Jesus tells a church that they have done well to hold fast to his name, but they have followed false teaching, which has led to idolatry and immorality. Jesus calls them to repent in order to have true fellowship with him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on February 7, 2021.
What’s wrong with the world? A lot of people have opinions about what is wrong with the world. In our highly politicized environment, the quick answer might be, “Republicans,” or “Democrats.” Or, perhaps more specifically, people might say, “Donald Trump,” or “Nancy Pelosi,” depending on their political leanings. Bernie Sanders might say “corporate greed” or refer to the “one percent.” Others might not have a specific person or people group in mind, but they may refer to general problems, perhaps environmental ones like climate change or the amount of plastic in our oceans. Six years ago, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
What do you say? Perhaps you’re not worried about the whole world. Perhaps the question you would like to answer is, “What’s wrong with my world?” Your answer might be your health, or your spouse’s health, or a problematic relationship, or your boss, or not enough money, or someone or something else.
There’s a story that in the early twentieth century, The Times of London asked some prominent authors that question, “What’s wrong with the world?” As you can imagine, they received various answers. The shortest they receive was from the witty and insightful Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton. His response was:
G. K. Chesterton
Why would he write that? Just to be funny? No, Chesterton answered that way because he realized that the problem in the world wasn’t one outside of him. It wasn’t a matter of pointing the finger at someone else, or some other group of people. He realized that what was wrong with the world was something inside of him, and inside of everyone else, too.
Today, we’re going to talk about what that something is. Last week, we started a teaching series that will run this month. We’re looking at one book of the Bible, the second longest book (according to chapter numbers), a book from the Old Testament called Isaiah, named after one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Isaiah was given a job by God over twenty-seven hundred years ago: to tell the people of Israel to turn back to God, to tell them about punishment that would come upon them and the world because of sin, and to tell them a message of good news. One day, God’s people will be delivered from all that is wrong with the world. There will healing for broken people and a broken world.
We’ll look at various passages from the book of Isaiah today. We’ll begin with Isaiah 5:1–7:
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry!
This is the story of Israel, but it’s also the story of the world. If you want to know a tip for how to understand the Bible, it’s this: There are three big stories within the Bible. The first one is the story of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating a world out of nothing, and it ends with God restoring that world, creating a new world that is perfect. Within that big story, there’s another story, the story of Israel, which parallels that greater story. God called one old man, Abraham, and he told him that he would bless the whole world through him (Gen. 12:1–3). And that one old man and his old wife, Sarah, miraculously who had a child, who had children, who had children, who became Israel. And they ended up in Egypt, where they grew rapidly in number but became slaves. God rescued them from slavery by sending plagues upon Egypt, the greatest nation of the world at that time. And eventually he brought them into their own land.
In the passage that we just read, God poetically likens that land to a vineyard. He took a fertile ground, cleared out any stones, built a watchtower and a wine vat, and then he planted his vine in it. That’s a way of saying he planted Israel in their own land, a good land. And the language of the vineyard echoes the language of the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God planted the first human beings in a fertile ground.
And what does God expect of his people? He expects them to bear good fruit. He expects them to live in a certain way. He expected them to worship him, to recognize his greatness and reflect that greatness to the world. He expected them to love him, to be thankful to him, and to obey him. He expected them to love because he is love. He expected them to live righteously, to do justice, to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God expected that of the first human beings. He expected that of Israel. And he expects that of us.
But the passage says that God looked for good fruit, for good grapes, and he only found bad fruit, sour, wild grapes. Again, this is a metaphor. The people of Israel were not living the way they should. And just like God evicted Adam and Eve from his garden because they didn’t live according to his terms, God was warning Israel that they would be evicted from their land if they didn’t start living for God. And the reality is that Israel would be removed from their land, at least for a time. And this is our story, too. The reason that we sense problems in our world is that we have been removed from God’s garden, from the paradise that he prepared for us. Humanity has been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The world, as it is, is not our home. That’s why we don’t feel at home. Whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to be back home, to be with God in the world as he intended it to be.
You may wonder, “What kind of bad fruit did Israel produce?” What does it look like to live contrary to God’s expectations? Isaiah gives us a picture of that. Let’s go to the first chapter in the book. Here is Isaiah 1:2–4:
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
The heart of living against God’s design, the heart of what we call sin, is relational. We were made to have a relationship with God. And God says that the problem with Israel is that though they were his children and he raised them, they rebelled against them. Animals know their master, but Israel didn’t know its own maker. In fact, God says that they despised him! Their failure to love God, to acknowledge God as Creator and King, led them to “deal corruptly.”
Yet the Israelites thought that they could ignore God, fail to live for him, and then occasionally go through the religious motions, “worshiping” him. But God says that such worship is no worship at all. Look at Isaiah 1:12–17:
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?|
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Israel tried to do their religious business as usual, bringing their offerings to God, observing their festivals, praying to God. But God says that he hates their festivals and though they pray to him, he will not listen. Their hands are full of blood! Why? It seems that they were doing evil instead of good. They were oppressing people who were vulnerable. Israel had laws in place to care for orphans and widows, and apparently the people were not obeying those laws. There’s a famous verse, Isaiah 29:13, where God says,
. . . this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.
God doesn’t want mere lip service. God wants our hearts. And if we love him, we will obey him.
Now look at verses 21–23:
21 How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,|
but now murderers.
22 Your silver has become dross,|
your best wine mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
That’s some tough talk. Why is Israel called a whore? Because she hasn’t been faithful to God. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. God’s people are supposed to love God and be faithful to him. That means that they shouldn’t worship other gods. When they failed to acknowledge who God truly is, when they failed to make him the most important thing in their lives, the object of their worship, the one who determines how they live, then they were cheating on God. They did not do justice. Their leaders were corrupt, bought and sold, being bribed. Instead of observing the laws about the orphan and they widow, they oppressed those vulnerable people. Later, God, will say that the leaders “devoured the vineyard” (Isa. 3:14) and “crush[ed] my people, by grinding the face of the poor” (Isa. 3:15).
In chapter 5 of Isaiah, after that passage about the vineyard that we read earlier, we’re told that people “join[ed] house to house” and “field to field,” probably by taking properties away from the poor (Isa. 5:8). Israel had laws that required debt forgiveness at various times, and those laws were probably ignored. People rose “early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink” (Isa. 5:11). The Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol, but it does prohibit getting drunk, which causes someone to lose control. That chapter also features these words, in found in Isaiah 5:20–23:
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!
What was true then is true now: we often mistake what is good for evil, and what is evil for good. Our standard of what is good and evil should be God. Our knowledge of what is good and evil is often found in our conscience, but we can’t rely on our own moral compasses, because they are often not working correctly. Our knowledge of good and evil should come from the Bible, but we often ignore it. We think we know better than God.
That kind of ignoring of God, and thinking that we know better than God, is rebellion against him. Isaiah 29:16 says,
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
God has made us. We are the clay, and he is the potter. But our tendency is to get things backwards. We make God in our image, and we reject the true God. We don’t trust that he is wiser than we are.
But God issues this warning to his “clay.” This is Isaiah 45:9–10:
9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”
There’s much more that can be said about our sin again God, and our rebellion against him. But this talk of clay and the potter leads to something else that’s at the heart of sin. Earlier, I said that the heart of sin is a relational problem. We don’t love and honor God as we should. Because of that, we don’t pay attention to him and we don’t obey him—certainly not as we should. And all of that leads to something else that’s at the heart of our sin, our rebellion against God. And that is idolatry.
Idolatry is making something other than God, something that is created, not the Creator, something finite, not infinite, something that had a beginning, not something eternal, and making that thing the center of our lives. An idol is a false god. It’s whatever we love the most. It’s what we trust will make us happy, complete, whole. It’s what we think will give us comfort and security. We don’t have to think of it as an object of worship. We probably don’t think of it as a god. But whatever is at the center of our lives is our god. We were made to worship. We inherently religious. And if we fail to worship the true God, someone or something else will fill that void.
Isaiah has one of the classic passages about idolatry. Turn to Isaiah 44:9–20:
9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
This passage points out the foolishness of idolatry. It imagines something fashioning a piece of wood into some kind of statue or figure of a false god. Half of the food is used for fuel, for warmth and to bake bread. And then they take the other half and make a god to worship, saying “deliver me” to it. This is what idolatry is like.
Now, many people today would conclude that people in the ancient world were just foolish. How stupid can you be to worship something like that? But we’re not really different.
Years ago, I saw a video clip of a comedian on one of the late-night talk shows, and he was saying we have the greatest technology ever, and it’s wasted on the worst generation ever. He said that we’re always complaining about our phones. If you have a smart phone, you have one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever, a little computer, camera, and phone that can do what previous generations never thought possible. And what’s it made out of? Plastic, glass, some bits of metal. When the phone works, you can be become glued to it. We put our faith in technology to make our lives better, to deliver us. But what if it stops working? Then it’s just a bit of trash. The thing we’ll pay hundreds of dollars for now will be useless later.
That’s sort of what Isaiah is getting at here. It’s foolish to make something that will later be junk the center of your life, because the reality is it’s not a smart phone. It’s dumb. It has no personality, no will. It didn’t design and make itself. It didn’t create the world and it can’t remake it. It can’t save you. It can’t deliver you from your greatest problem, which is, in the words of Isaiah, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
We make idols because we can control them. We are their potter, and they are our clay. We don’t want to come under God’s authority. We want to be gods. Idols make demands on us, but we somehow think those demands are not as hard as God’s. Instead of realizing that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30), we think there’s an easier way, a better way. But it’s not better. God allows us to go after those idols, but they don’t lead to salvation. They lead to death.
All of that is bad news. Yes, there is a problem in the world, and that problem isn’t just outside of us, it’s in us. We’re part of the problem. So, how do we fix it?
Part of the problem is that we can’t fix the problem. Isaiah 64:5–6 says,
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
We can’t save ourselves. We are unclean, tainted by the power of sin, by the folly of idolatry. Even our best acts, the ones we consider righteous, are polluted by sin. We do good things often for selfish reasons, not to honor God. So, if we can’t fix the problem, who can?
The good news is that God can, and, if we turn to God, he will. Earlier, we read some verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. I intentionally left out a few. Here is what Isaiah 1:18–20 says:
18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God promised Israel that he would make them clean. He would make them “white as snow,” “like wool.” He would remove their sins. But they had to be willing. They had to repent. This salvation is offered freely. It’s a gift that must be received in faith.
Isaiah 55:1–7 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;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Isaiah says, “Come and eat, come and drink. You don’t need money! Do this and live. Seek God while he can he found. If you do this, forsaking your wicked ways, God will have compassion on you. He will forgive your sins.”
How does God cleanse unclean people from their sin? Why does he forgive them? How is it that this offer is free, without price?
The answer is Jesus. I’ll say much more about him over the next two weeks. We’ll hear that he is the promised child who would be born, the Son who is also God (Isa. 9:6–7). As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, he became a human being. This is the miracle of Christmas: God became man (without ceasing to be God). The third story of the Bible, the one that fulfills those other stories, is about Jesus. Jesus became a man so that he could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He does what we should do but don’t. He always loved, honored, and worshiped God the Father. He had no idols. He wasn’t polluted by sin. Yet though he was perfect, he was treated like a criminal, like the worst of rebels. He died on a cross, an instrument of shame, torture, and death. This wasn’t an accident. It was God’s plan to punish sin. Jesus takes the punishment that we all deserve. He takes the death penalty for sin away from all who seek him, who turn to him in faith, who are willing to put away their idols and their wicked ways and follow him. This is all a gift. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first or earn this from God. We simply have to receive it in faith, trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything needed to put us back into a right relationship with God.
I’ll say more about him over the next two weeks. And I’ll say more about God’s plans to restore the world at the end of the month. But I do want to say now that Isaiah foresaw a day when people would cast away their idols. After Isaiah called Israel “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9), he said,
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him (Isa. 30:18).
And he says to those who come to God, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).
Isaiah also told of a day when the world would become a garden again, when the “wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15). He predicted that a new creation would come, where God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). He predicted that God’s people would go back home, to be with God in a perfect world.
The only way back to God and that world is Jesus. I urge us all to trust in him, to know more about him, to know more about the Bible, which is his word. You can do that by reading all of Isaiah for yourself. This sermon and the other sermons in this series will be on our website, at wbcommunity.org/isaiah. You can find links to some great videos about the book, made by The Bible Project. All of us can know about the one true God. The clay can truly know its potter. The question is whether or not we are willing. As far as it is within your power, seek God while he can be found.
- Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Repubblica, October 1, 2013, https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce. ↑
- Marva J. Dawn, “Not What, but Who Is the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.
Many of the world’s greatest athletes have had setbacks in their careers. They’ve had injuries that have required them to have surgery. This is true of many of the greatest players in Boston’s sports history, from Larry Bird to Tom Brady. When an athlete is seriously injured and requires surgery, we realize that it’s wise for them to have that surgery so their bodies can heal properly and they can continue their careers in time. Eleven years ago, Tom Brady had a serious knee injury during the first game of the year, one that required knee construction surgery. He missed the rest of that 2008 season. But he returned the next year and has been playing very well ever since.
I doubt that when Brady had surgery, anyone thought that he made the decision to have surgery because he was weak. I don’t think there were critics who said, “Tom, you’re going to have surgery? That’s such a crutch!” Right after surgery, I suppose there was a time when Brady had to use actual crutches, and I doubt people were heckling him by saying, “Crutches? That’s such a crutch!” Yet, strangely, when it comes to the topic of religion, some people think that way. They think that religion is a “crutch” for people who aren’t strong enough to face the world on their own. They think that believing in God, particularly the God of the Bible, is something that comforts people who are too weak to live in a world that is cold and threatening. It’s a far braver thing, in their eyes, to be one’s own lord. Such people gladly quote the famous poem by William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” which ends with these words:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
It’s interesting how no one seems to do that with surgeries. What would we think of Tom Brady if, eleven years ago, he refused to have a doctor repairs the ligaments in his knee? Imagine the team doctor is urging Brady to have the surgery, and so are Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft. And Tom Brady says, “I’m not going to have a doctor knock me out and then cut into my body. I am the master of my career, I am the captain of my body.” We would think he was being foolish. Now imagine that Brady says that he realizes he needs surgery, but he’s going to do it on his own. He’ll study a little and then fix himself. There have been player-coaches in the past, players who coached their own team at the same time. Bill Russell and Pete Rose did this at the end of their careers. But I’ve never heard of a player-surgeon.
We realize in some areas of life that when we have a problem, the wisest thing to do is to have someone else fix it. When we have a serious injury or a disease like cancer, the wisest thing is to have a surgeon repair a part of our bodies or remove a tumor. Agreeing to surgery is a recognition that there are problems that we can’t solve on our own. We must let someone else take control of our bodies. We must trust that they can fix us.
The same thing is true when it comes to our human condition. The reality is that we have problems we can’t face. The biggest one is death. Everyone who is thoughtful thinks about the inevitability of death and wants to know how to live triumphantly in the face of that brutal reality. I’m reminded of the work of a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. In his book, A Brief History of Thought, he says that all philosophies and religions deal with the reality of death. He says that “Man 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.” Of course, we don’t always think of literal death itself. But we do think of the many faces of death: death of a career (perhaps due to an injury), death of a relationship, death of a season of life, death of our favorite restaurant or TV show, death of a loved one. How do we deal with all this decay and death? Ferry says that “the irreversibility of things is a kind of death at the heart of life.” “To live well, therefore, to live freely, capable of joy, generosity and love, we must first and foremost conquer our fear—or, more accurately, our fears of the irreversible.”
So, what promises us real life in a world of irreversibles? What promises us hope in a world of death? Or, setting aside death for a moment, what can fix this world that is broken by greed, selfishness, war, and corruption? What can fix my broken soul? Is there a doctor who can perform a surgery on the human condition, removing the bad parts, healing whatever good remains?
Christianity promises us that there is a Great Physician who can and will make everything right. It offers us salvation from death and decay. It offers an ultimate healing of our souls and of the whole world.
Since Christianity promises such wonderful things, why aren’t more people Christians? I suppose there are many reasons, all of which can be called unbelief. People don’t believe it’s true. And there many reasons why people don’t believe. One is that they really don’t know what Christianity is and they’ve never been given good reasons to believe. In our society, that happens frequently. People simply don’t know the evidence for Christianity. A second reason is pride: Christianity says there is a King who reigns over the universe and that King is not you. Or, to put it differently, it says that you can’t fix yourself. Christianity requires humility, and the people who think Christianity is simply a crutch are often people who are quite proud. A third reason why people don’t believe is that they already have a god in their lives that they worship. We call this idolatry. Of course, most people don’t think they are worshiping a god or an idol. But whatever is most important to us, whatever we trust in for security and peace and meaning and comfort, whatever we love the most, whatever dictates our behavior, that thing is our true god, the true object of our worship. Christianity says that we must worship the true God and forsake all false gods. Many people don’t want to do that, so they don’t come to Christ in faith.
The reason I bring all this up is because today we’re going to look at a passage from one of the Gospels, one of the biographies of Jesus, that contrasts two types of people. There are children, who can be quite trusting in others. And then there is a proud man whose real god is his wealth. Jesus tells us that to enter into God’s kingdom, to be one of God’s people, to be forgiven of all the wrong we’ve ever done, and to have life eternal, we must have the faith of a child. Jesus also says that those who put their trust in other things will not enter the kingdom of God.
We’ll see all of this in Luke 18:15–34. We’ll start by reading the first three verses. Here is Luke 18:15–17:
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
People were bringing infants to Jesus, probably so that he could bless them. The word used here of them, βρέφος, is used of babies, including unborn babies (Luke 1:41, 44). In a world of high infant mortality, perhaps they wanted Jesus to heal them, even preemptively. But when Jesus’ followers see this, they rebuke these people. They probably thought that Jesus was too busy to bother with babies. They were not viewed as important people. But Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, . . . for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t saying that all babies and toddlers are automatically part of the kingdom of God. He’s not saying anything about infant baptism. He’s making a point about faith. So, he says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Young children rely on parents and other adults for many things. An infant is totally reliant upon a parent for food, clothing, protection, and just about everything short of breathing. A toddler relies on parents for those same things, even though they are a bit older and can walk. Even young children trust their parents to do many things for them. It wasn’t all that long ago that my children were asking us to help them brush their teeth. The point that Jesus is making is not that we should be childish in every way. There are many ways in which we shouldn’t be childish. Children aren’t well educated or wise. They don’t know how to handle the complexities of this world. But Jesus says that we must rely upon God the way that a child relies upon a parent. We must trust that God and God alone can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
God alone can open the wide the gates of his kingdom for us. God alone can remove our problem, our tumor, our disease, the incurable wound of our soul. We call that sin. Sin is all the wrong actions we do. But it’s more than that. It’s a power at work in us, one that distorts our desires. It takes us away from God and causes us to think that we are gods. It’s a failure to love God, to trust him, to worship him, and to obey him. God made us for those things. He made us to have a right relationship with him. But sin destroys that relationship. Sin is what causes decay and death in this world. And the one thing that we can’t do on our own is remove sin and its effects. We cannot uproot it and kill it. It kills us. So, we must trust that God can do this. Such faith honors God.
Luke, the author of this Gospel, contrasts the faith of a child with the faith of a proud man. We see this in the next passage, verses 18–30:
18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Now, someone else comes to Jesus. It’s a ruler, probably a man who had some position of civic or political authority. He was a man of good standing, probably someone very respected, someone very successful and, in the eyes of the world, a good man. He addresses Jesus as a “Good Teacher,” and he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. In other words, how can I be part of God’s kingdom? The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, promised that there is life after death for God’s people. Death is not the final word. There will be a resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:2). Those who are part of God’s kingdom will rise to “everlasting life.” They will live with God in a new world, a physical world much like this one but cleansed of all sin. There will be nothing evil, nothing bad. It will be a beautiful and bountiful world in which there is no death (Isa. 25:6–8; 65:17–25).
It’s a bit strange that the ruler would ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You don’t do something to inherit something. You inherit something as a gift, usually because you just so happen to be related to someone else who died. But Jesus doesn’t focus on that. First, he asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” That is true. The Bible says that all mere human beings are not good (Rom. 3:10–12). In fact, Jesus has already called his disciples evil in this Gospel (Luke 11:13). I think the reason why Jesus says this is not just to claim that he is God. Jesus is not a mere man. He is the God-man. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He is not a created being. But over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. And he alone lived a perfect life. He never did anything wrong. He didn’t sin because he wasn’t tainted by the power of sin. So, Jesus might be saying something like this: “You have called me good, but only God is good. So, if I’m truly good, I must be truly God.” I think what Jesus is really doing is getting this man to see that he, the ruler, is not good. He is also getting the ruler to focus on God, and not on himself.
Then, Jesus says, more or less, “Obey the commandments to inherit eternal life.” Then, he mentions five of the Ten Commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents. The Ten Commandments were at the heart of the covenant made with Israel in the Old Testament. Basically, God said to Israel, “If you want to remain my people, this is how you’re supposed to live.” The logic of the Bible when it comes to sin is that if it were possible for us never to sin, we would live forever with God. But our obedience must be perfect. Our righteousness must not be relative to others. We can’t say, “Well, I’m better than most people, so that must be good enough for God.” God demands perfection. Jesus is trying to get the ruler to think about whether he has been perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous.
Amazingly, the ruler says, “Oh, I’ve always kept those commands, even from my youth.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to avoid breaking those five commandments, at least in fairly literal ways. However, elsewhere, Jesus says that if we have lust for someone who is not our spouse, we’re committing adultery, and if we hate someone else, we’re committing murder (Matt. 5:21–30). But the ruler didn’t understand that. He sincerely thought he had a perfect record when it comes to those commandments.
But Jesus knows this man’s heart. Jesus left out some other commandments. The first is not to have any other “gods” before the true God. The second is not to make any idols. Jesus knows what this man’s true god is and he asks this man to forsake that god. So, he says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus does not command everyone to sell everything. This is the only time he says that. Next week, we’ll meet Zacchaeus, a wealthy man who leaves his old life to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, not all of it, and there’s no hint that he failed to do what Jesus required of him.
One thing that’s important to see about Jesus is that he treated people as individuals. He knows the hearts of people. He doesn’t automatically put everyone in groups. He doesn’t say that all rich people are bad and must give away all their wealth. He doesn’t say that all poor people are good and have been unfairly oppressed. In short, he doesn’t play identity politics. He doesn’t lump people together into stereotyped or generalized groups. He is the Great Physician, and part of what makes a doctor great is the ability to accurately diagnose a person’s health. Jesus peers into the soul of this rich man and sees that his true god is money. So, he asks this man to get rid of that god. The best way to remove the grip of greed in your life is to give your wealth away.
But this ruler won’t do it. He won’t part ways with his wealth. Instead, he is “very sad.” The same Greek word is used of Jesus on the night before he died. In that case, it’s translated as “very sorrowful” (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:26). Jesus has promised him eternal life, a heavenly treasure that can never be taken away from him, and the man won’t make that deal. He was grieved at the thought of it. Jesus then says that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, which is simply an impossible thing.
Why does Jesus say that? Is it that being rich means one is a particularly bad sinner? No. The Bible doesn’t say that the wealthy are worse sinners. The Bible doesn’t say that money itself is the root of all evil. The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Money is a powerful idol, one that promises comfort and security.
I saw a powerful illustration of this in the recent movie called All the Money in the World. It’s based on a real story. The grandson of J. Paul Getty, an oil magnate, was kidnapped by Italians in Rome when he was a teenager. This was in 1973. Getty was recently known as the richest man in the world. The kidnappers demanded a $17 million ransom for the teenager’s release, but Getty refused to pay. At first, he believed that his grandson, Paul, and the boy’s mother, Getty’s daughter-in-law, concocted the kidnapping story as a way of bilking Getty. Later, he finds out Paul has actually been kidnapped, but he still refuses to pay.
In a scene with Mark Wahlberg (who plays a fictional security agent and former CIA agent, Fletcher Chace), Christopher Plummer (who plays Getty) says he can’t pay the ransom because his financial position has never been more vulnerable. There is news of an oil embargo, which has raised the price of oil. However, he fears that the embargo will be lifted and that the price of oil will crash. The two characters then have this exchange:
Chace: We have to pay.
Getty: This simply isn’t possible. My financial situation has changed. . . .
Chace: Mr. Getty, with all due respect, nobody has ever been richer than you are at this moment.
Getty: I have no money to spare.
Chace: What would it take? What would it take for you to feel secure?
A little over three minutes later in the movie, there’s a scene that teases the audience. Getty is called into a room by a secretary to meet with a man who asks if he’s serious about making payment. Getty says he wouldn’t be meeting with the man if he were not. The man says there can be no more games; payment must be made in cash on that day. Getty asks for proof first. “After you,” says the man. Getty asks a man to give proof of his money; his assistant opens a briefcase containing cash. Then Getty walks to a small painting, which has been under a veil. It is a painting of a mother with a child. The man says, “Because of the painting’s disputed provenance, it can never be publicly displayed.” In other words, this is probably a stolen painting. Getty says he’s disappointed about the painting’s condition and isn’t sure if it’s worth the $1.5 million price. The other man says that true masterpieces rarely go on sale. If Getty is unwilling to pay, he will never own one. So, Getty pays.
Getty was willing to pay $1.5 million for a painting he could never display outside his home, even though he just said he had no money to spare to free his grandson. That is the power of greed. That is a picture of idolatry. He was so attached to his money and the things it could buy that he couldn’t part with it.
But if “the love of money” is an idol, you don’t have to be rich to worship that false god. Poor people can love money just the same. And idols aren’t limited to money. The most important thing in your life could be a relationship, or sex. Some people won’t come to faith in Jesus because it means not having sex outside the bounds of marriage. Some people won’t become Christians because their boyfriend or girlfriend, or their husband or wife, isn’t a Christian. Other people put their careers, or their entertainment, or their devotion to the great god of the gridiron, ahead of Jesus. If Jesus were standing here, looking into your eyes and peering into the depths of your soul, what would he ask you to give up? What would he tell you to forsake?
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read this:
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23–25)
Inheriting the kingdom is a gift. It’s free. But following Jesus is costly. It requires giving things up. But we gain far more by losing than we could ever gain by keeping. By giving up, we gain God and the whole world. By keeping, we retain our pride and our idol, but we lose everything in the end. Jesus gives us the best of deals. It may appear that we are losing, but when we come to him, we can only gain. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples that though they had left their homes and their careers, they have gained. He says that everyone who is willing to leave their old lives “will . . . receive many more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” We may leave old relationships behind, but we gain new ones in this life. We also gain peace and purpose by becoming Christians. And, in the life to come, we gain a perfect world, real life unending. We will live in a beautiful, joyful world, one full of the deepest pleasures, because we will live with the great being there is, God himself. So, becoming a Christian is not losing. It’s gaining. The missionary Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
The disciples, who had given up so much to follow Jesus, wondered how anyone could be saved. How can we be saved from death? How can we be saved from the punishment that we deserve for our sins? How can anyone gain admission to the kingdom of God? If an upright man like this rich ruler couldn’t gain entry, how can anyone else?
Jesus answered the disciples’ question of who can be saved by stating that those who follow him, those who are willing to forsake everyone else, those who trust Jesus the way a young child trusts a loving parent, can be saved. Jesus said that this is impossible for us to achieve. “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” But Jesus didn’t say exactly how God could bring about this impossible state of affairs. How can God save those who can’t merit salvation on their own?
Let’s look quickly at the next four verses in Luke, Luke 18:31–34:
31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Jesus had already predicted his upcoming death before (Luke 9:22, 44). But this prediction gives us more information. He says that in Jerusalem, where they will soon be, all the things written about “the Son of Man,” a title Jesus uses of himself, will be fulfilled. He will be handed over by the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles, the Romans. He will be mocked and spat upon. He will be flogged. He will then be killed on a cross, a Roman instrument of torture and execution. But on the third day, he will rise from the grave, in a body that can never die again.
The disciples couldn’t understand this. They understood the words Jesus said, but they didn’t believe it was possible. They couldn’t see how Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Messiah, could possibly be treated this way. God hid this understanding from them until Jesus rose from the grave.
But we live on this side of the cross and resurrection, and we have the rest of the Bible. We know that Jesus was killed because of many factors: unbelieving Jews, unbelieving Romans, and even Satan, the devil himself. But ultimately, his death was God’s plan (Acts 2:21–24; 4:27–28). The way that God could do the impossible, saving sinners, is by having someone live a righteous life in their place, die an atoning death in their place, and rise from the grave to show the penalty of sin had been paid in full and that all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the grave, never to die again. All who have a childlike faith in Jesus are credited with his righteousness. It’s as if we never sinned. God doesn’t just overlook our sin. No, the sins of all Christians were punished when Jesus died on the cross. And we’re told that all who trust in Jesus will rise from the dead and live with God in paradise forever.
The question for all of us today is, do we believe this is true? Are we willing to trust Jesus? Do we trust that he is the Great Physician, the only one who can heal us? Are we willing to follow him?
If not, perhaps our pride is holding us back. We want to be in charge of our lives. But doing that is foolish. It’s like wanting to be in charge of your own surgery. Perhaps we don’t want to follow Jesus because it means changing our lives, giving up things we know are wrong, or things that we love and cherish too much. Think about this: someone or something will separate you from what you love. If you’re not separated from that idol by something in this life, then death will separate you from it. What you’re clinging to won’t last. And it can’t rescue you from death and from condemnation. What do you love more than God? What do you trust more than God? What dictates your behavior more than God? That is your idol. Give it up and follow Jesus. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to do this now. I would be glad to talk to you personally to help you follow Jesus and to answer your questions. But, Christians, we also must hear the words of Jesus today. We have a tendency to go back to our idols. We have a tendency to not want to follow Jesus, because that path can very well lead to suffering. If the world hated our Master, it will hate us, too (John 15:18–19). But at the end of that path, beyond suffering and beyond persecution, is glory. Beyond even death is the risen Jesus, who will receive God’s children into his kingdom. Let us follow him on that path.
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3. ↑
- Ibid., 7. ↑
- Ibid., 5. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
How can one be part of God’s kingdom? What can one do to inherit eternal life? We must have a child-like faith in Jesus, trusting that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But pride and false gods get in the way of such faith. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 18:15-34 on September 15, 2019.
About exactly ten years ago, Kathy and I took a vacation to California. We flew from Seattle to San Francisco, spent a couple of days there, drove down to San Diego to visit one friend, and then later drove to Palm Springs to visit another friend. Finally, we drove through Los Angeles and then drove back to San Francisco along the coast. On the way back, we stopped at San Simeon to see the Hearst Castle. This is the property developed by William Randolph Heart, the millionaire newspaper publisher. The 40,000 acres of property on which Heart’s “castle” is situated were purchased by his father in 1865. After Hearst inherited the property in 1919, he started building it up so that it would include exquisite gardens, tennis courts, a mansion, a luxurious indoor swimming pool, and several guest houses. In the 1920s and 1930s, Hearst hosted parties for the rich and famous, and several movie stars like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable stayed there, as did other famous people like Winston Churchill and Charles Lindbergh.
Hearst Castle is impressive. All of it is ornate. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is eclectic and eccentric. Perhaps some of it is just gaudy. Hearst spent millions of dollars to build up the place over nearly three decades. We were able to tour the estate, seeing the various buildings in their ostentatious glory.
Do you know who lives in Hearst Castle? As far as I know, no one does. But I can tell you who certainly doesn’t live there: William Randolph Hearst. He died in 1951. Hearst Castle is a monument to his wealth, but it also feels like a grand waste. I felt the same way when Kathy and I went to Newport a few years ago and toured the mansion called The Breakers, which has now become a museum of sorts, a museum of lavish amounts of money spent on one of the fanciest summer homes the world has ever known.
Homes like these are reminders of how people have spent extraordinary amounts of money on themselves. I’ve been a in few estates and castles like this, and I always get the same feeling: Though these places are impressive, they were built as monuments to the self, a self that long since died, a soul who now is either with God for eternity or, perhaps more likely, is apart from God for eternity. These places feel like memorials to lives that were wasted.
Today, as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to encounter some hard words from Jesus about wealth and possessions. As we read these words, let’s not think that they apply only to the fabulously rich. By the world’s standards, we are very rich. Let us hear from Jesus, and let’s not be defensive. Let’s consider how we could better use all that God has given to us, so that we wouldn’t build monuments to waste. Instead, let us consider how we could be better stewards of God’s wealth.
We’re going to read Luke 12:13–34 today. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is a biography of Jesus. Most of Luke’s Gospel concerns the years before Jesus’ death, and a good chunk of the Gospel details Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, when he was crucified and then rose from the grave. We’re now in a section of the Gospel where Jesus is doing a lot of teaching.
So, let’s go ahead and read verses 13–21:
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Jesus has been teaching and someone interrupts him. This man wants Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute between him and his brother. It’s probably more likely that this man wants Jesus to settle the dispute in his favor. He may have been a younger brother whose older brother refused to divide the family’s inheritance. We don’t know. But we do know that in Israel’s law, there are passages that deal with inheritance issues (Num. 27:10–11; 36:2–10; Deut. 21:15–17). Since Jesus is regarded as a religious teacher, it makes sense for someone to ask him to help. But Jesus did not come to settle family squabbles, and Jesus cannot be manipulated or used to do our selfish bidding.
So, Jesus refused to get involved. Jesus is a judge, and people will stand before him in judgment one day, but he had better things to do than mediate this family issue.
Jesus tells his followers to be on guard against greed and covetousness, because life is more than possessions. Then, Jesus tells a parable, which are so common in Luke’s Gospel. A parable is a little story, probably fictional, that teaches theological truths in colorful and memorable ways.
The parable is quite easy to understand. There’s a rich man whose land has produced a great deal of crops. He looks around and sees that he has so much that he can’t store it all. So, he decides to build new storehouses. And when he’s done, he thinks he can “relax, eat, drink, [and] be merry.” This man is living the American dream in first-century Palestine.
In reality, the Bible teaches that it is God that causes crops to grow (Ps. 104:14). But this man isn’t thinking about God; he’s thinking about himself. In his little soliloquy, there are six first-person verbs—“I will do this” and “I will do that”—and there are five occurrences of “my”—my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul. But the fact is that God is the owner of all. Psalm 24:1 says,
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.
In Psalm 50, God says that he doesn’t need sacrifices. He doesn’t need the Israelites, who had been offering up sacrifices in bad faith, to present animals such as bulls to him. God then gives the reason why in verses 10–12:
10 For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
God owns everything. But this man couldn’t see that. All he thought was, “I, me, mine.”
And there was something else the man couldn’t see: his own expiration date. He thought he could sit back and enjoy all his stuff for years. He didn’t realize that death can come at any time. As the Preacher says in Ecclesiastes: “No man has power to retain the spirit, or power over the day of death” (Eccl. 8:8). Death will come for us all, and death doesn’t give us a warning.
The man’s failure to realize all this is why he’s called a fool. In the Bible, “fool” isn’t just an insult. The Bible says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Pss. 14:1; 53:1). A fool may not actually say that God doesn’t exist, but he certainly lives like it. He doesn’t fear God. Last week, we read the beginning of Luke 12, in which Jesus says that we should fear God, because our eternal destination is in his hands. This man was thinking only about himself. He didn’t realize that things would not go according to plan. His materialistic dream turned into a terrible tragedy. We have no indication that he would be with God for eternity. It’s just the opposite: this man is surely cut off from God, for there’s no indication that he had a right relationship with him.
And Jesus warns us in verse 21: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” Everyone who acts like this man will experience a similar fate. We will either realize that all we have is a gift from God, and we will use it accordingly, or we will act like everything is ours, and we will build our little castles and say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” to use a phrase we’ll encounter next week (1 Cor. 15:32). While it may seem wise to pamper ourselves, to spare no comfort or joy that money can afford, we would be foolish to do that. We would be foolish because such a way of living doesn’t think of God. It doesn’t recognize that God has given us everything we have. It doesn’t ask, “God, what do you want me to do with all that you’ve given me?” It doesn’t spend precious resources on the things that God cares about. It’s a waste. Also, it’s foolish because we can’t take it with us when we die. And the Bible acknowledges that after we die, our possessions will be left to others, and in some cases, they’ll forget about us and use that inheritance unwisely (Pss. 39:6; 49:10; Eccl. 2:20–23).
This parable raises some important questions. Is it wrong to save for the future? I don’t think so. I think we can read some of the Proverbs as saying that it’s wise to work hard when you can so that you will have food later (Prov. 6:6–8; 10:4–5; 28:19). The reality is that we only have so much time to work, and then later there will be a time when we can’t work, or at least not as hard. So, it’s wise to save while we can so that we will have some later to live on. But there are many Proverbs that warn about greed. Consider these:
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.
Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
A stingy man hastens after wealth
and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
There is clearly a line between being greedy and being prosperous and being generous. If God has given you abilities to work hard and talents that allow you to have a good job, there’s nothing wrong with making a lot of money. The question is what we do with that money. Do we hoard it, or do we give generously to advance the kingdom of God and to give to those who are needy?
Perhaps the best thing is to be neither too rich nor too poor, but somewhere in the middle. That idea, too, comes from Proverbs. This is what Proverbs 30:7–9 says:
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Being poor might lead us to be angry with God, or to do something unethical to get what we need to survive. But the bigger warning is against being rich and complacent. If all our material needs are met, we might deny God and say, “Who is the Lord?” We might not literally say that, but it’s easy to be slack in our dependence on God when we have everything we think we need. That certainly happened in Israel’s history (Moses saw it coming in Deut. 31:20). And we see it today, too.
Part of the reason why riches are so dangerous is that money can be an idol. The apostle Paul says that greed and covetousness is an idol (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). He also says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). He doesn’t say money or wealth is necessarily a root of evil, but it’s the love of those things. And if you hoard those things, you love them, or you’re at least putting your faith in those things.
It may be strange to think of money, wealth, and our love of these things as idols. Aren’t idols little statues that primitive and ignorant people worshiped? Well, not necessarily. Anything can be an idol. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, has written a great little book on idolatry called Counterfeit Gods. In it, he writes: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” He says that an idol is the thing that we think we can’t live without. It’s the kind of thing that dominates our life. If we lose it, we think our life is not worth living. It’s what we daydream about, what we think the most about, what consumes are time and energy. Perhaps it’s what we don’t yet have, something we’re desperate to acquire, because we think it will give our lives meaning. In short, an idol is whatever takes the place that God should have in our lives. God made us for himself. God should be at the center of our lives, but an idol removes God from his throne, at least in our hearts, and usurps his place. An idol is whatever we love the most, trust the most, and obey the most.
Keller says that we can have “surface idols,” like money, a career, a relationship, sex, entertainment, or all kinds of things. But those surface idols are built on the “deep idols” of power, approval, comfort, and security. Think about why we want money. We think it will give us the power to do or to have what we want. If we have enough money, we can control our lives. We can improve our health, improve our looks, improve our social status. If we have enough money, we’ll get approval. People will love us, they’ll want to be with us. If we have enough money, we can have all the comfort this world can give us. And if we have enough money, we can have security, or so we think. We can have a retirement plan. If an accident occurs, we’ll be ready. “Money answers everything”—that’s what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes thought (Eccl. 10:19), but it seems that he didn’t think of life from an eternal perspective.
But nothing can give us ultimate security. Only God can do that. Houses can burn down. Riches can be stolen or lost. Investments can tank. Another Proverb says that wealth can “suddenly . . . sprout wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (Prov. 23:5). Money cannot give us power over death. It cannot give us the comfort of a right relationship with God, of being at peace with our Maker. Money certainly can’t buy his approval. Money is a gift, but it’s meant to be used in the way the Giver wants us to use it.
We’ll think a bit more about the right use of wealth. But let’s now turn to rest of today’s passage. Here is Luke 12:22–34:
22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Here, Jesus tells us not to worry so much about money. God will take care of his people. Again, Jesus says that life is more than stuff, even more than basic things like food and clothing. God takes care of ravens, which were regarded as unclean animals, animals that the Israelites couldn’t eat (Lev. 11:15; Deut. 14:14). Perhaps the reference to ravens is a reminder that God used ravens to feed the prophet Elijah during a time of famine (1 Kgs. 17:4, 6). If God can take care of birds, who don’t plant and harvest, won’t he take care of human beings? If God makes sure that lilies, which are alive today and dead tomorrow, are clothed in beauty, won’t he make sure that his people are clothed?
Jesus’ point is to trust God for basic provisions. That’s why he teaches his followers to pray for their daily bread (Luke 11:3). Every day, we should rely upon God. Imagine how Jesus’ initial audience had to rely on God. They lived in a culture in which people had to work hard almost every day just to survive. They relied on each season’s crop, which meant they relied on the weather, which only God can control. The lived hand to mouth, and they had to live with the reminder that God causes rain to fall and crops to grow. In the west, we tend to forget all about this. Our prosperity causes us to think we’re self-reliant instead of God-reliant.
Jesus tells us to trust that our Father in heaven is good and will supply all our needs. Therefore, we don’t need to worry. The Gentiles, those apart from God, worry. But one sign of a Christian is that he or she knows God will provide. So, instead of worrying about money and food and clothing and shelter, we should first seek the kingdom of God. Seek the King. Worship him. Praise him. Live life on his terms. And ask him to provide what you need.
We should do that because God gives his children himself. God gives his children his kingdom. God has given us his own Son. If God did not spare his own precious Son, how much more will he give us little things like food and clothing!
Jesus ends this section of teaching by telling his followers to sell their possessions, to give to the needy, and to make their treasure in heaven, for that treasure cannot be lost or stolen, neither will it decay. What we treasure most is an indication of what we love the most. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Again, the issue really comes down to what we’re worshiping. If we worship God, he will be our treasure, and we won’t worry so much about how much money we have. But if we’re always thinking about money, if we’re always motivated by money, then we have a problem. Money has become our real treasure, our idol. And that is the greatest sin.
So, what do we do with this passage? One temptation would be to think that this passage is directed only at the “1 percent,” the über-rich. But let’s not make that mistake. Jesus was talking to a group of people who weren’t terribly wealthy. In fact, by our standards, they were quite poor.
The first thing we should do is have a biblical view of money and possessions. Everything we have comes from God. Even the ability to work hard, to have lucrative skills, comes from God (Deut. 8:17–18). Every good gift comes from his hand (James 1:17). And God has called us to trust that he will provide. He has called us to manage what he has given to us wisely. He has called us to give to others.
At the end of Paul’s first letter to his younger associate, Timothy, he tells Timothy that some people think that godliness is a way to become wealthy. There were people who believed the prosperity gospel then, just as there are people who believe that now. You know that message: “If you really believe in God, he will give you wealth.” People somehow think that God can be manipulated, like a celestial genie, or a heavenly ATM. So, Paul tells Timothy this in 1 Timothy 6:6–10:
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Then, a few verses later, Paul adds this (1 Tim. 6:17–19):
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
God gives us good things to enjoy, but he gives us those things also to be rich in good works, to be generous to those who are needy. Elsewhere, we’re told to give to people in ministry, too, which is why we give to the church (1 Tim. 5:17–18, also 1 Cor. 9:4–14; Gal. 6:6). If we use our resources in the way that God wants us to, we’re showing that God is our true treasure. We’re storing up treasure for ourselves, a treasure that gives us true life.
Does this mean that we have to sell all our possessions and give them away? I don’t think so. Jesus doesn’t tell us to sell all our possessions. And, if we think about it, he might just be saying, “Give your money away.” In those days, there weren’t banks and investments, at least not the way we have banks and stocks and bonds today. I’m guessing that most people didn’t have a lot of coins in their possession. Most of their wealth would be stored in what they owned: their house, their clothing, perhaps some jewelry, quite often animals. The wealthier might have had some precious metals or stones. So, for them to give money away, they would first have to sell their possessions. At any rate, Jesus is certainly calling us to give generously, but that doesn’t mean we must give everything away. Later in Luke’s Gospel, we’ll encounter Zacchaeus, a tax collector who meets Jesus and is changed. Zacchaeus gives away half of his wealth and he is lifted up as an example (Luke 19:1–10).
A couple of weeks ago, I said that every generation has its blind spots. We have certain things in our lives that we don’t realize are sins. I wonder how future generations of Christians will look back at us. We can look back and say, “I can’t believe Christians owned slaves, or we’re racists,” or whatever. Future generations will look at us, I’m sure, and wonder how we could tolerate sexual sins, so much divorce, pornography, and abortion. I’m sure they’ll look at our society, with its triviality and entertainment, and wonder how we could be so shallow. But they’ll also look at our wealth and wonder why we didn’t give more. They’ll wonder whether we loved God or our money more. According to theologian Craig Blomberg, “It is arguable that materialism is the single biggest competitor with authentic Christianity for the hearts and souls of millions in our world today, including many in the visible church.”
There are always people and causes to give to. There is no shortage of poor people throughout the world. And we can give to Christian organizations who help the poor and the sick. You can sponsor a child through Compassion International or World Vision. Both organizations help with disaster relief, and other Christian agencies do that, too. The Voice of the Martyrs helps persecuted Christians, often with practical things like food, housing, and medicine. There are many ways to give to the poor. And we should remember that Jesus never says it’s the government’s job to take care of poverty. He doesn’t call for higher tax rates and more state-run welfare programs. He calls his followers to voluntarily give, and we can give to organizations that help the poor and tell others about Jesus.
Of course, churches, missionaries, and other Christian institutions need money. And we should give to them, and we should do so generously. Most of the things we spend our money on won’t last. But when we give to things that help advance God’s kingdom, our money is used for eternal causes. When we use our money to help other people get Bibles, or help other people hear the gospel, or help other people become better disciples, we’re spending our money on eternal matters.
And, above all, we should be thankful for all that God has given to us. When we’re greedy, we’re not content with what we have. And a failure to be content is a failure to thank God. Grace should lead to thanksgiving.
So, this week, think about your stuff. Do you own your stuff, or does your stuff own you? Will you let God control your life, including your possessions, or are you trying to control everything? Are you using your things wisely? Are there ways that you could be more generous? Could you literally sell something, whether a physical object or an investment, and give more money away? Think about the end of your life: Do you want to be known for building a castle full of toys, or for giving generously, particularly to eternal causes? Ask God to lead you in this. Think about it. And then act.
And let us be thankful. God has given us so much. God has given us his Son, Jesus. Though we all have idols, though we all have failed to love God and worship him and obey him and trust him, though we all have sinned, God has given us everything we need to be reconciled to him. And Jesus left his luxurious home in heaven to become a man, to live a righteous life for us and to die an atoning death for us. He did this because his true treasure was doing the will of his Father. If your life is built on the counterfeit god of money, or on any other idol, I urge you to smash that idol and to turn to Jesus. And let us all follow his example: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvii. ↑
- Ibid., xviii–xix ↑
- Ibid., xxi–xxii. ↑
- Ibid., 64–65 ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 132. ↑
Jesus warns his disciples not to store up treasures on earth and not to be greedy. Real life is far more than what we own. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message, on Luke 12:13-34, on April 14, 2019.
Everything created by God can be enjoyed if used in the right way. We sin when we use God’s creation in the wrong way, when we make an idol of something created, or if we forbid entirely the things God has made. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:1-5.
Today, we’re celebrating a baptism. Baptism is a ceremony that has great significance. It signifies a change in a person. God has transferred the person who is being baptized out of the realm of darkness and into the kingdom of light. That person has gone from spiritual death to spiritual life. The old self has died and the new self is risen in Jesus Christ.
Baptism also signifies cleansing. The person being baptized has been washed of her sins, completely forgiven because Jesus paid the penalty for her sins and because his perfect life is credited to her.
Baptism is also a ceremony that demonstrates a commitment. I compare it to a wedding ceremony. That may seem strange at first, but they share a lot in common. They are public ceremonies held before witnesses, both God and the people who are gathered. They demonstrate a change in identity. They are outward signs of something that has already happened internally. The rite of baptism represents the internal faith that a Christian has, as well as the cleansing that person has already received. (I should be clear that the rite of baptism doesn’t impart faith or saving grace.) A wedding is a sign of a commitment that two people have already made to each other. They already love each other and have agreed to live their lives together. Now, before witnesses, they make promises. In a similar way, baptism is saying “I do” to Jesus in front of the witnesses of a local church. And I think this analogy isn’t a stretch because the Bible often likens the relationship between God and his people to a marriage. That’s why we call the church the “bride of Christ.”
As we think about baptism and the commitment it entails, we should consider what it means to be a Christian. We’ve already been doing that in recent weeks as we’ve been looking at 1 John, a letter written by one of Jesus’ initial followers, the apostle John. This week’s passage, 1 John 2:12–17, fits baptism well because it talks about the commitment that Christians make when following Jesus.
The passage is divided into two halves. The first half, verses 12–14, is a bit like a poem. John has written some tough words in the previous verses. He says that those who don’t obey God don’t know him, and that those who don’t specifically obey the commandment to love others don’t know Jesus. After such stern words, John wants to encourage his readers. This poem does that. Let’s read verses 12–14 to see how John addresses his readers.
12 I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
13 I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
14 I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
I’ll have to admit that in the past I have found these verses to be a bit perplexing. I didn’t really understand what John meant. But after studying the passage, I understand it a lot better. First of all, notice the structure. In verses 12 and 13, John addresses “little children,” “fathers,” and “young men.” At the very end of verse 13 in the ESV, we read of “children,” and then in verse 14, we read of “fathers” and “young men.” So, it seems that this little poem has an A-B-C, A-B-C structure. In other words, it has two halves, and each half addresses “children,” “fathers,” and “young men.”
Now, are these supposed to be three groups of people? It seems that when John writes to “little children” or “children,” he is addressing all Christians, because throughout the letter he uses this term to address all Christians (2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). John says that the sins of the children of God have been forgiven “for his name’s sake.” This is a translation that seems to hang on to what we find in the King James Version. A better translation would be “through his name,” or “on account of his name.” The “his” is Jesus. His name represents his character, his identity, his person. His name literally means “God saves” or “God is salvation.” Because Jesus is God incarnate, who lived the perfect life that God requires of his people and died an atoning death, all who have a right relationship with him are forgiven of their sins. This is true of all Christians. It is also true that all Christians know the Father.
It would seem that John then addresses two groups of Christians. First, he addresses the “fathers.” This is probably a term used for older Christians. And then, he addresses “young men,” which probably refers to younger Christians. Both times, John says that the “fathers” know “him who is from the beginning.” That’s Jesus. The older Christians know Jesus. They don’t just know facts about him. They have a right relationship with him. They know who the real Jesus is, and they are united to him. Perhaps John is writing this because, as we’ll see next week, one of the problem that he addresses in this letter is false teachers. There were people in the churches he is writing to who didn’t know the real Jesus. But true Christians know, love, worship, and obey the true Jesus.
The younger Christians, the “young men,” “have overcome the evil one,” Satan. They are strong. The word of God abides in them. Putting that all together, we might they have the strength to overcome Satan because the word of God abides in them. The word of God is Jesus, but it’s also the message concerning Jesus. Jesus dwells in these believers by means of the Holy Spirit, and they have clung to the gospel message. This is the same thing that John writes in Revelation 12:11: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” The only way that anyone can overcome Satan is by knowing Jesus, having the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer, and clinging fast to God’s word.
To sum it up: “children” refer to all Christians; “fathers” refers to older Christians; and “young men” refers to younger Christians. Augustine, in one of his sermons on 1 John, sums it nicely: “In the sons, birth: in the fathers, antiquity: in the young men, strength.” All children of God are spiritually reborn. Older Christians have a more experienced knowledge of God. And younger Christians possess the strength of the young.
I don’t think we should get hung up on the fact that John uses male language of “fathers” and “young men.” When we read “brothers” in the letters of the Bible, it’s clear that women are also included. When masculine plural nouns are used in this way, they refer both to men and women. Truly, all Christians, whether young or old, male or female, know God and have overcome the evil one. Older Christians should have a greater knowledge of God that they can pass on to younger generations. Younger Christians can be strong in their zeal and what they can do for Jesus, but they must find their strength in Jesus and they must hold fast to Scripture.
John’s main point is that we know we are Christians if we do these things. John also uses this little poem to prepare for another strong commandment. Part of living in the light and obeying God is to give our ultimate allegiance to God. Let’s read verses 15–17 to see what John says.
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
At first, this commandment seems impossible. If we only read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” we might think that we can’t love other people, because, after all, they are in the world. And wouldn’t that contradict what John has already written? In verse 10, John writes, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.”
To understand what John means, we have to look carefully at how John defines “world.” Here’s one thing we need to keep in mind: Sometimes, “world” or “earth” simply refers to this planet and has a neutral meaning. And we know from other parts of the Bible that God made everything and it is his. Psalm 24:1 says,
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.
But “the world” can have another meaning. “Sometimes the world is seen as an organized system of human civilization and activity which is opposed to God and alienated from him.” First John 3:13 says, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Clearly, John has this negative sense of “the world” in mind.
Here’s a second thing we need to keep in mind: When interpreting one part of Scripture, we can’t pit it against other Scripture. If all Scripture is God-breathed, and is God’s word, we should expect harmony. From the rest of the Bible, we know that when God made the world, he initially made it good (Genesis 1). Though the power of sin is at work in the world, we can still enjoy God’s creation. Another apostle, Paul, tells his younger associate Timothy about people who forbid eating certain foods and even marrying. He says that this isn’t right. Paul’s reason? “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). Paul also says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). I don’t think John is teaching a different message than Paul. John doesn’t mean we can’t love other people or enjoy things that God has made.
So, here is the third thing to keep in mind: If we are going to understand what John means by “the world,” we need to pay careful attention to how he defines it. We find a definition in verse 16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” The real problem isn’t the things in the world. The problem is our desires and our pride. Almost anything in the world can be used in a positive way or a negative way. The things themselves are generally neutral. The real problem is our relationship to those things. When John warns us about loving the world, he means that we shouldn’t love the world more than we love God, or even as much as we love God. If our love for God’s creation leads us to covet and lust, and to take pride in our possessions, then we have a great problem. One commentator that I’ve been studying is Robert Yarbrough, who writes, “to set one’s heart on the world is effectively to expel God from the heart. To attempt to love God in multitasking fashion, dedicating a portion of one’s love worldward and then the remaining amount godward, is fruitless because it fails to acknowledge God as he truly is: sole, unique, sovereign, alone deserving one’s core allegiance.”
The problem, really, is our desires. We crave things that God doesn’t want us to have. Some theologians see a hint of Eve’s temptation here. She craved the forbidden fruit after Satan tempted her. She saw “that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Her pride caused her to want to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Whether John had Eve (and Adam) in mind, we all are like Eve: We crave what we don’t have, we see things we covet, and we tend to rely on our possessions. Instead of being content with what God has given us and relying on the Giver, we make the gift ultimate and we want more and more.
Because of our sinful condition, we tend to make even good gifts ultimate things in our lives. When we do that, we ignore the Giver. I quoted Augustine, one of the church’s most influential theologians, earlier. In one of his sermons on 1 John, he said that we tend to make the things of this world the objects of our worship. He said,
God does not forbid you to love these things, nevertheless, [God commands] not to set your affections upon them for blessedness, but to approve and praise them to this end, that you may love your Creator. In the same manner, my brothers, as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her: would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, however she did but love what the bridegroom gave her? By all means let her love what the bridegroom gave: yet should she say, “This ring is enough for me, I do not wish to see his face now:” what sort of woman would she be? Who would not detest such folly? who not pronounce her guilty of an adulterous mind?
Wouldn’t it be strange if a man proposed to his girlfriend and she took the engagement ring and said, “Thanks, but now that I have this ring, I don’t require your services anymore”? Wouldn’t it also be strange if she said, “You gave me this modest ring? Why didn’t you give me a bigger diamond? Don’t you know I want platinum and not gold?” Augustine says that we are like that woman. We take the good things that God has given us but we don’t want a relationship with God. Or we’re not content with what God has given us and we want more and more.
That’s the problem with our cravings. In fact, there are several problems with loving the world in this ultimate way, as opposed to loving God. One, when we covet and lust and desire more and more, we aren’t grateful. We don’t really love the Giver. Instead, we take the gift and ignore the One who gave it to us. We don’t thank him. We don’t want a relationship with him. And we certainly don’t want him to be our King. Our problem is that we don’t want God to be our authority. We don’t trust that he is a good King. Something or someone else fills that role of authority in our lives. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters. We will end up hating one and loving the other, or being devoted to one and not the other (Matt. 6:24). We often think we can handle the role of King, and so we reject God. When we reject God, we think we’re free.
But this leads us to another problem with loving the world in the way that John write about. Two, the person who follows every urge isn’t free. That person is enslaved by his or her desires. And that person is never happy and never satisfied. He’s like someone who is thirsty but only has salt water to drink. The salt water never quenches his thirst. In fact, it increases his thirst.
That is because the goods of the world can’t satisfy us. They hold out that promise, of course, but it’s all a cheat. So many of us long for things that we will never get, like riches and power and fame and the world’s greatest entertainments. But even if we did get them, we would find that, though nice, they don’t live up to their billing. They would leave us wanting more. They would leave us asking, “Is that all there is?”
A third problem is that, as John puts is, “the world is passing away.” All the things we crave don’t last. The things we take pride in aren’t eternal. There are so many good things that we can misuse my making them ultimate things in our lives. We can do that with our marriages. Marriage is a good gift, but your spouse can never be your Lord and Savior. And our marriages have expiration dates. Some people make their children their idols. But our relationship with children may not last, and they certainly will disappoint us. Some people live for entertainment and pleasure, but those are the shortest-lasting things that exist. The same is true for sex. All of the things that we tend to desire the most don’t last. How foolish are we to put our trust in them? Especially when our lives are short and our deaths are inevitable?
Blaise Pascal once wrote, “You do not need a greatly elevated soul to realize that in this life there is no true and firm satisfaction, that all our pleasures are simply vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and lastly that death, which threatens us at every moment, must in a few years infallibly present us with the appalling necessity of being either annihilated or wretched for all eternity.” In other words, you don’t have to be particularly smart or astute to know that all our pleasures don’t satisfy, that they’re empty, that our pain is great, and that death threatens to put an end to us. If you’re an atheist, you assume that death means annihilation, the end, full stop. But if there’s a heaven and a hell, then there’s something infinitely worse, a wretched experience for all eternity. This should force us to wake up, to take a more serious look at what matters in life.
Elsewhere, Pascal has the following meditation:
When I consider the short span of my life absorbed into the preceding and subsequent eternity . . . , the small space which I fill and even can see, swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I am terrified, and surprised to find myself here rather than there, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?
If we think about our lives in the grand spaces of time and of the universe, we should be terrified. Who are we? We’re just specks of dust in a massive universe. What do we matter? Compared to eternity, our lives are but mists. Why should we live here and now? Why should we exist? Who put us here? The fact that our lives come and go in the vast spaces of eternity should cause us to ask questions. And, if we’re wise, we should want to grab on to something eternal.
In the same sermon I quoted earlier, Augustine says that the one eternal thing we can hold onto is Jesus. He says
The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal. Something was added to Him from time, not anything went from His eternity. But you were born temporal, and by sin were made temporal: you were made temporal by sin, He was made temporal by mercy in remitting sins.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like life is “rushing down the stream to the headlong deep.” Time moves quickly, and it only moves in one direction. We all have the experience of having time evade our grasp. We can’t hold on to the best moments and we can’t go back in time to fix the bad ones. And as we get older, time seems to move more swiftly. But Jesus is the eternal one who entered time to make us eternal. If we hold fast to him, though the world passes away, we will not.
John tells us that whoever does the will of God abides forever. We don’t get eternal life by doing the will of God, as if eternal life is something we could ever earn. That’s not the gospel. Eternal life is a gift received by those who trust in Jesus. In fact, we can say that Jesus is the only one who truly loved the Father more than he loved the world. He loved the Father more than the world for the sake of the world. He is the one who was able to resist the desires of this world. Augustine says that Satan tried to tempt Jesus with the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life. According to Augustine,
By these three was the Lord tempted of the devil. By the lust of the flesh He was tempted when it was said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, speak to these stones that they become bread,” when He hungered after His fast. . . . He was tempted also by the lust of the eyes concerning a miracle, when he said to Him, “Cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone.” . . . By “pride of life” how was the Lord tempted? When he carried Him up to a high place, and said to Him, “All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” By the loftiness of an earthly kingdom he wished to tempt the King of all worlds: but the Lord who made heaven and earth trod the devil under foot.
Jesus did what we can’t do, live the perfect life, for us.
Those who follow Jesus will follow in his footsteps. They don’t love the world in the way that John writes about. They love God first and foremost. They can love other people and the world, but not in a way that competes with their love for God. And, as John says earlier in his letter, those who have eternal life confess their sin, are cleansed, obey God, and love others. These are all signs of a Christian.
In fact, there’s a clear connection between verses 12–14 and verses 15–17. The ones whom John addresses in verses 12–14 are the ones who don’t love the world more than they love God. They are the ones who do the will of God. Their love for God and their obedience to God are daily realities. But those who love the world more than they love God, who love the gift but not the Giver, are the ones who do not overcome the evil one. They will not receive eternal life because they don’t walk in the light.
What does this mean for us? I see two important applications from this passage, one that is implied in verses 12–14 and one that is quite clear in verses 15–17.
In his little poem, John talks about older and younger Christians. In an ideal world, older Christians would be mature and would have a great knowledge of God. In the real world, I have seen older people who have been very immature in their faith, who have been selfish and demanded that things in church be done “their way,” and who haven’t had great theological knowledge. That shouldn’t be the case. Older Christians should have great wisdom, knowledge, and experience, and they should pass that on to younger Christians. John doesn’t say that here, but that is a very biblical concept. If you take your faith seriously and are living in light of eternity, and if you’re a “father” of the church, you should mentor someone younger. Older Christians, what are you doing now to pass on your knowledge and wisdom to younger generations? If you’re not doing anything along these lines, why not? Is the love of the world stopping you?
Younger Christians, you should also pay heed to what John says. You may have physical strength, but do you have spiritual strength? Are you overcoming the evil one by clinging to the word of God? Do you know the word of God? It is so important to know the Bible and to hold fast to the gospel message. In John’s day, people had left the churches because they had abandoned the faith that John and the other apostles taught. If you don’t know the word of God, you may be like those people whom John describes in verse 19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Real Christians abide in Christ by doing the simple things like reading the Bible and praying on a daily basis and being a part of the church. False Christians have a superficial knowledge of God’s word. They won’t overcome the evil one; instead, they will be overcome.
The second application for us comes from verses 15–17. We should love God more than anything else, and we should take our faith seriously. We should live in light of eternity. So many things in this world will pass away. So much of what we waste our time on will be gone and will be forgotten. Much of what seems important right now won’t even be a footnote in the pages of history. That’s true of stories in the news. It’s true of sports and entertainment. It’s true of our hobbies. And if our love for any of these things has displaced our love for God, we’re in trouble. At the least, it harms our relationship with God and keeps us from experiencing fully his presence, love, and blessings. It also keeps us from being effective Christians. At worst, our disordered desires and loves may be a sign that we aren’t really Christians.
This passage should cause all of us to reassess our lives. Do we love the world as much we love God? Do we love the world more than we love God? If so, then the things that God has created have become idols to us. We get more joy of them than we get joy from God. We trust them to fulfill us more than we trust God. We’re more committed to them than we’re committed to God. Some of us are more committed to our hobbies than we are to God. If your hobby keeps you from worshiping God, from committing to the local church, then you need to repent. We must continue to worship together each Lord’s Day, to serve in the church and be served. We shouldn’t be like the bride who takes the ring from the groom and then ignores him.
Some of us may covet what we don’t have. We may wish we had more of what others have, what the world offers. If that is the case, we should consider what God has given to us and be thankful. Enjoy what God has given you to enjoy, and let those gifts lead you to praise the Giver. Don’t be like the woman who, upon receiving the engagement ring, asks, “Is this the best ring you could give me?”
Some of us may take pride in our possessions, trusting them instead of trusting in God. We may be like the woman who says, “Look at my ring” instead of “look at my husband,” the one who takes pride in the gift instead of the Giver. Remember that your possessions will pass away. They won’t die to pay for your sins. They won’t forgive you if you don’t take care of them. But Jesus did die for your sins, and he has forgiven you and will forgive you. If you’ve been baptized, if you professed your “I do” to Jesus, then continue to trust in him. He is the only Savior, the eternal God who entered into history to save temporal man. And if you haven’t said “I do” to Jesus, I would urge you to do that today. Everything else will pass away and fade into the abyss.
- I got this insight from David Helm, on Nancy Guthrie’s podcast, “Help Me Teach Me the Bible.” ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Some translations have verse 14 start with the second address to “children.” This represents the versification of the United Bible Society’s latest Greek New Testament. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 471. ↑
- David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 60. ↑
- Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 130. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. I modernized the language in this quote for ease of comprehension. ↑
- I got the salt water illustration from David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 63: “It is like drinking salt water. Far from bringing satisfaction, the unquenchable thirst is in fact increased, and that is no way for a child of God to live.” ↑
- Blaise Pascal, “Pensées,” §681, in Penseées and Other Writings, trans Honor Levi, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 160. ↑
- Ibid., §102, p. 26. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. Again, I modernized the language slightly in order to understand it better. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 474–475. Again, I modernized Augustine’s language. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.
Pastor Brian preaches a message based on Acts 18:24-19:41. This long passage features several episodes that stress the need to know God accurately. We need to know God more accurately for teaching and evangelizing and for living as Christians. We also need to avoid manipulating the name of Jesus to serve our purposes and idolatry.