Where Is Your Treasure

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 14, 2019.
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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.”[1]

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:

Proverbs 11:24:

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.

Proverbs 11:28:

Whoever trusts in his riches will fall,
but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Proverbs 23:4:

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.

Proverbs 28:22:

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:

Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 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.”[6]

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).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009), xvii.
  3. Ibid., xviii–xix
  4. Ibid., xxi–xxii.
  5. Ibid., 64–65
  6. Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 132.

Where Is Your Treasure? (Luke 12:13-34)

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 Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

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.

Do Not Love the World (1 John 2:12-17)

This sermon was preached on May 21, 2017 by Brian Watson.
Sermon recording
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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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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?[7]

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.[8]

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.”[9] 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?[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

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.

Notes

  1. I got this insight from David Helm, on Nancy Guthrie’s podcast, “Help Me Teach Me the Bible.”
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 130.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. I modernized the language in this quote for ease of comprehension.
  8. 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.”
  9. Blaise Pascal, “Pensées,” §681, in Penseées and Other Writings, trans Honor Levi, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 160.
  10. Ibid., §102, p. 26.
  11. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. Again, I modernized the language slightly in order to understand it better.
  12. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 474–475. Again, I modernized Augustine’s language.

 

The True God and Eternal Life (1 John 5:13-21)

Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.

The Way of God More Accurately (Acts 18:24-19:41)

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.