the apostles, handling their money. But we’re told by John that he helped himself to that money (John 12:4–6). Judas is infamous for betraying Jesus, telling the Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus how they could arrest him away from the crowds. That’s why Luke says that Judas “became a traitor.” Jesus’ arrest led to his trial and death. After Judas had realized what he did, he regretted his actions and gave back the money that he was paid to betray Jesus. But he couldn’t live with what he did, so he hanged himself (Matt. 27:3–10).
These are the men that God led Jesus to choose. There were no Bible scholars, no religious leaders, no politicians, no particularly wealthy men in the bunch. In most ways, these men were thoroughly unimpressive.
So, why does God choose these men? We’re never told explicitly. But the Bible states that God does as he pleases, that his will is perfect, and that he governs everything that happens. So, we trust he has good reasons for what he does.
We also know something else: God often chooses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish (in the world’s eyes) to shame those who are supposedly wise.
Consider this passage by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Paul is saying that God is truly wise, but God’s perfect wisdom is not what the world regards as wise. In the eyes of most people, what God does doesn’t make sense. At the time of Jesus, it didn’t make sense that God would become man and die on a cross. That’s because Jews knew that those who died in that way were cursed by God. Gentiles knew the cross was for enemies of the state, and the whole idea that there’s one true God who became man, died, and rose from the grave didn’t make sense to them.
But God truly knows what he’s doing. Paul says that Jews demand signs, or miracles. What greater miracle is there than for God to be come man and then rise from the grave after dying? Paul says Greeks seek wisdom. What wiser way to take care of the problem of sin, our rebellion against God, than for Jesus to bear that sin himself, absorbing the punishment that we deserve, so that all who are united to him can be forgiven?
God shows his wisdom by using unlikely people, the average person, the weak, the poor. God doesn’t need to use the powerful, the rich, the smartest guys in the room. That’s because God has infinite power, and he can do what he wants in spite of our limitations. If God were picking a team, he might pick all the chubby kids with two left feet. He does this so that he can take all the credit for his works. We cannot boast because God is the hero of the story. We are only recipients of God’s grace.
The fact that God used very ordinary men to build the church is something of a miracle. In fact, we might even say it’s proof that Christianity is the true religion. I’m taking a course on apologetics now. Apologetics is basically the study of why Christianity is true. The word comes from the Greek word apologia, which can mean “defense” or “reason.” The idea comes from 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word reason is a translation of apologia.
At any rate, I’ve been studying apologetics, including the history of how people have defended the faith against objections and how they have given reasons why people should put their trust in Jesus. And some of the older apologists said that the truth of Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that God grew the church out of a small group of common men. This is what one preacher, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), said
How many did the Church win over? Not two, or ten, or twenty, or a hundred, but almost every man living under the sun. With whose help did it win them over? With the help of eleven men. And these men were unlettered, ignorant, ineloquent, undistinguished, and poor. They could not rely on the fame of their homelands, on any abundance of wealth, or strength of body, or glorious reputation, or illustrious ancestry. They were neither forceful nor clever in speech; they could make no parade of knowledge. They were fishermen and tentmakers, men of a foreign tongue. They did not speak the same language as those whom they won over to the faith. Their speech—I mean Hebrew—was strange and different from all others. But it was with the help of these men that Christ founded this Church which reaches from one end of the world to the other.
The point is that unless God were working through these ordinary men, there’s no way a new religious movement could have spread throughout the world. These men didn’t have any political power or wealth. Judaism was tolerated by the Roman Empire, but Christianity was something new, something not protected by law. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar, the emperor, is not. This challenged the Roman Empire. Christians refused to bow down to the emperor and worship him or any of the other false gods in the Empire. To become a Christian was to go against Rome and the old order of Judaism. You wouldn’t do this, and you wouldn’t succeed if you did, unless God were behind it.
What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t just choose some ordinary men. He chooses a man who will be a traitor. The fact that Judas sold Jesus out wasn’t something that surprised God. God knew this all along. He always knows everything. Yet God chose Judas. I suppose someone had to betray Jesus so that he would die. One of the things the Bible says is that God has a plan for everything and that people are responsible for their actions. We see this most clearly at the cross (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). The fact that Judas was chosen was not an accident. Judas was responsible for his sin, but he was part of God’s plan.
And Jesus’ death was not an accident. Yes, people didn’t believe him and hated him, and that’s part of why he died. But ultimately, Jesus’ death was God’s plan to rescue his people from their sin. Earlier I said that Jesus came in part to live a perfect life, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity. The other reason why he came was to pay the penalty for our sin. Our sin is so offensive to God and so destructive to his creation that he must remove it. God is a perfect judge who sees all the evidence, and he must punish sin. Jesus’ death is the way that God punishes sins without destroying sinners.
Jesus prayed before choosing his disciples. He prayed before Peter made the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Luke 9:18–20). He prayed before he was transfigured, revealing his divine glory to Peter, James, and John (Luke 9:28–29). And he wrestled in prayer on the night he was arrested, the night before he died, because he knew that he was about to experience hell on earth (Luke 22:39–46). Jesus prayed for our benefit. And he still prays for us. He came and lived the perfect life for us and he died for us. If you put your trust in Jesus, you are freed from condemnation and the fear of death, you are forgiven, and you are a child of God.
So, what do we do with this passage? I think we should see a few things.
One, the fact that Jesus chooses the weak and the poor and the foolish should give us hope. We don’t have to be the world’s smartest, most powerful, and most talented people in order to know God. What we really need is to realize our need for salvation. When we realize our spiritual poverty and weakness, we’re in a place where we can come to Jesus. God chose twelve foolish men to be Jesus’ disciple, and God chose a vast amount of foolish people to be Christians. That may injure our pride, but it should give us hope.
Two, the fact that the disciples often made mistakes after Jesus called them should give us hope. Even Peter, who denied knowing Jesus, was forgiven. I think it’s possible that even Judas could have been forgiven, but he didn’t understand that. The difference between Judas and Peter is that one couldn’t see any hope. No matter what we’ve done, we can run to Jesus for forgiveness.
Three, Jesus prayed. He regularly spent time with his Father in heaven. And we should pray like Jesus. But we should remember that when we pray, God may not give us what we want. God doesn’t always give us easy answers. But he always gives us what we need. Remember, God led Jesus to pick Judas. Jesus had to go through great pain and suffering. If we trust Jesus, we don’t have to experience the punishment that he endured on the cross. But we may experience quite a bit of pain and suffering. Yet whatever trials we face are for our good and they are not the final chapter in the story. The final chapter for God’s people is eternal life in a restored, renewed, recreated world, a life in Paradise with God.
So, let us be thankful. Let us boast in Jesus and trust in him. And let us pray like him.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 544. Bock asserts that they are cousins, though I don’t think this as clear as he insists. ↑
- John Chrysostom, A Demonstration against the Pagans that Christ Is God 12.9, in William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader, to 1500, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 199. ↑
The following outline of the gospel, the Christian message of “good news,” will be presented in four parts: God, man (or human beings, if you want to be politically correct), Jesus, and response. I didn’t invent this basic outline; it’s been used by many, including Greg Gilbert in his recent What Is the Gospel? (I highly recommend that book, particularly because it is short and easy to read, and it also tells us what the gospel is not.) If you remember God, man, Jesus, and response, you’ll be able to share the gospel. (I’ll put a lot of Scripture references in the notes; I encourage you to look them up.)
Christianity is the story of God, who is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, good, perfect, and loving. He is also the creator. He created everything for his purposes, so that he would be glorified. When he created the universe, including our planet and everything on it, he made it good.
Christianity tells us that we have a purpose in life: to love God and to worship him. We are not cosmic accidents or animals. The universe didn’t create itself. The story of God explains why we exist and how the universe came to be.
Christianity is also the story of human beings, who were made to know God and to reflect his greatness. (Part of being made in God’s image means we are somewhat like him, but it also means we were made to reflect God’s glory, to represent him in his world.) We were made to be like God, and in some ways we are, but we have all rejected him and rebelled against him. Even though we see the evidence of God in all of nature, and even though we have a conscience that gives us a sense of right and wrong, we do not seek him or listen to what he says. Because the first human beings disobeyed God, nothing is the way God originally intended it. Because we disobey God, our lives are hard, we fight with each other, we get sick, and we die. Sin separates us from God, and it also separates us from each other and from the way we were originally made to me. Our problem is not so much individuals sins, but the power of sin, which is like a disease that corrupts us.
Because we disobey God, he has the right to punish us. He is a perfect judge, and the evidence shows that all of us deserve punishment, which means eternal separation from God and anything good.
Christianity tells us what is wrong with us and the world (sin). It tells us why things don’t seem right or feel right. It tells why we are capable of doing great and noble things and committing horrible acts of selfishness and destruction. This problem is one that we can’t fix. Our good deeds cannot compensate for our sin problem. No amount education, medicine, or technology can fix us and this world.
Christianity is, finally, the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the really good news, because only Jesus can fix our problem of rebellion against God. He is the only one who can put us back together with God, and one day he will make all things new.
In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son.  Because he is God, he is also eternal, but he became man when he was born of the virgin, Mary. Unlike us, he lived a perfect life, obeying God the Father, and loving others. Though we deserve punishment, Jesus took our punishment for us when he died on the cross. Crucifixion was a horrible, painful death that the Roman Empire used for criminals. Jesus, our substitute, died such a horrible death because our disobedience to God had to be punished. Only Jesus’ death can justify us (make us innocent in God’s eyes).
When Jesus rose from the grave on the third day after his death, he showed that his sacrifice on the cross paid the penalty for sin. Jesus’ resurrection gives us hope and shows us that one day all of his followers will have their own future resurrection.
Christianity tells us how the world and everything in it can be fixed. It gives us a purpose for living, it tells us the problem, and it gives us the solution.
The good news of Christianity is that everyone who turns from their rebellion against God and loves, trusts, and obeys Jesus is forgiven of all wrongdoing. Everyone who believes this message is declared innocent by God. Everyone who believes this message will one day live forever in a perfect world, which Jesus will one day create when he returns.
In order to be part of this good news, you must stop living for yourself and start living for God. This starts with believing that God is who he says he is in the Bible. It starts by trusting that Jesus’ death pays the price for everything wrong you have ever done. And it starts when you follow him. This means learning about him by reading your Bible. It means praying to God and having a personal relationship with him. And it means becoming part of a community of other believers, a community we call church.
Being a Christian is not always easy. It means our lives will be permanently changed. God changes us by giving us the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one true God. The Spirit changes us from the inside out, by giving us new hearts, by guiding us, and by helping us follow Jesus.
Those who do not know Christ are lost. They are without hope in this world, and they are desperately trying to find something that will satisfy their souls. They search for meaning in consumerism, relationships, and achievements, but none of these things will satisfy. They keep drinking water that won’t satisfy their spiritual thirst. Christians are not better than non-Christians. They are simply beggars who know where to get bread. Or, to put it a different way, they know where to get the living water that will cause them to thirst no more (John 4:10–14). The gospel is good news and it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
- Ps. 90:2; Isa. 41:4; Rev. 1:8 ↑
- Gen. 18:14; Ps. 115:3; Matt. 19:26; Rev. 4:8. ↑
- Pss. 139:1–6; 147:4–5; Jer. 20:12; 1 John 3:20; Rev. 2:23. ↑
- 1 Kgs. 8:27–29. Ps. 139:7–12; Jer. 23:23–24. ↑
- 1 Chron. 16:34; 2 Chron. 5:13; Pss. 106:1; 107:1; 118:1; 136:1; Jer. 33:11; Mark 10:18. ↑
- Matt. 5:48. ↑
- Exod. 34:6–7; 1 John 4:8. ↑
- Gen. 1–2; Ps. 33:6,9; John 1:3; Acts 17:24–27; Col. 1:15–16; Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11. ↑
- Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16. ↑
- Gen. 1:31. ↑
- Gen. 1:26–27; see also Ps. 8:3–8. ↑
- Gen. 3; 1 Kgs. 8:46; Rom. 1:18–32; 3:23; 1 John 1:8. Consider also Eccl. 7:20, 29; Eph. 2:3. ↑
- Ps. 19:1–6; Rom. 1:18–32; 2:14–16. ↑
- Gen. 3:16–19; Rom. 6:23. ↑
- Isa. 59:1–2; James 4:1–4. ↑
- Consider Exod. 34:6–7; Hab. 1:13. ↑
- Gen. 18:25; Ps. 7:11; Isa. 33:22; Rev. 16:4–5. ↑
- Matt. 25:31–46; 2 Thess. 1:5–12; Rev. 20:14; 21:8. ↑
- Isa. 64:6. ↑
- Rev. 21:5. ↑
- John 3:16–17; Rom. 5:6–11; Gal. 4:3–7. ↑
- John 1:1–2; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; 2 Pet. 1:1. ↑
- John 1:14; Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–45. ↑
- The four Gospels bear witness to this; see also Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5. ↑
- John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Deut. 21:22–23/Gal. 3:13; Col. 2:13–14; Isa. 53:4–17/1 Pet. 2:22–25. ↑
- Rom. 3:20–16; Gal. 2:16–17. ↑
- See Rom. 4:24–25. ↑
- 1 Cor. 15. ↑
- There are many verses that indicate a proper response to Christ, including Acts 2:28; 3:19–21; 16:30–31; 17:30–31; 26:19–20. See also the entire book of 1 John. For verses on true faith, see Rom. 4:13–25; James 2:14–26; Heb. 11. ↑
- John 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:17. ↑
- Rom. 5:5; Eph. 1:13–14. The Trinity is one God in three Persons. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message based on John 20. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, because all who trust in him, all who embrace him as Savior, Lord, and God, will have a resurrected life, too. The only way to eternal life and peace is Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that it’s April. Only in the past few days has it started to feel like spring. It was a long winter, and we still have about three, small, stubborn mounds of snow at the edge of the parking lot. But the rest of the snow has melted, and the temperature is getting a bit warmer. And before too long things will start to get greener.
I love it when spring arrives, because it gives us a feeling of hope. We see signs of life after a long period of dead leaves and bare branches. The seasons of nature remind us of the seasons of life, and we can see signs of both new life and death all around us. Five weeks ago, we got a new dog, a puppy who was about twelve weeks old at the time. She’s already grown quite a bit, and she can be very playful. On the other hand, we look at our older dog, who at twelve years old is slowing down and sometimes walks with a limp.
But our lives—or the lives of our pets—aren’t like the seasons. The seasons come and go in cycles. Our lives aren’t cyclical; they only move in one direction. While we all were young at one point (if we’re not young now), we know that we’re getting older, and that eventually our bodies will decay and die. Even this past week, I saw evidence of that. Last Sunday night, I found out that the wife of a family friend died. She was probably only in her mid-thirties. She had a rare disease that caused her body to create way too many of one protein and not enough of the corresponding protein. And though she had some experimental treatments with stem cells, she couldn’t be healed. I only met her on two occasions, but I was very sad to hear about her death. She left behind a husband and two young children.
Someone else I know this week died. He was in his late sixties and had multiple health problems, including a major stroke several years ago. I saw him the day before he died. He was having trouble breathing and he wasn’t very responsive, in part because he was on morphine and was tired. He couldn’t talk. But with a bit of effort he could open his eyes and nod his head. Viewed from one perspective, it was sad to see him in the shape he was in. He was in his bed, leaning to one side, a tube bringing oxygen to his gaping mouth. He had lost quite a bit of weight, his breathing was labored, and his skin was very pale and unhealthy looking.
But viewed from another perspective, his situation wasn’t sad. And neither was his death. That’s because trusted that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. He trusted that Jesus’ perfect, righteous life was credited to his account and that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all his sins. He trusted that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, the first day being the day when Jesus was killed by crucifixion. He believed that Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of who Jesus is and what his death accomplished. He believed that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). And because he believed that, and because he embraced Jesus as his Savior, Lord, and God, I knew that this was not the end of his story. I looked at him and said, “One day, you’ll get a resurrected body, a perfect body that won’t have all these problems, a body that will never die.”
The great claim of Christianity is that there is eternal life for those who are united to Jesus. Those who trust Jesus will die. But as Jesus once said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised from the dead and their bodies will be transformed, or glorified, so that they will be immortal. This will happen when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. And the reason we trust that this will happen is because almost two thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the first installment of a new creation, a world that is made perfect, a world in which there is no more evil, disease, war, or death.
This sounds almost too good to be true. Everything in life seems to head towards a fall and the long death of winter. Can there really be an ultimate spring and an endless summer? Can there really be eternal life after death?
Well, that is the claim of Christianity. And I believe it is true. The reason I believe that Christianity is true is because it makes the most sense of life, because it provides us great hope, and because there is evidence that supports its claims.
Today, I want us to see three things about Jesus and his resurrection. One, no one would have fabricated this story. Two, I want us to see why Jesus lived, died, and rose again. And, three, I want us to see what a right response to Jesus looks like. We’ll do that by taking a look at what the Gospel of John says about Jesus’ resurrection.
We’re going to read John 20 today. We’ll start by reading verses 1–13:
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
It’s Sunday, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Jesus. In the other Gospels, we’re told that Mary was with some other women, and that they went to the tomb to put spices on Jesus’ body. This was a form of embalming a body; the spices would help cover the smell of the decomposing body. Because Jesus was hastily buried, they didn’t have the opportunity to do this before he was put in the tomb.
It’s quite clear that Mary wasn’t expecting Jesus to be resurrected from the grave. She thinks some people have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. She says this to Peter and John (“the other disciple”) and to the angels. And it seems like the disciples weren’t really expecting this. In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). Mark says that the women were afraid after they saw the empty tomb (Mark 16:8). Matthew says that even after they saw the risen Jesus, some of the disciples doubted (Matt. 28:17).
The point is that no one seemed to believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. People in Jesus’ day knew dead people stayed dead. British theologian N. T. Wright says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing. He also says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23-24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’” The apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history.
If no one was expecting Jesus’ resurrection, we shouldn’t think that people simply made this story up. There is simply no evidence that a group of people fabricated this story. The details of the story would be too unbelievable to make up. After all, if a Jewish person were to make this story up, they wouldn’t have women being the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases. Now, that’s not a biblical or Christian view of women, but that was what people believed in that day. If you were making up a story, you wouldn’t have women as the first witnesses. You would likely have rich men or priests see the empty tomb first.
Also, the apostles would have nothing to gain by making up this story. Christianity put them at odds with the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that controlled the whole area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This area included good portions of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Christians occasionally died because of their faith. The earliest Christians were Jews, and the Roman Empire tolerated the Jewish religion. But it did not tolerate Christianity for almost three hundred years. Who would make up a story that would lead to their own death?
There are many other reasons to believe that the resurrection is true. You can read about them in the article that was included with your bulletin. If you read that article, you’ll see that it points you to some online resources if you want to learn more.
The second thing I want us to see is why Jesus’ death and resurrection matter. Let’s read verses 14–23:
14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
It was early in the morning and still dark when Mary went to the tomb. And she was now weeping. So, it’s understandable that she wouldn’t recognize Jesus. She assumes this man who is now talking to her is a gardener. That’s a reasonable guess, since Jesus was crucified and buried in a garden (John 19:41). When Mary hears her own name called by Jesus, she recognizes who is talking to her. Perhaps that’s an echo of what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel. He called himself the good shepherd who leads and lays down his life for his people, his sheep. He said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).
But perhaps Mary wasn’t so mistaken. Maybe Jesus is a bit of a gardener. Bear with me for a moment. The big story of the Bible says that God created human beings in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26), to reflect his glory, to serve him and to obey him. Essentially, we were made to know and love God, to live all of life under God’s authority, and to let others know about God, too. At the beginning of the Bible, God made the first two human beings and he put them in a garden. I think this is a literal event that also has symbolic meaning. The first human beings were supposed to keep the garden (Gen. 2:15) and they were supposed to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). And if you think about it, you start to get this image: Outside the garden is wilderness, a wild, undeveloped area. And as God’s image bearers worshiped and obeyed God and as they were fruitful and multiplied, having children who also worshiped God, they would be able to expand the garden until it filled the whole earth so that it became a paradise, full of the glory of God.
Now, that sounds like a beautiful thing. But there’s a problem. The first human beings didn’t trust God and obey him. They doubted his goodness. They wanted to be like God. In effect, they tried to remove God from his throne. As a result, God kicked them out of the garden, into the wilderness. And as a partial punishment for sin, God put his creation under a curse. Now, life would be hard; people would die. God did this to limit the rebellion of human beings. God loves his creation and doesn’t want evil—particularly the evil of rebellious human beings—to ruin it.
Now, if you’re reading the Bible thoughtfully and you read the first three chapters of the Bible, you may wonder, “How can we get back to the garden? How can we get back into God’s presence? How can we have a right relationship with him? How can go to a place where we will never die?”
As you read the Old Testament, you see how all human beings are rebellious. And, frankly, you don’t have to read the Bible to see that. Just look around. Look at how rebellious even little children can be. We can’t make our lives into a garden. We can’t remove all the weeds from our lives, let alone the whole world. People have tried, and they have failed, again and again.
The only solution comes from God. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world. He did that in part so that Jesus could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. Jesus is the only person who perfectly loved, obeyed, worshiped, and served God. He is the ultimate image bearer of God, the true image and likeness of God. He is the perfect human being, the only one who has any right to live in the garden of God.
But how can Jesus bring people like us into the garden? We are made unclean by our sin, our disobedience to God, our rebellion against him, our ignoring him. God is a perfect judge who must make sure that the guilty receive the appropriate sentence for their crimes. God cannot allow rebels to live in his garden, so the appropriate sentence is death. Really, when we choose to turn away from God, we turn away from the source of life, and we find a world of death. No one forces us to do this. We choose this willingly, because we don’t love God.
The only way that Jesus can bring us into the garden is to take that sentence of death on himself. That’s what he did on the cross. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. He endured God’s punishment against sinners on the cross. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
And when Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first fruits of a new garden. Quite literally, the resurrected Jesus came out of the garden tomb as an immortal being, the second Adam planted in a garden. And he later ascended to heaven, where he is now with God the Father, praying and pleading for his people, serving as their great high priest. But someday he will come again, to judge everyone who has ever lived. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, will live in a garden paradise forever (Rev. 22:1–5 echoes the garden imagery of Gen. 2).
Jesus told his disciples, “Peace be with you.” The only way to have real peace in this life, the only way to have peace with God, is to know Jesus. Jesus said to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). That doesn’t mean that knowing facts about God gives us eternal life. No, it means we must know God because we have a relationship with him. That is what brings us peace. We don’t earn a relationship with God. We don’t make ourselves acceptable to God. No, we must simply receive salvation as a gift.
Now, I want us to see what a right relationship with God looks like. Let’s read verses 24–31:
24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas gets a bad rap. He’s known as “doubting Thomas. For him, seeing is believing. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16). So, Thomas was a person who followed Jesus and trusted him. Still, he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen.
Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. Instead, he appears to him and to the rest of the disciples on the following Sunday. And Jesus invites Thomas to see him and to touch him.
When Thomas see Jesus, he cannot help but say, “My Lord and my God!” One of John’s goals in writing his Gospel is to make it clear that Jesus is God. He begins his Gospel that way (John 1:1) and here at the end he records Thomas’ confession of faith.
People who truly believe in Jesus know that he is Lord and God. I think we generally understand what the word “God” means, but it’s hard for us to understand what “Lord” means. When we hear that word, we may think of the House of Lords in London. The word sounds antiquated. But John’s initial readers would have known what was being said. During this time, the superpower of the world was the Roman Empire, and its leader was the emperor, also known as Caesar. And Caesar was known as Lord. According to one dictionary, Lord means “one having power and authority over others.” Caesar was the most powerful man in the world.
He wasn’t just known as Lord, but he was also known as “the son of God” and a “savior.” There is an inscription of a decree made in 9 BC by an official in the eastern part of the Roman Empire that says the birthday of Augustus—the emperor reigning over the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born—should be celebrated. This official wanted the calendar to be reset to the emperor’s birthday, in 63 BC. The inscription claims that Augustus was a “savior” and “our god.” Coins in the Roman Empire had titles of the emperor on them: divi filius (“son of God”) and pontifex maximus (“greatest priest”). In the Roman Empire, the Caesar was worshiped as a god.
So, when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” he’s saying that Jesus is the true God, the true Lord, the true King, the world’s true ruler and ultimate authority. Thomas swears his allegiance to Jesus, not to Caesar.
The earliest Christians were willing to die rather than compromise that allegiance to Jesus. They would rather die than bow before the emperor and worship him. One of John’s students was a man named Polycarp (69–155), who became the bishop of Smyrna, which is now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey. He became a martyr, a Christian who died for his faith. At the time of his execution, some people tried to convince him to worship the emperor and therefore be saved from death. They said, “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense” (and other words to this effect) “and thereby saving yourself?” But Polycarp refused. Then, “the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’” When Polycarp was told he would be burned by fire, he said, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”
True Christians recognize that Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord and God. I don’t think we have proper categories to understand what “Lord” really means. The most powerful man on earth is probably the president of our country, yet no matter who is in the White House, it seems like at least half the country hates him and doesn’t recognize his authority. And the president’s authority is limited, of course. But Jesus is Lord over everything. And when we come to him as Savior, he becomes Lord over all of our lives, not just our Sunday mornings or whenever we feel like being religious.
I think the reason many people don’t embrace Jesus is that issue of authority. We simply don’t want someone else to be Lord over our lives. That is why people reject Christianity. It’s not because Christianity is irrational or illogical. It’s not because there is no evidence to support the claims of Christianity. We have eyewitness testimony from several different witnesses, and the basic claims of Christianity are supported by philosophy and science. I think people often ignore that evidence because they don’t want a Lord.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel, an atheist, wrote these words several years ago: “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”
We don’t want there to be a Lord God because we don’t want someone telling us what we can and can’t do, particularly in important areas of our lives like sex, marriage, money, how we use our time, and how we treat people who are different from us. I think people know that the Christian life isn’t an easy one, and they don’t want to take what they think is the hard road. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Yet if we reject Jesus because we reject his authority, we also reject his blessings. He said that those who believe—even when they haven’t seen him in the flesh—are blessed. John says he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe and have eternal life in Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God and have eternal life. But if there’s no Lord Jesus in and over your life, there’s no eternal life for you. So many people say, “Rest in peace,” after someone has died. I’m here to tell you the truth: the only way to rest in peace is to have a right relationship with Jesus, the kind of relationship that Thomas and Mary Magdalene had. We will all have that moment when our bodies will fail. We all will die, whether in a sudden accident or slowly on a bed, tubes connected to our bodies, morphine in our veins. What happens next? Will you have eternal peace? You will if Jesus is your Lord and God.
We will all come under some authority. Something will rule over us, whether it’s something that we treasure the most or even our own desires. Entertainment, pleasure, money, politics, and almost anything else can function as our lord and god. But Jesus is the only God who would sacrifice his life for you. He’s the only Lord who can die for your sins and make you right with God. No one else, and nothing else will do that for you. I urge you to put your trust in him. And if you don’t know Jesus, please talk to me. I would love to help you know him and follow him.
- “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76. ↑
- N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192. ↑
- Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” ↑
- Brian Watson, “Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ. ↑
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003). ↑
- John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 133. ↑
- M. Eugene Boring, “Gospel, Message,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 2:630. ↑
- Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones, 2:458, quoted in Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 133. ↑
- The Martyrdom of Polycarp 8, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 233. ↑
- The Martyrdom of Polycarp 9, in ibid., 235. ↑
- The Martyrdom of Polycarp 11, in ibid. ↑
- Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130. ↑
- Ibid., 131. ↑
- G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World? (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912), 48. ↑
The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.
These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city. In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly. Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.
This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:
We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.
Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.
New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.
When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.
So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”
But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”
Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.
What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.
When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.
And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.
This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.
The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!
This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.” Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.
Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:
Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.
The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.
The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.
Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.
As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.
But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.
These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.
Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.
But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.
Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.
Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.
Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?
I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.
If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.
And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says. We need to keep coming back to Jesus.
Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.
Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.
The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.
People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.
Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.
I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.
We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?
Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).
- Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a ↑
- An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html ↑
- Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/ ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497. ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251. ↑
- “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” ↑
Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.
Who are you? What is your identity? If our identity is found in our jobs, feelings, desires, accomplishments, or relationships, then our identity won’t be stable and it can be crushed. But our identity can be found in one who never fails. Jesus takes sinful people, losers and failures, and turns them into his people. Find out why Jesus gives us great hope. Pastor Brian Watson preaches this message based on Luke 5:1-11.
Who do you think you are?
That’s an important question. I don’t mean, what are you? The question of what human beings are is an important one, to be sure. But I have something far more personal in mind. Who are you? What is your identity?
The question of identity is an important one. It concerns how we think of ourselves and how we think of others. Think about what happens when you meet someone new. You start to identify that person by categories. We think of what a person looks like, his or her gender and age and looks, how that person is dressed, how they speak and act, and so on. When we get to know people, we often ask, “What do you do?” We mean, “What do you do for work?” or, “What do you do for a living?” That’s another way of identifying someone. We may ask, “Where are you from?” That, too, is a way of placing that person in a certain category.
The question of identity has also come front-and-center in many important political and cultural debates. The term “identity politics” addresses the issue of how people’s identity affects their politics. As far as I can tell, this began as an attempt to organize minority voices, which isn’t a bad thing at all. If, say, people who have a certain skin color and/or ethnicity aren’t getting their voices heard in the public square, it’s good for them to band together and make their views known. But what has happened is that now we pigeonhole people according to gender, skin color, religion, and sexual orientation, among other things. Instead of evaluating people according “to the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it, we assume that if people are white male Christians, they must think this way, or can’t possibly have anything to say to that issue. It seems that instead of getting less prejudiced, we’re getting more prejudiced, putting everyone into camps before we even know what each person is really like.
Today, many people identify themselves according to their desires, and this creates new classes of people. People who are transgender have a biological sex, yet they self-identify as having a different gender, the one usually associated with the opposite sex. So, a transgender man is a biological woman who feels that she is a man. People who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual identify themselves according to sexual desires. These identities are not rooted in biology, but only in desire. Imagine if you self-identified according to other dispositions, like pride, anger, lust, jealousy, and covetousness.
Our identities can also be based around our accomplishments or failures. We can find our self-worth in our jobs, our awards, our degrees, the amount of money we’ve made, or the way that people view us. Or, we can think of all the jobs we’ve lost, the awards we failed to earn, the degrees we never earned, the money we’ve lost, and the relationships we’ve lost.
What is your identity? Is it based on what you do for a living? Your political views? Your ethnicity? Your looks? Your desires? Your achievements? Your failures? When you think of yourself, what comes to mind? Who are you?
I ask this question because today we’re going to look at a passage of the Gospel of Luke that deals with identity. We’ve been studying this biography of Jesus for about three months, and we’ve seen that Jesus has recently begun his public ministry. He has preached a message of God’s kingdom and he has healed people. Now, he gathers some coworkers to himself. The story is rather simple: Jesus calls Simon Peter and a couple of associates to be his followers. They were fishermen, but Jesus gives them a new vocation: instead of catching fish, they will now catch people. (Don’t take that literally—I’ll explain what that means in a bit.) At the heart of this story is identity. Peter saw himself as a humble fisherman and, besides that, a sinful man. Yet Jesus summons Peter to take on a new identity. We might read this story as just a bit of religious history, but it’s much more than that. Jesus is still in the habit of calling sinful people to himself, giving them new identities and new roles to play.
So, with that in mind, let’s read Luke 5:1–11:
1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
As I said, the story is fairly simple, but I’ll give us a few details to explain. Jesus is at the “lake of Gennesaret,” which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been gaining a following, so there were people there who wanted “to hear the word of God.” Jesus’ words are God’s words. The crowd must have left little room for Jesus to preach. We don’t know exactly where Jesus was, but it was possible that he was at a location south of Capernaum where there was a bay that formed a natural amphitheater. “Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.” To get an appropriate place to speak to this crowd, Jesus gets in a fishing boat and has its owner, Simon Peter, sail out a little way from the shore. Jesus then preaches from the boat.
Again, Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was preaching. We’ll hear a lot more of Jesus’ preaching as we go through the gospel. Luke is more concerned with what happens next. After Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Simon to try to fish. Now, we’re told that Simon and the other fishermen were washing the nets. This was probably a trammel net, which created a vertical wall of three layers of netting that caught fish. Because of the complexity of the nets, they needed to be washed after use. (I suppose the nets trapped weeds as well as fish.) The fact that the fishermen were washing the nets meant they were done fishing.
Simon’s response to Jesus in verse 5 is a bit skeptical, but it also shows his faith. He says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” It’s as if he’s saying, “Jesus, why are you telling us to fish. We’ve been fishing for hours and haven’t caught a thing!” But Simon also says, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Simon’s experience tells him he won’t catch anything. It doesn’t seem likely at all. But he also trusts Jesus’ word. In chapter 4, we saw that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by his word (Luke 4:38–39), so Simon knows that Jesus’ word is powerful. He may not realize who Jesus is yet, but he knows Jesus is someone he should listen to.
So, Simon obeys Jesus, and when he does, he finds that Jesus was right. The nets catch so much fish that they start to break. In fact, the haul was so large that Simon has to call his partners, James and John, to bring their boat. And when the fish are divided between both boats, those boats start to sink. This is no ordinary catch. How did this happen? Well, Jesus is the God-man. It’s possible that either he commanded those fish to be there at that exact time, or he knew they would be swimming by at that time and could be caught if only the nets were in place. Either way, this is a display of Jesus’ power over nature.
When all the fish are in the boats, Simon doesn’t worry about the damage to the nets or the fact that the boats may sink. No, he doesn’t worry about that at all. Instead, he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why would Simon say something like that? Because he knows he’s in the presence of the divine. He may not realize that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but he knows that Jesus is no ordinary man, and that somehow Jesus is associated with God. His response may seem strange, but it’s perfectly natural, and fits a pattern that we see in the pages of the Bible. When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). He realized he and his fellow Israelites had spoken sinfully. When the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of God, he fell on his face (Ezek. 1:28). The same John in this passage, one of Jesus’ specially-commissioned followers, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. John reports, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
Why do these people respond this way? They realize who God is. They know God is perfect. God is pure. And when we see God’s holy, righteous, pure, perfection, we also see how very imperfect and impure and unrighteous we are. Who are we in comparison to God? If you were a fisherman, it would be intimidating to be in the presence of the world’s greatest fisherman. But how would you feel if you were in the presence of the one who created fish? But it’s more than that. Sin is a rebellion against God. And it’s more than just bad choices. It’s deliberately doing what is wrong. More than that, sin is a power that corrupts and contaminates us. It turns us away from God and turns us in upon ourselves, thinking that the world revolves around us. Only when we’re called out of that inward gaze, when we face the very foundation of reality, the Creator himself, do we see the horror of our own sin. If we don’t encounter God, we will never say, “I am a sinful man,” or, “I am a sinful woman.” We may, “Oh, I’ve made some mistakes,” but that’s different. Mistakes can be honest or unintentional. But sins are crimes, violations of a holy God’s will. And until we see God for who he truly is, we’ll never understand the depth of our sin.
And unless we know the depth of our sin, we’ll never truly understand the depths of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace. Think of the way Jesus deals with Simon. Jesus already knows that Simon is a sinful man. And he never says, “No, Simon, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jesus would agree with Simon’s self-assessment. But Jesus doesn’t condemn him. No, Jesus tells Simon and his partners, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” He actually says, quite literally, “from now you will be catching men alive.” This is a bit puzzling. Of course, it’s not meant to be taken literally. What Jesus means is that they had previously spent their lives catching fish. Of course, those fish would die and be sold for food. Jesus doesn’t mean they will hunt down people. What he means is that they will be gathering people for Jesus. They will go and tell others about Jesus, about who he is and the forgiveness that he offers sinful people. A couple of weeks from now, we’ll see Jesus respond to some Jewish religious leaders who question why he spends time with obviously sinful people. Jesus says, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).
How do Simon and his partners respond? Earlier, Jesus had told them to let down their nets, and they let their nets drop into the water to catch more fish. Now, they let down their nets—not to catch more fish, but to leave their old lives of fishing behind. They drop everything and follow Jesus. They trust his word and they follow him.
The passage is rather simple, but it’s profound. On one hand, we can see this as simply a bit of history. Jesus starts to call twelve men to himself. These twelve will follow Jesus, learn from him, see the miracles he performed, and then witness his death and resurrection. He happened to call some fishermen to join him, he performed a miracle to show them something of his identity, and they followed him.
But this passage reveals a paradigm: Jesus deliberately calls humble, sinful people to follow him. And those who follow Jesus trust his word and they leave their old lives behind. They have new identities and a new role to play in life.
And this is great news. Earlier, I said that we all have identities. Often, people identify themselves by their group, their people, their tribe, as it were. Everyone is labeled, and we even label ourselves. These labels have to do with gender, age, skin color, ethnicity, where we grew up, our socioeconomic status. We put other people and even ourselves in neat little boxes. But that isn’t liberating. It’s suffocating. Why should those accidental properties define us? I can’t control the fact that I was born in 1976 to a white family, that I have blue eyes, that I’m 6’2”, that I have this set of genes, and so on. All those things are important parts of who I am, but why should they define me?
And why should our desires determine who we are? What if our desires are harmful? What if we desire things that are contrary to God’s design for our lives? Our feelings shouldn’t determine who we are. What if our feelings are eating us up? What if our feelings consist of anxiety and depression?
If we build our identity on past successes, what happens if we fail in the present, or in the future? What then? And what happens when we think of ourselves and all we think about are our failures? How can we get an identity that isn’t destroyed by all the ways we’ve made a mess of our lives?
The same could be said of relationships. If we build our primary identity on our status as husband or wife, what happens if our spouse leaves us or dies? If our primary identity is mother or father, what happens when our kids don’t turn out the way we hoped the would be, or what happens if, God forbid, they die?
What happens if we never had the family we wanted, the career we wanted, the life we wanted? How can we have an identity that is positive?
I want to press this home a little further. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a wise, older friend. I was telling him about some recent difficulties that I’ve had. And I even told him that I’ve had a difficult time, emotionally speaking, over the last two years. I said that there was a point when I wanted to get out of my life. I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to hit the reset button, to start all over again, to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I remember telling friends that I felt like the opposite of King Midas. You may remember the story of King Midas: everything he touched turned to gold. I felt like every good gift that God had given me I turned to garbage.
Well, my friend said something very interesting. He said that being stuck with ourselves forever is hell. What he meant was that if we are stuck with ourselves and are not redeemed, not saved, not transformed, then that is hell. To be unchanged and without hope, and to be stuck with our old identities, is a kind of hell.
Some of the most profound thoughts about personal identity have come from the great theologian Augustine. In his famous book, the Confessions, he talks about how he became a Christian. He first pursued a life of pleasure and non-Christian philosophies. Reflecting back on that time, he writes, “I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Where is there where I cannot pursue myself?” Over sixteen hundred years before I had these thoughts, Augustine had them first. Human nature doesn’t change.
Don’t all of us wish we were different? Maybe we wish we had a different family, a different career, a different station in life, or even a different body. This is what all of us feel. I’ve felt it. Augustine felt it. I’m sure you have, too.
When Augustine became a Christian, he realized the depth of his sin. He confessed, “My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.” We were made for God, to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him. But instead of treasuring the Creator, we treasure his creation. Instead of loving the Giver of all good gifts, we make idols of the gifts and ignore the Giver.
If this is the human condition, where can we go for help? Where can we find hope? How can we get new identities? How can we be changed?
The good news is that Jesus offers us new identities. He offers us transformation. He offers us change. And, in the end, he will bring about that change.
But first, we must realize that we have sinned. And we must own that fact.
Last week, I read a fascinating little book called The Riddle of Life. It was written by a Dutch missionary named Johan Bavinck over fifty years ago and it was recently translated into English. This book dares to ask the big questions of life, such as, “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” In the course of the book, Bavinck describes the nature of sin. He says, “In our hearts we carry a goodly number of passions, and we are loath to reveal these most intimate thoughts to others, because we are well aware that they are not at all what they should be.” Deep down, we know we have thoughts and desires that we should be ashamed of. And we all know we have done things we shouldn’t have. In short, if we’re honest, we know we’re not right.
But there comes a choice. Do we admit that we’re not right, or do we talk ourselves into thinking that we’re okay, or we’re not as bad as those people over there?
The proper response to an encounter with God is to own our sin, not to shift the blame. Bavinck addresses this issue, too. He writes,
As much as possible, we want to blame our shortcomings on others and on institutions outside us. We continually want to rid ourselves of all blame, while the only route to real salvation is that we fully own up to our guilt, admit that the emptiness dwells in our own soul. To put it differently: we are inclined to explain our suffering in such a way that we are victims of hostile powers outside ourselves. Our victim-obsession deprives us of the real incentive to essential conversion. Thus the first thing we have to do is to recognize that we are totally on the wrong track, that our lives completely lack a goal, that we ourselves are entirely to blame, and that the fundamental fault lies first of all within ourselves. Only then have we arrived at the heart of the matter.
That quote is so very relevant for our world today. We cannot blame our sin on others, on outside forces or institutions. Yes, we may have been wronged by others. But we have wronged others, too. And we have to admit that we’ve not loved God or wanted to live life on his terms. Bavinck writes, “The real reason for denying sin is our constant effort to wrestle free from God and to resist his will.” In order to come back to God, we must first admit this and seek his forgiveness.
To know God is to know you’re a sinner. To know you’re a sinner is the first step to knowing the Savior. Jesus knows your sin. As God, he knows everything. Yet he still came and died for everyone who would simply trust him, who would run to him for refuge, who would come to him to find a new identity.
Jesus knew that Simon was a sinful man. Simon knew he had failed in life. He even failed at fishing. But what does Jesus say? “Let down your nets.” “But Jesus, we’ve fished all night and haven’t caught anything!” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, get away from me, I’m a sinful man. You don’t know the things I’ve done.” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, I can’t be of any use to God. I’m such a loser.” “Let down your nets.”
Simon didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. But there’s one thing he had. He had confidence in Jesus’ words. So, at Jesus’ word, he tried fishing again. And he found that Jesus was right. And after he confessed his sin to Jesus, he let down his nets. He left behind his life of fishing and became an evangelist, catching people not to die, not to be sold and enslaved, but so that they would have eternal life, and new identities. In fact, Simon was given a new identity and even a new name. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus first meets Simon, he says, “‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42). Cephas and Peter both mean “rock.” In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter says that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16–18). Simon went from a humble, sinful fisherman to being Peter, the rock, one of the first leaders of the church. He went from sinner to saint and son of God.
This wasn’t because Simon cleaned himself up and atoned for his own sins. Jesus can call sinful people to himself and tell them that they will catch men alive, because Jesus allowed himself to be caught and killed. Though Jesus is the perfect Son of God, the God-man, the only person who has never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and an enemy of the state. He was tortured and crucified, killed in a brutal way. This was because sinful people hated him, but it was also God’s plan. God made a way for sinners to have their sins punished when Jesus died on the cross. And God made a way for sinners to be clothed in Jesus’ righteous status, receiving credit for his perfect life. This is a gift. We call this grace.
You can have this, too, if you trust Jesus’ word. Do you trust that God can forgive you? Do you trust that you can be regarded as perfect, as clean, as sinless? God promised this in the new covenant, the terms for his relationship with his people: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Do you believe that is true? Do you believe that God can forgive you and cast aside all your failures? Do you believe that God is good enough that he would send his precious Son into the world to receive the penalty that you deserve? Do you believe that Jesus would lay down his own life to rescue yours?
The Bible also says that the world is still broken, marred by sin. But one day Jesus will return to settle all accounts. He will right all wrongs. His people will be raised from the dead and receive new bodies that can never die. Do you believe that could happen? Do you trust that it will?
You may think this is too good to be true. You may not understand it all. But you can still be like Peter and say, “I don’t think this can happen, but because you say so, Jesus, I’ll trust you. I’ll follow you.”
You may not have to change your job like Simon Peter did. Letting down your nets may be leaving behind some old, destructive habits. We need to put sins to death. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave our jobs or our families. We’ll all have to leave some things behind. Some of us will have more dramatic conversions than others. But we all need to change and we all need to be willing to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us and whatever he tells us to do.
Now, if you are a Christian, I want to leave us with two quick thoughts. The first is that we have a tendency to forget that our real, primary identity is in Christ. We can look back at our failures, or we can look to other things to give our lives meaning and purpose. But being a Christian means being “in Christ.” Our old lives are gone, and our new life is found in Jesus. When I was feeling depressed, when I felt like I was being attacked by forces of evil, I had to remind myself of the gospel. We all have to do that.
The second thought has to do with evangelism. Why does Jesus call fishermen? I suppose it’s because fishing requires hard work and patience. Fishermen have to be willing to go out, work hard, and get little for their labors. There will be days when they don’t catch much. And I suppose that’s a lot like evangelism. All Christians should be witnesses to Jesus. All of us should tell others about who Jesus is and what he has done. We can tell others about how Jesus has changed us. This requires many attempts. Some attempts won’t produce fruit. But we should keep trying. We might think, “Jesus, I can’t believe that person would ever put their trust in you. Jesus, I’ve tried already. Jesus, that person is too far gone, too bad, too stubborn, too angry.” But, still, we have to be like Peter, “At your word, I’ll try again.”
The only true good news that the world has ever received is that Jesus is the true King, the righteous ruler who comes to rescue his people. He lived the perfect life that we don’t life. He died a death in place of his people so that their sins are punished. He offers new life, forgiveness of sins, and new identities to those who trust in him. He promises that one day he will fix all that is wrong. There is no better offer out there. Please, take Jesus’ offer. Let down your nets and follow him.
- Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream . . .” This speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. The text of the speech is available at https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. ↑
- James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 153. Edwards cites B. Crisler, “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (1976): 137. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 60. ↑
- Ibid., 30. ↑
- J. N. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, trans. Bert Hielema (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 66. ↑
- Ibid., 81. ↑
- Cephas is based on the Aramaic for rock and Peter is based on the Greek word for rock. ↑
- See 1 Corinthians 7:17–24. ↑
Is anyone here into history? Do you read biographies and watch documentaries? If you do, you probably want to make sure that the author or documentarian knows what he or she is talking about. You want to make sure that this person has studied the relevant data and interviewed key sources. That’s one of the reasons I like reading. I like to see what resources the author used. So, I read every footnote or endnote, just to check that author’s work. The historian who uses early, reliable sources is more trustworthy than the one who uses late, legendary sources.
If you’re a history buff, you will know that historians frame their stories of the past in certain ways. Every historian is trying to achieve something by telling a story. There is no such thing as an objective, unbiased history. Every historian chooses a subject, and he or she also chooses which facts to include and which to exclude. And every historian presents their history in different ways. Some present their stories in strict chronological order. Some of those historians may begin with a lot of background information. So, a biographer might write about a person’s life by first writing about that person’s parents. Or, an historian might begin right in the thick of an event, and then later incorporate background information. So, a documentary on D-Day might begin with Allied Forces storming the beaches of Normandy, and then later recount the events that led to that crusade. How an historian frames his or her history matters.
Today, we’re going to begin studying a book of history, the Gospel of Luke. This is a story primarily about Jesus. Like any history, this story is intended to achieve some purpose. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” This lets us know that this story isn’t just an interesting read about some trivial events. No, this is history that is meant to be good news for us, if we allow it to shape our lives.
We’re going to study the book of Luke for a few reasons. One, Christianity is quite obviously centered on Jesus Christ. We need to keep coming back to the stories about Jesus to be reminded of who he is, what he taught, and what he has accomplished for us. And we can’t just pick and choose the stories of Jesus that we like. We need to look at Gospels in their entirety. We’re a church committed to the Bible because we believe it is the written Word of God. Therefore, we often go through entire books of the Bible.
Two, we’re looking at Luke and not Matthew, Mark, and Luke because its opening chapters tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and that’s fitting as we approach Christmas.
Three, we’re looking at Luke because in 2016, I preached through the book of Acts. Acts is a sequel to Luke. Yes, I’m taking things out of order. So, think of Luke as a prequel to Acts, and we’ll be just fine.
Four, I’m preaching through Luke because it contains some hard teachings of Jesus. It would be easy to avoid these teachings. But if we did that, we would be creating a Jesus of our own desires and not looking at the Jesus of history. If we want to be Christians with integrity, we can’t do that.
So, we’re going to study Luke’s Gospel. Since we’ll spend a good amount of time in this book, I want to give us some background information. We know that this Gospel was written by a man named Luke because the earliest manuscript that we have of Luke (Ì75) says, “according to Luke.” Many early Christians also attributed this Gospel to Luke. In fact, there was no doubt that Luke wrote this book until the middle of the nineteenth century, when biblical scholars became increasingly skeptical of the Bible’s authority. Their skepticism isn’t supported by the evidence, however. I think their skepticism is simply due to their lack of faith. Some people don’t want the Bible to be historically reliable and true because they don’t want the God of the Bible to be Lord over their lives.
So, who is Luke? According to the letters of the apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ early messengers, Luke was one of his faithful coworkers (2 Tim. 4:11) and a doctor (Col. 4:14). He may have been a Gentile or a Greek Jew. He may have been from Antioch, which is in Syria, north of Palestine, where the action in Luke’s Gospel takes place. That means he didn’t witness the events of Jesus’ life. But he seems to have been a sometime traveling companion to Paul on his missionary journeys, so he knew Paul. (In Acts, there are several “we” passages that indicate that the author was among Paul’s companions. See Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–8, 13–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). As we’ll see, he claimed to have interviewed eyewitnesses, so I’m sure he met other apostles, such as Peter and possibly James.
That’s enough background. Let’s start reading. We’ll begin by reading the first four verses of Luke.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke begins by noting that others have compiled narratives about the things that God accomplished. These events were relayed to Luke and people like him by “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” There were many people who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life. There were the twelve disciples, of course. Two of them, Matthew and John, wrote Gospels, and Peter wrote two letters that are in the Bible. But others besides the disciples witnessed events like Jesus’ birth, his life, his teaching and preaching, his miracles, his death, and his life after he was resurrected from the grave. Some of these eyewitnesses were also “ministers of the word,” that is, they preached the message about Jesus, and they passed on such details to people like Luke, who we might call a second-generation Christian.
Luke says that he thought it would be good to write his own “orderly account” of these events, since he followed them closely for some time. He writes this book, and his sequel, the book of Acts, to someone named Theophilus. We don’t know who this is. He seems to be a person of some standing, perhaps a rich person who was a patron of Luke. We don’t know. But his name means “friend of God” or “lover of God,” and Luke writes to him so that he “may have certainty concerning the things [he has] been taught.” Luke wants Theophilus, and all the readers of this book, to know for certain the truth about what God has done through Jesus.
I’ve given a bit of background information at the beginning because I want us to see the claim that Luke is making. He says he is writing a careful account of the things he has learned from eyewitnesses. We should take that claim seriously. The New Testament documents were written by eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses. They are meant to be taken as historical documents. If the author of this book says that he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote his history based on what they said, then we should take him at his word unless we have compelling reasons to believe otherwise.
That means that unless we have evidence to the contrary, we should accept the historicity of this book. We should accept that this book was written within a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when eyewitnesses were still alive. There’s a good reason to think that Luke completed Acts shortly after the year 62, which is when Paul was released from prison in Rome. He must have written his Gospel right before writing Acts. And Luke probably did much of his research while he accompanied Paul on his journeys. Paul, Luke, and others traveled to Jerusalem, where Paul was arrested. He was transferred to Caesarea Philippi, a city further north. Paul was there for two years, probably between the years 57 and 59, and during that time Luke surely was able to gather sources for this book. It seems that he used the Gospel of Mark as one source, but about 40 percent of Luke is unique and not shared with the other Gospels. This material might have come from other eyewitnesses, possibly people like Mary.
The point is that Luke claims to have written a book of history based on eyewitness testimony. From what we know of Luke and Acts, Luke was a careful historian. He places the events of these books within the broader history of the Roman Empire, and the details he recounts are accurate.
There’s a lot more that can be said about the historical trustworthiness of this book and the whole New Testament. If you want to know more, you can read that insert in the bulletin, “How We Can Know Jesus?” or listen to a sermon I gave three years ago by that same name. But I want to highlight how import it is to know that the events in this book actually happened in the past. This is not a legend or a myth or some kind of fairy tale designed to make us feel good. Many skeptics believe this Gospel was written later in time. If someone fabricated it, why would they choose Luke as the author? Luke is relatively unknown. He wasn’t an apostle. If you were going to make up a Gospel, you’d name it after Peter or Judas or Mary. That’s what we see in false Gospels written late in the second century. No, this book is earth-shattering reality. It’s good news. If it weren’t real, it wouldn’t be good news at all. Entertainment, perhaps, but not good news.
Now, how does Luke begin his story? Does he start with Jesus? Actually, he starts with some lesser-known individuals. He begins with the story of a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Let’s read verses 5–7:
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Luke tells us this story begins during the time when Herod the Great was king of Judea. He reigned from 37–4 B.C. And during the latter part of that time, there was a priest named Zechariah. There were perhaps as many as 18,000 priests in Israel at that time, so Zechariah was just one of many. His wife, Elizabeth, was related to Aaron, the first high priest. Notice that there are already a couple of Old Testament names given to us: Abijah and Aaron. There are many references and allusions to the Old Testament at the beginning of Luke. This reminds us that this is part of the continuing story we find in the whole Bible, which is a story of how God relates to people.
We’re told that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous. They obeyed God’s commands. We’re also told that they were incapable of having children, because they were old and Elizbeth was infertile.
Now, before we move on with the story, we have to see that this couple was obedient to God. The reason they didn’t have children wasn’t because they were being punished by God. Why then is anyone barren? And I don’t just mean incapable of having children. Why is life like this at times? Why are we frustrated. We do things not go the way we hoped they would go?
To understand, we have to know something of the whole story of the Bible. I only have time this morning to paint that story in the broadest strokes. But the story begins with God. He is perfect in every way, the greatest being who has ever existed. He is complete in himself. He had no need to create the universe or this planet or people, but he chose to for his own purposes. He made us to have a special relationship with him. He made us to be like him, to reflect what he’s like, to represent him, to worship, love, and obey him. But from the beginning, human beings have ignored God, turned away from him, rebelled against him, disobeyed him, and failed to love him. When that first happened, something we call “sin” entered into the world. Sin isn’t just a wrong action. It’s a power, an evil force that takes up residence within us. It distorts our desires, so we don’t love the things that are good for us and, instead, we love the things that are harmful. We are selfish and proud. We covet and are greedy. We fight.
Since God is perfect and pure, he cannot allow dwell with sin and sinful people, and he cannot allow sin to destroy his creation. As a partial punishment for sin, he cursed his creation. This does not mean that things are as bad as they could be. But things aren’t perfect. The world that was a paradise was lost. In its place, there is a world that has natural disasters, diseases, and death. And, worst of all, there is a separation between God and human beings. We don’t see God. We don’t always sense his presence.
So, the reason that things are barren is because of sin. But God is not only a holy God who judges and punishes sin. He is also a good God. Actually, the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And because God is loving and merciful and gracious, he had a plan to save people from sin and the condemnation that comes with sin. It’s a long story, but it began with an old man named Abraham and his wife, Sarah. (At first, they’re called Abram and Sarai.) They, too, were unable to have children because they were old and because Sarah was barren (Gen. 11:30). Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham was obedient to God, keeping his commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5).
God told Abraham that he would bless the whole earth through Abraham and his offspring, that his offspring would be a multitude of people, and that kings and nations would come from him (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:4–6; 17:5–6; 22:17–18). In other words, God would reverse the curse of sin through Abraham and his offspring, and that his descendants would populate the earth. When you stop and think about that, it sounds too good to be true. But if you’re Abraham, it sounds impossible. He’s an old man with an old wife who couldn’t have children when she was younger. And now he’s supposed to have children? This sounds like a bad joke. But Abraham has Isaac, and Isaac has Jacob, and Jacob has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel.
And Israel became a nation. God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He performed miracles in their presence and gave them his law. He led them into their own land, where they settled and became a kingdom. Yet the Israelites still had the power of sin in them. They often disobeyed God and they started to worship other, false gods. Because of their disobedience and idol worship, God punished them through their enemies. God led the superpowers of their day, Assyria and Babylon, to attack Israel and bring people into exile. Jerusalem, the capital city, was destroyed, as was the temple.
Later, the people came back from exile in Babylon and settled back in the land of Judah. They built a new (and less glorious) temple and rebuilt the city. But they were still slaves (Ezra 9:9; Neh. 9:36). They were under the power of foreign kingdoms (ranging from Persia to Greece to the Roman Empire) and they were slaves to the power of sin. Even during the reign of Herod the Great, they were under the power of the Roman Empire. They were waiting for a promised Messiah, an anointed King, a descendant of Abraham and King David, who would defeat their enemies and usher in a reign of peace, justice, and righteousness that would last forever (Isa. 9:6–7; 11”1–16). In other words, the people were waiting for another exodus, for deliverance from exile.
Now, before we go in with the story, I understand that some of what I’ve said may sound very foreign. It may sound like something very distant and ancient. But wouldn’t you agree that we live in a world that seems cursed? No, it’s not all bad. But we have natural disasters, diseases, wars, fighting, and death. We have the internal curses of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and confusion. Don’t we all want deliverance from something? And what is able to deliver us? Do you think it’s the government? Your family and friends? Your job? Your money? Someone else’s money? People have tried all the things of the world and they haven’t worked. We’re waiting for deliverance that only someone from outside this world can give us.
That’s what the Jews were waiting for. They were waiting for God to act. They wanted him to get rid of the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. But what they really needed was a Savior.
Now, let’s get back to the story of Zechariah and his wife. Let’s read verses 8–17:
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Zechariah belonged to one of twenty-four divisions of priests. Each division served at the temple for one week, twice a year. The temple was the place were God’s special presence was believed to dwell. It was where the people worshiped God, where they offered up sacrifices for sin and prayers. Sacrifices and offerings were presented twice a day at the temple. This included incense, which represented the prayers of the people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3–4). Priests were the Israelites who mediated between God and other Israelites. They were the ones who made the sacrifices and presented the offerings. Priests were chosen to enter the temple by lot, which was sort of like flipping a coin or rolling dice. And it so happened that Zechariah was chosen to burn incense inside the Holy Place of the temple. This was a great honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
When Zechariah was in the temple, he saw something unusual: the angel Gabriel. Angels are servants of God and they are usually unseen. The Bible actually doesn’t make as much of angels as some people might imagine. It’s rare that they appear to someone. So, when this happens, you know something special is about to take place.
When Zechariah sees Gabriel, he is afraid. This is what happens when people see angels. They’re not cuddly little cherubs. But Gabriel tells John not to fear. Gabriel tells him that he has good news. God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. We don’t know what prayer he’s referring to, but it was probably a prayer in the past for a child. Gabriel says, against all odds, that Elizabeth will have a son who will be named John. John, or Ἰωάννης in Greek, is related to a Hebrew name that means “God is gracious.” God will graciously give this elderly couple a child. This child will bring joy and gladness not only to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also to many, because he will be “great before the Lord.” This means that he will be great in God’s eyes, but it also hints at John’s role: he will be the forerunner of his cousin, Jesus. He will announce the Lord’s coming.
John will take a special vow. He won’t drink “wine or strong drink” because he is specially consecrated to God. Drinking wine and strong drink in the Bible is not inherently wrong. But the Bible does condemn drunkenness (Prov. 20:1; 23:20–21, 29–32; Eccl. 10:17; Eph. 5:18). At any rate, John lived an ascetic lifestyle, refusing all comforts. His calling was unique. He seems to be the only one in the Bible who was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. The God of the Bible is unique, for he is one Being in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When people have a relationship with the Son, Jesus, the Holy Spirit changes them and he lives inside of them. But John was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he existed. This shows that God’s hand was upon him in a special way.
John would perform a very special task. He would turn the hearts of Israelites back to God. He would do this the way the prophet Elijah had done hundreds of years earlier, when he also called people to turn away from sin and idolatry and back to God. One of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, said that Elijah would return “to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). There, the idea seems to be that as people turn toward God, they start to be reconciled to each other. Peace with God leads to peace with others. It seems that John fulfills the role of Elijah, but in Luke it says that he will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” There’s no mention of the children turning to the fathers. Rather, the fathers, the older generation, have been disobedient and need to turn to the younger generation. This points to John’s role: he calls people to get ready for something new, when Jesus, the Messiah, comes. John tells the people to be prepared.
Let’s finish reading today’s passage to see what happens next. I’ll read verses 18–25.
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Zechariah seems to have some doubt. He wonders how he and his wife could possibly have a child. Because of his doubt, he is made mute. It also seems that he might have been deaf, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks (Luke 1:62). This might have given John some proof that Gabriel’s news would come true. It was also a mild punishment for Zechariah’s doubt. God expects people to trust him, even if his message seems impossible. The reason is that God is trustworthy, and he has a habit of doing the impossible.
Sure enough, John goes home to his wife and Elizabeth conceives. For some reason, she hides herself for months. It’s not clear why. Perhaps she did this as a way of consecrating herself to God’s service. It’s not clear, but it parallels the way her relative, Mary, remained hidden from her hometown for the early months of her pregnancy.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we should ask ourselves what it means for us. There are two main things I want us to get out of this morning’s passage. The first is that Luke says he wrote an historical account based on eyewitness testimony. These events really happened. A number of people simply can’t believe that a story containing supernatural elements, like angels and miracles, can be true. I understand why some people might doubt. I have never seen an angel or a miracle. But other people have. At any rate, I think we should ask ourselves this question: If nothing in the natural world can fix this broken world, shouldn’t we hope for supernatural help? If God exists, shouldn’t we expect a story about God’s acts in history to contain supernatural elements? I think the Bible would be rather odd without those elements. Should we expect God, who made the universe out of nothing, to give us a story about a man praying for money and then finding spare change under the couch cushions? Much more could be said about the reality of the existence of God and things like miracles. If you have doubts, I would ask you to suspend your disbelief and continue to learn more about Jesus by coming back next week.
The other thing I want us to see is that God brings life out of nothing, hope out of despair, fullness and joy out of barrenness. He causes people to turn to one another and be reconciled. And he does this through Jesus. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, they couldn’t have children. They were literally barren. In the case of Israel, they had often been spiritually barren. The same is true of us. God doesn’t promise to give us children or wonderful relationships or health and wealth in this life. But he does bring spiritual life out of spiritual death. And, though we aren’t there yet, the end of the grand story of the universe is that God will one day recreate the world to be a paradise, where there is no more barrenness of any kind. There will be more diseases, no more natural disasters, no more fighting and wars, no more sin, and no more death. It will only be God and the people he has prepared for himself.
How does God bring fullness out of barrenness? How can he do that? He does that because Jesus, the eternal Son of God who was full of glory, became barren by becoming a man. He lived a perfect life of righteousness, always loving and obeying God the Father. And yet he died in our place when he was crucified. His death pays for all the sin of those who turn to him in faith. Jesus turns people to God, and when people truly turn to God, they are transformed. Lives are changed, relationships are healed. This doesn’t mean life is easy or that Christians are perfect. But it means that Christians have hope.
Come back to learn more about Jesus next week. For now, let’s pray.
- For a list of reasons why we can trust that Luke is the author of this Gospel, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Croswn: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258–261. ↑
- That sermon and others can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. It can also be found at https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus. ↑
- Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man.” According to Deuteronomy 14, Israelites could consume the “tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” that they brought to Jerusalem when they worshiped there (verse 23). Or, they could bring money instead and “spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (verse 26). ↑
- Samson and Samuel, two other “miracle babies,” had similar vows (Judg. 13:4–5; 1 Sam. 1:11). ↑
- There also may be a hint that the Israelites would return to the ways of the Patriarchs, like Abraham. Isaiah 63:16 says, “Abraham does not know us,” because of their sin. When the Israelites return to God, they return to the faith of their fathers. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson begins preaching through the Gospel of Luke by showing that it is a book of history. This history begins with an old couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were unable to have children. God’s plan to restore the world began with another old couple unable to have children, Abraham and Sarah. Luke shows us that God’s plan was coming to fruition.
Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.
As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.
But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?
I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.
Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.
Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.
“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.
Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.
Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.
Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.
Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.
The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.
Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.
Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.” Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.
That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger. Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses. You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious. Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.
Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.)
John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.
Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”
When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.
Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).
Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.
The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.
Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.
It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.
If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.
If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.
If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.
So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.
God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.
We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.
If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.
To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.
In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).
But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons. Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.
That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus. If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed. So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.
And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.
We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).
Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.
Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.
- Χριστός. ↑
- ἐμβριμάομαι. ↑
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415. ↑
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442. ↑
- See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus. ↑
- Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17). ↑
- See https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9. ↑
- In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born. ↑
- See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.
One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:
“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]
“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”
“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”
“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”
“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?
“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”
These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,” because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.
There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.” In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery. So, either he is one or the other, but not both.
However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.
A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?
Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.
Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.
Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.” Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.
Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?
There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.” All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?
Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth. In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.” Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this. So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?
Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil. Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,
Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.
If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.” Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones. So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.
These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.
But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.
And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)
3 O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)
They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)
These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.
This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.
And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.
With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament. It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.
Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.
Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:
5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.
But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:
12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”
God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:
2 And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.
3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).
The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.
In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”
In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.
You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.
But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.
No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.
During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.
And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.
Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.
I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.
First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.
Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.
Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.
Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.
Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.
In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.
I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus. He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.
- The German playwright Georg Büchner (1813–1837) so described the problem of evil, according to Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9. ↑
- David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.” ↑
- We might add that if God is perfectly wise, he would know how to end all misery, pain, suffering, and evil. ↑
- Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 10.1, quoted in Stewart Goetz, “The Argument from Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 467. ↑
- Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 223. ↑
- Eckhard Tolle, The Power of Now (Novata, CA New World Library, 1999); Idem., A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006). ↑
- Tolle, The Power of Now, 15, quoted in Richard Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 51. ↑
- “If evil has any reality—and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality—this is also its definition: a complete identification with form—physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in a total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.” Tolle, A New Earth, 22, quoted in Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception, 146. ↑
- “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–193. ↑
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, 1959), 313, quoted in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 23. ↑
- “Evil becomes a kind of auxiliary motor of the progress that has given rise to it. It acts as a goad to prevent us from getting stuck at the present stage of Evolution, to detach us from a world that is still imperfect, and to project us and throw us out of our own centre into God.” Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 24. ↑
- If we had more time, I would discuss the story of Job. To understand that powerful story from the Old Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- To learn much more about Jesus, visit https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:1-5. How do we overcome our problems? How are the problems of the world overcome? Through the One who overcomes the world, Jesus.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message on Job 42:7-17, which foreshadows God’s restoration of the world. The new creation is possible because of Jesus’ resurrection. That event gives us certainty that one day God will make the world into a paradise. Listen to learn more about what’s wrong with the world, why we need Jesus, and the great hope that Jesus gives us.
Job asks a very important question: “Where Then Is My Hope?” Where can hope be found in a world in which everyone dies? Where can meaning be found? Pastor Brian Watson tries to answer those questions as he preaches through the second round of dialogue between Job and his friends.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches the conclusion to our study of the book of Ruth. Boaz marries Ruth and they have a child, who is to Naomi a redeemer and a restorer of life. This story indicates how God will restore his creation through Jesus. It reminds us of the story of Christmas.
Pastor Brian Watson talks about redemption in the third chapter of the book of Ruth, in the Bible, and in our lives. What would you like restored in your life? What would like to be bought back? The story of Ruth is a story of redemption, and it points to the larger story of redemption in the whole Bible, a story of how God is restoring a broken world, “purchasing” people for himself through Jesus.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Ruth 1. The Bible is very honest about the dark side of life. In the Bible, people wrestle with God during these times. But even in the middle of darkness, there are signs of God’s kindness.