Jesus’ path to the cross is marked by ironies. The one who is blasphemed is charged with blasphemy. The one who is Judge is judged. Jesus endured this to save to his people from their sins. Find out what happens when Jesus is put on trial, and God is in the dock. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 1, 2020.
All of us long for a good ending to our lives. We want to live in a better world, one that doesn’t end, one that doesn’t have evil, decay, and death. The good news is that the Bible promises such a world for those who have fixed their minds upon God. Brian Watson preached this message, based on various passages in Isaiah, on December 29, 2019.
Does anyone know what’s going to happen tomorrow? How about next year?
A lot of people make claims about the future. People make predictions about sports, about which team will win today or which team will win the championship. People make predictions about the economy, whether the market will rise or fall. People make political predictions: who will win next year’s election. Whose predictions can we trust?
Generally, we trust predictions made about the future if predictions about the past have come true. That’s how science often works. Scientists come up with hypotheses about how the natural world works, then they make predictions based on those hypotheses. If experimentation and observation prove that the predictions are true, then those hypotheses become theories. Those theories could always turn out to be false, but we trust that things in physics, chemistry, and biology will work tomorrow the way that they have worked today.
But not everything that happens tomorrow can be predicted by science. Some events are singular and can’t be predicted scientifically. Human behavior, for example, isn’t always predictable. Divine behavior—what God will do tomorrow and beyond—isn’t always predictable. Yet people make predictions about the future, so how do we know if we should trust them?
We generally can’t know ahead of time if a prediction is correct, but we tend to listen to people who make predictions if they have a history of making correct predictions. If a political commentator has correctly predicted who will win elections, you will probably listen to their predictions regarding the next election. If a sports commentator has correctly predicted who will win this week’s games or the next championship, you’ll think their predictions for this week and this year might be good guesses. But we don’t expect these people to predict the future perfectly.
But what do we do when it comes to the things of God? Science can’t address much of the issues related to God. He is spirit, an immaterial being, so we can’t detect his activity scientifically. Does that mean we can’t know the truth about God? I think we can know the truth about God, but science won’t get us there. To know God, we need to have him reveal himself to us. Of course, many different religions claim that they have received a revelation from God. They say very different things about God, the universe, human beings, and how we can have a right relationship with God. These different religions can’t all be true. Are any of them true? How can we know?
One way to test a religion is to see if its alleged revelation matches up with history. Is there any archaeological evidence that lines up with what that religion’s holy book claims? Did the predictions made by that religion’s prophets turn out to be true?
When we test Christianity, it comes out well. For example, though not all of the Bible’s historical claims are backed by archaeological evidence, I believe that none of its claims are refuted by archaeological evidence, and every time a new discovery is made, it supports what the Bible says. Also, prophecies about the future are made in the Bible, and we can see if those prophecies have come to pass. Not all religions can say as much. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that a temple would be built in Independence, Missouri within a generation. Yet that generation died before a temple was built there. His prediction was wrong.
On the other hand, Jesus, who was a prophet (and King and Son of God), made predictions regarding what would happen within a generation. And his predictions came true. Specifically, he predicted that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed within a generation. He made this prediction either in the year 30 or, possibly, 33. (Many of the writings of the Bible are difficult to date with great precision because ancient writers didn’t provide specific dates for the events about which they wrote. But the details of Jesus’ life are such that the details of the week of his death can fit with either the year 30 or 33.) The three Gospels that record these predictions were most likely written sometime between the late 50s and mid-60s. Then, beginning in the year 66, Jewish people in Palestine rebelled against the Roman Empire, the world’s greatest superpower and the occupying force of Judea. Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem and its temple, slaughtering many Jews in the year 70. So, Jesus’ prediction, made forty years earlier (the length of a generation according to the Bible; Num. 32:13), was true. Since the Bible says that the test of a true prophet is that he speaks the truth (Deut. 18:22), that means that Jesus is a true prophet, and that we should take Jesus at his word. And Jesus predicted a greater future event: he said that one day he would come again to the Earth, this time to judge everyone who has ever lived and to recreate the world. The destruction of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago foreshadowed that greater day of judgment, which will come in the future. To be spared judgment, we need to respond to Jesus.
Today, we’re looking at a lengthy section of the Gospel of Luke. We’ll be reading Luke 21:5–38. Most people think this is entirely about what hasn’t come to pass yet, the “end times,” as they’re often called. I think that’s wrong, as I’ll show when I explain the text. Some people think it’s entirely about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. I think that’s very possible. But I think the best reading is that though this passage is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple, that event foreshadows the end of the world as we know it.
One more note before I start reading this passage: Today’s sermon may feel a bit like a history lecture. But I think it’s important to know history, and it’s important to know that Christianity is an historical religion. It is based on historical events, events that are recorded even outside of the Bible. This is one of the ways that we know Christianity is true.
So, without further ado, let’s begin reading. We’ll start by reading verses 5–7:
5 And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 7 And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
This is probably Thursday morning, the day before Jesus will be crucified. He and his disciples are in the temple complex in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, the holy city of the Jews, and the temple was the religious, political, and symbolic center of their world. It was the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover, when Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire would come to Jerusalem, to worship at the temple.
It’s hard to stress how important the temple was to the Jewish people. It was where God dwelled among them, where they worshiped, where sacrifices for their sins were offered. God told the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a portable temple, about fourteen hundred years earlier. During the reign of Solomon, a temple was built in Jerusalem. That temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, because the Jewish people had been unfaithful to God. They worshiped idols and refused to obey God, so God used a foreign nation to judge them.
This was the second temple, which was built in 515 BC, but was substantially renovated by Herod beginning in 20 or 19 BC Most of the work on the building was finished within a decade, but ornamental details were worked on until about AD 63 or 64. The temple was one of the most impressive buildings in the middle east. Herod increased the Temple Mount to an area the size of thirty-five football fields. The retaining walls of the temple were made of huge, heavy stones. “In the 1990s an archeological exploration of the temple foundations revealed a large stone . . . that was 42 x 14 x 11 feet in size and estimated to weigh 600 tons.” Two other stones they found were 40 and 25 feet long. The temple was covered with gold plates that shone so brightly in the sun that people were nearly blinded. This would have been the most impressive site that people living in that area had ever seen.
When some of Jesus’ disciples comment on how impressive the building is, Jesus says the whole thing will be torn down. He doesn’t give the reason why this will happen here, but elsewhere he says it is a judgment by God against a largely unfaithful Jewish people. Also, the time of the temple was about to be over. Jesus, the true temple of God, was about to offer himself up as the only sacrifice needed for sin. Jesus’ words must have shocked his disciples. So, they ask him when this would happen, and what sign would occur before this would take place. This is very important, so I’ll repeat it. Jesus has said that the temple will be destroyed, and his disciples ask when that will happen. This is primarily what this passage is about.
Jesus starts to answer that question in verses 8–19:
8 And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. 9 And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”
10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.
First, Jesus tells his disciples that the time leading up to the temple of the destruction would be one full of people trying to deceive them, claiming that they are the Messiah. We know that there were several people in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah, so this prediction came true. Second, Jesus says there would be wars and rumors of wars. These things happen all the time, so the disciples shouldn’t be worried about such things. There was a war between Rome and Parthia in 36 and a local war between Herod Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas in 36 and 37. And the war between the Romans and the Jews started in 66. Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” But the “end,” the destruction of the temple, was still to come.
Third, says that there would be earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. Again, these things happen all time. There was a large famine during the reign of the emperor Claudius, between roughly 45 and 48 (predicted by the prophet Agabus in Acts 11:28). There were several major earthquakes between 33 and 70, including earthquakes in Antioch (37), Phrygia (53), Asia Minor (61), and Jerusalem (67).
Fourth, Jesus says there will be signs in heaven, probably something to do with stars. Beyond what the New Testament tells us, much of what we know of first-century Palestine comes from Flavius Josephus, a Jew who was a leader of the rebellion in Galilee. He was captured by the Romans and would eventually write histories of this time. Josephus says that during the time when Judea was at war with the Roman Empire, comets were visible for a year and a star that looked like a sword appeared over Jerusalem.
Fifth, Jesus tells the disciples that they would be handed over to civic and religious authorities. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem, and were flogged (Acts 5:27–42). Stephen and James were martyred (Acts 7:58; 12:2). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes getting flogged and beaten (vv. 23–25), probably by leaders of local synagogues. And Paul appeared before various governors and kings (Acts 18:12–17; 23:23–24:27; 24:27–26:32). All of this would happen before the temple was destroyed.
Normally, we would think that people being killed simply because they’re Christians is a bad thing, but Jesus says that something good will come out of this. When the disciples stand before various religious and civil leaders, they will have an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. We see that happen most clearly with the disciples in the books of Acts. The disciples were beaten in Jerusalem, but not before proclaiming Jesus (Acts 5:27–32). Stephen gave a long speech in Acts 7 before being killed. Paul used his appearances before various leaders to proclaim Jesus.
Here, Jesus tells the disciples, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Some people misuse this passage to say that we should never think about how to tell people the news of Christianity, or how to answer their questions about and objections to our faith. But think about the context: Jesus is telling his disciples what will happen to them between roughly the years 30 and 70. And, furthermore, he’s telling them not to think about how to answer during times of persecution. He promises them to give them wisdom during those times of great pressure. In those situations, it might be very difficult to say anything, and God will give his people the words to say. But we shouldn’t use this passage as an excuse not to prepare for evangelism. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Peter tells us, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). I think Christians gravitate towards this passage in Luke because they don’t read passages in the Bible in context and because we’re lazy. There’s no excuse for not knowing the Bible, not knowing what the central message of the Bible is, and not knowing how to communicate to people who don’t believe what we believe. Just as I don’t fail to prepare a sermon and say, “Well, God will give me the words to say on Sunday morning,” we shouldn’t fail to prepare to tell people the truth about God.
Jesus also says, in those verses we read earlier, that family will be divided. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to all people, but to bring division. He said that family members would be divided because some would respond to him and others would not (Luke 12:51–53). That happened then, and it happens today, especially in areas of the world where there is great persecution against Christians. In this past week’s prayer list that we publish, there was a story from the Voice of the Martyrs about an Egyptian woman who converted from Islam to Christianity. Her own father and brother beat her and tried to kill her.
Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat things here. He says that persecution will come to his followers. Some will even die. But, strangely, he says that not one of their hairs will perish. He can’t mean that literally. He must mean that even if they should die for their faith, they will not ultimately be harmed. The worst that someone can do to them is kill them. They can kill the body, but not the soul (Luke 12:4–7). Those who endure in their faith, even through persecution, will be saved. Real faith allows a person to survive even death.
Now that Jesus has told his followers what will happen before Jerusalem and its temple is destroyed, he starts to talk about what will happen when the Roman Empire surrounds the city and destroys it. Let’s read verses 20–24:
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
There had always been conflict between the Jews and the Roman Empire, who took control of Palestine in 63 BC. Eventually, the conflict would come to a head in AD 66. In 70, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. This war left untold numbers dead. Josephus tells us that over 600,000 died from starvation in the city and that some people resorted to eating the dung of cattle (Jewish Wars 5.569–571). Even more disturbing, he reports that some women ate their own children (Jewish Wars 6.201–212). This is what would happen when a foreign army came in and besieged a city. They would cut off escape from the city by building siege works. Because this type of battle took a long time, the conquered city would run out of food and people would starve. Josephus tells us that 1.1 million Jews died and 97,000 were taken captive (Jewish Wars 6.420). Some people believe Josephus exaggerated numbers, but even if he did, the destruction in this war was great. According to D. A. Carson, “There have been greater numbers of deaths—six million in the Nazi death camps, mostly Jews, and an estimated twenty million under Stalin—but never so high a percentage of a great city’s population so thoroughly and painfully exterminated and enslaved as during the Fall of Jerusalem.”
When Jesus says that Jerusalem “will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” he could mean that Romans—the Gentiles—would thoroughly crush the city. I think that’s the most natural way to read this passage. Others think that Jesus is pivoting to talk about his return. In Romans, the apostle Paul says that many Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus in the future, but only after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). That’s a hard to understand passage, just as elements of this passage in Luke are hard to understand. But it seems that prior to Jesus’ return, a large number of ethnically, or biologically, Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus. Jesus could be referring to that reality here.
Most commentators believe that the next few verses are about Jesus’ return to Earth. If you don’t know the Christian story, Jesus will die the day after he says these things. He will be crucified, killed as an enemy of the Roman Empire, not because he did anything wrong, but because it was ultimately God’s plan to have the sin of his people punished. Because we have rebelled against God, in a far worse way than the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire, we deserve death. But God has graciously given us a way to escape his wrath and have our sins punished. If we put our trust in Jesus, if we believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, we are forgiven. But Jesus didn’t just die to pay the penalty for our sins. He rose from the grave on the third day in a body that can never be destroyed. And shortly thereafter, he ascended into heaven, where he is right now. But he will come someday in the future, to judge the living and the dead. And Jesus is probably talking about that in verses 25–28:
25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
I think it’s possible that Jesus is actually talking about the destruction of the temple as his vindication. He says that people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” That’s a reference to something written in the Old Testament book Daniel, when the prophet Daniel sees a vision of a “Son of Man” coming to “the Ancient of Days” to receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom. We understand that this means Jesus, the Son of God, comes to God the Father to receive that kingdom, and he did this after ascending to heaven. Notice that in this passage in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say where “the Son of Man” comes. Is he coming to Earth or to the Father? It could be that Jesus means something like this, “The destruction of the temple will be to the Jewish people as if their world is destroyed. To them, it will be as if their world is shattered. But don’t be afraid. That judgment will be a vindication of me. It will prove that my words are true. When you see that happening, stand up straight, confident in the faith.” That could be true because the Bible often uses language of “signs in sun and moon and stars” hyperbolically, to talk about the destruction of an empire, the end of one age and the beginning of another.
But Jesus could very well be talking about his return to Earth. He might mean something like this: “The temple will be destroyed, just as it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. These acts of judgment are pictures of a greater, final judgment when I return. Don’t worry about signs that appear before my return, because you won’t miss that. Everyone will see me come. And many will be afraid. But when I return, you have no reason to fear—if you endure in your faith.” All of the judgments we read about in the Bible, whether it’s the flood during Noah’s day, the destruction of the city of Sodom, the judgment that came upon the Egyptians during the Passover and the Red Sea, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temples, foreshadow the great, final judgment. Those who have rejected Jesus should be afraid. They will be condemned. But those who have put their trust in Jesus have no reason to fear.
Then, Jesus returns to a discussion of what will happen before the fall of Jerusalem. Let’s read verses 29–33:
29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
When the disciples see that the things Jesus says will happen before the destruction of the temple come to pass, they should know that God’s kingdom is advancing. And they are drawing one day closer to when the kingdom of God will be fully realized on Earth. Jesus says that his predictions regarding Jerusalem and the temple would happen within a generation, and they did. This is further proof that his word is true. And he boldly declares that even though this world as we know it will pass away and be replaced with a new creation, one where there is no evil, no decay, and no sin, his words won’t pass away. Jesus speaks the words of God, because he is God. So much of the words we bother with are short-lived, but Jesus’ words endure forever. Because what he says is true, we can take him at his word. His true predictions about what happen in the first century give us confidence that everything else he says is true, including his return when he comes in glory to gather his people, to condemn those who rebel against him, and to bring about the new creation.
Jesus then concludes his message with a warning for all of us. Let’s read verses 34–38:
34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.
Jesus tells us to be ready, not to get overpowered by distractions and drunkenness, not to fall into a spiritual stupor or be overwhelmed by “the cares of this life.” Instead, we should live life knowing that Jesus could return soon—or we could die at any time. Either way, we will have to stand before him in judgment. Therefore, we should stay awake. Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. He slept like everyone else. But he means we should be spiritually prepared. We should put our faith in him. We should realize that this life will not last forever.
The apostle Paul says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 5. He says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Most people will think they are secure, but they will be destroyed (1 Thess. 5:3). Then, Paul says to Christians,
6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Here’s the main thing you should take away from today: What Jesus said would happen has happened. This isn’t just recorded in the Bible. Josephus, who was not a Christian, wrote about it. One can also look at the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built around the year 81 to celebrate Titus’s victory over the Jews and which has depictions of that victory on it. We have good reason to believe that Jesus made his predictions in the year 30 or 33, and that the Gospel of Luke was written in the early 60s. (In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Luke 10:7. Paul wrote that letter in the mid-60s, so Luke must have been written earlier. Also, there are good reasons to believe that the book of Acts was written by the mid-60s. Since Acts it the sequel to Gospel of Luke, and since Luke probably conducted research for his Gospel while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea around 57–59, there’s no reason why Luke couldn’t have written his Gospel around the year 60.) So, Jesus’ predictions came before the destruction of Jerusalem. His predictions were true. Why shouldn’t we believe everything else he says? His words are the words of God, and they will endure long after the words of today’s politicians, journalists, academics, actors, novelists, and historians will be forgotten.
Trust in Jesus. Be ready for his return. And tell other people how they can endure in the faith so that they can gain eternal life.
If you do trust in Jesus, know that he hasn’t promised us an easy life. He didn’t promise his disciples that things would be easy for them. We may or may not face great persecution, but all of will suffer. Yet Jesus promises to be with us and he promises that he will ultimately deliver us from evil.
- Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy,” Institute for Religious Research, August 22, 2017, http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-missouri-temple-prophecy. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Robert H. Stein, Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 55. ↑
- Stein, Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man, 77, mentions several: Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271; Jewish Wars 2.56); Simon of Perea (Antiquities 17.273–77; Jewish Wars 2.57–59) and Athronges of Judea (Antiquities 17.278–84; Jewish Wars 2.60–65). Right before a.d. 70, there were Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (Jewish Wars 2.433–48), John of Gischala (Jewish Wars 2.585–89; 4.121–27), and Simon bar-Giora (Jewish Wars 4.503–44; 4.556–83). ↑
- R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 903. ↑
- Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 372-374. ↑
- Josephus, Jewish War 6.274–89. ↑
- D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 501. ↑
Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman Empire, an act of judgment that foreshadows that great day of judgment when Jesus comes again. Jesus predicted the future, his predictions were written down in advance of the destruction of Jerusalem, and this predictions were proven true. This gives us good reason to believe that his words are true and will never pass away. Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 17, 2019.
What is the most important place in America? When I say “place,” I’m thinking not of a state or a city, but of something more specific, a site, a piece of land, a building. What do you think is the most important place, a place that Americans regard as sacred?
I had a hard time coming up with just one place. For some, it might be a place that has a lot of symbolic weight, like the State of Liberty. Lady Liberty stands as a symbol of freedom, beckoning the tired, poor huddled masses to a new life in America. The Statue of Liberty is important because of what it stands for. But in another sense, it’s not important. It’s less than one hundred fifty years old, no historical events took place right where it stands, and nothing important happens there—well, other than tourists visiting it.
Perhaps a political building is the most important place. Depending on which branch of government you think is most important, the most important place might be the White Office, the Capitol Building, or the Supreme Court Building. Important things happen in those places.
For some people, the most important place might be a religious site. I have a hard time coming up with one particular church or cathedral in America. But if we were in France, the Notre-Dame would probably be the most important religious building. That’s why so many people grieved when the building was on fire earlier this year.
We Americans might not have one site that is the most important symbolic, political, and religious site. There are probably a lot of cultural, political, and religious reasons why that is the case. But for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the most important symbolic, political, and religious site was the temple in Jerusalem. There’s nothing in America that we can compare it to. Imagine if the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore, the White House, the US Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, and the most important church buildings were all combined. That’s kind of like what the temple was for Judaism.
Today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus, we’re going to see Jesus go to the temple in Jerusalem and challenge the authority of the temple’s leaders. It would be like taking a tour of the White House, then sneaking past Secret Service and going to the Oval Office and telling the President what to do. Now, there are a lot of people who tell the President what to do and where to go on Twitter, but it would be something else to go right into the Oval Office and act like you’re the real President. But that’s more or less what Jesus does. And, as you can imagine, that gets him into trouble with the religious leaders of his day.
We’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Luke for some time. The Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. Today, we’re going to read the very end of chapter 19 and the beginning of chapter 20. We’ll start by reading Luke 19:45–48:
45 And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, 46 saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”
47 And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.
This story is Jesus’ so-called cleansing of the temple. Both Matthew and Mark have longer accounts of this event (Matt. 21:12–16; Mark 11:15–18). Luke focuses on the essential details. Jesus goes into the temple, kicks some people out, and quotes two different passages from the Old Testament. Then he starts teaching at the temple daily during the last week of his life. This is most likely Monday. He will be crucified four days later.
As I said earlier, the temple was the most important symbolic, political, and religious place for Jews. The temple represented where God dwelled among the Jews. Specifically, he was supposed to reside in the Most Holy Place, the inner part of the temple building. The temple was also the place where priests offered up animal sacrifices which were supposed to pay for the sins of the people. The priest would touch the heads of animals that were sacrificed, symbolically transferring the sin of the people to the animals, who would then be slaughtered in place of sinful people. This taught Israel that the penalty for sin was death, but that this penalty could be taken by another, a substitute. The temple was also a place where priests taught people, and where prayers were made.
Jesus goes into this most important place and acts like he owns it. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a brief story of how Jesus, at age 12, was sitting among teachers at the temple and asking them questions. When his parents, who didn’t know where he was, found him there and rebuked him , Jesus said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 12:41–49). God the Father owns the temple, and what belongs to the Father belongs to the Son of God, Jesus.
At the temple, people were supposed to offer animal sacrifices. People who traveled to the temple from a distance could buy animals at the temple instead of traveling with animals. They also had to pay a tax to the temple, and the tax had to be paid in a particular currency, a coin made in the city of Tyre. So, there were people who sold animals, and there were money changers, people who exchanged currency. The people who sold animals and changed money did so for a profit.
Why did Jesus drive out people who sold things? There are at least two different possible interpretations, understandings of this passage that aren’t mutually exclusive. One is that people were selling animals and exchanging currency at high rates, making money off the poor and the pious. Perhaps Jesus drove them out because they were capitalizing on religious practices. That would make sense of Jesus’ quotation of Jeremiah 7:11, the bit that calls the temple a “den of robbers.”
Another interpretation is that Jesus’ action of driving out these sellers is a symbolic and prophetic action. He’s announcing that the days of the temple building are coming to an end. There will be a new temple, a true temple, one where no animal sacrifices are needed, one that all of God’s people can access directly, wherever they are. There will be no more pilgrimages to one holy site. Jesus is the true temple of God. He is the “place” where God and his people meet. His body will be the true sacrifice for sin. The blood of animals cannot pay for human sin. If someone is going to take the penalty for my sin, it must be a human. In the animal sacrificial system, only unblemished animals could be sacrificed. They had to be perfect. This meant that something valuable was sacrificed. Jesus is the only unblemished human. And he can take the penalty of sin away from many people because he’s not just a man. No, he’s the God-man, truly God and truly human. He is infinite, and his sacrifice on the cross can take away the sins of every single person who comes to Jesus in faith, who trusts that he is divine, that he’s the world’s only Savior, and that he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Anyone who trusts Jesus personally, knowing that he is the only way to be made right with God, and that is the ultimate authority, becomes part of the true temple of God. When you come to Christ, you become a dwelling place for God. God the Holy Spirit lives in you. You have 24/7 access to God, wherever you are.
Jesus came to the temple to show that the leadership of the people had become corrupt. If you look at Jeremiah 7, which Jesus quotes here, you can see that about six hundred years earlier, the people of Judah were corrupt. They oppressed and killed other people. They put their trust in false gods, in idols. They even made the temple into an idol, trusting that as long as they had the temple building, they could not go wrong. God warned the people that because they had not listened to him, he would destroy the temple.
But Jesus also came to announce that the temple was no longer going to be needed. The true sacrifice for sin was about to be offered to God. And Jesus knew that many people would come to the true temple, his body, and become part of God’s people. That’s why he quotes Isaiah 56:7, which refers to the temple as “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah, over seven hundred years earlier, foresaw a day when foreigners, Gentiles, would “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants” (Isa. 56:6). And that same passage in Isaiah 56 speaks of the leaders of Israel as “watchmen [who] are blind” and “shepherds who have no understanding” (Isa. 56:10–11). Jesus seems to indicate that the leaders of his day didn’t really know God. They were blind. They didn’t recognize God’s own Son when he was right in front of them.
Jesus acts like he owns the temple. He seems to say that the current leadership of Israel is wrong. And that’s why the leaders—the chief priests, the scribes, and other leading men—wanted to destroy Jesus. But they couldn’t destroy him right then and there. There were too many people “hanging on his words.” Many people were attracted to Jesus because there was never anyone like him, someone who taught with complete authority. If the Jewish leaders killed Jesus in front of these people, there would be a riot. The Jewish leaders couldn’t afford a riot, because that would lead the Roman Empire, which controlled the land, to punish the Jewish leaders. The high priest was a political appointment. The Roman governor of Judea had the authority to remove a high priest and replace him with another. The chief priests didn’t want to lose political power, so they had to find some other way to get rid of Jesus.
Since Jesus comes to the temple and acts like he owns the place, the Jewish leaders want to know what kind of authority Jesus has. So, they ask him. Let’s read Luke 20:1–8 to see what happens:
1 One day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up 2 and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” 3 He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, 4 was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” 5 And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ 6 But if we say, ‘From man,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet.” 7 So they answered that they did not know where it came from. 8 And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
The Jewish leaders ask Jesus two questions that are related. Really, they want to know where he gets such authority. Jesus didn’t have political power. And he wasn’t an official religious leader. He wasn’t a priest. So, how can he act like he owns the place. Again, if you were to confront the President in the Oval Office, e hmight say, “Who gives you the right to tell me what to do?”
Jesus answers by asking his own question. He asks them if John the Baptist had authority from God or if John’s ministry was simply manmade. John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus who preached in the wilderness. He told people that the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel, was coming. He told people to prepare for this event by repenting of their sins. And he baptized people as a sign that they needed to be made clean. He told them that being biologically related to Abraham, the father of all Israelites, didn’t guarantee them a place in God’s kingdom. He told them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He also told people, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). He was referring to Jesus. Many people responded to John’s message, but most people ignored him, including the leaders of the Jews.
So, Jesus is asking them if John’s message was from God. If so, then they should have responded to him. And they should have known that Jesus was the one greater than John, the one that John promised would come. If John came from God, then the leaders should have known that Jesus came from God, and that he is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But if John’s message wasn’t from God, then it’s possible that he was wrong, and that Jesus wasn’t from God.
The Jewish leaders then huddle up and discuss how they will answer Jesus’ question. If they say that John was from God, then they should have believed John. And that means they should recognize who Jesus is. If John’s ministry wasn’t from God, then they can simply reject Jesus. But the crowds thought that John was a true prophet, so if they say that John wasn’t from God, they’ll get into political trouble. The Jewish leaders don’t believe that John was a prophet, but they don’t want to get into hot water with the people, so they give a very political answer: “We don’t know.” That’s like a politician saying, “I don’t recall,” or, “I’m not allowed to speak to that,” or, “That’s above my pay grade.” We’ve heard these political answers before, and we’ve come to expect that kind of dishonesty from politicians. It’s sad that these men, who were supposed to speak for God, are mere politicians.
Jesus therefore says that he won’t answer them. But, in fact, Jesus does answer them—just not directly. He tells them where his authority comes from. Jesus also tells them who they are. He does this in a parable. Let’s read Luke 20:9–18:
9 And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. 10 When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. 12 And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. 13 Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ 15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” 17 But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
This parable is almost like an allegory. In an allegory, every character in the story stands in for someone in real life. The man who plants a vineyard is God. The vineyard represents the place of God’s people. In this story, it could represent the temple or Jerusalem, or possibly all the land of Israel. The tenants are the leaders of the people. The servants of the owner are prophets. And the son is the Son of God.
In the Old Testament, Israel is often called a vine (Ps. 80:8; Jer. 2:21; 12:10; Ezek. 17:6; 19:10–14; Hos. 10:1). And God planted his “vine” in his “vineyard,” the land of Israel. In Isaiah 5, there’s a famous passage that speaks of God carefully making a vineyard. He expects the vineyard to produce good fruit. Instead, it produces “wild grapes.” And God says that he will then destroy the vineyard (see Isa. 5:1–6). That passage ends with these words:
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! (Isa. 5:7)
God expects good fruit from his people. God is our Creator, and therefore he owns us. God can’t have a bunch of rotten fruit spoiling his creation. He’s very patient, and he puts up with our bad fruit for a long time. But his patience has limits. There will be a day when all the rotten fruit will be removed from his vineyard, so to speak, and destroyed. We refer to that as Judgement Day. But even before that final day of judgment, there are times when God brings things to an end. These are lesser acts of judgment. Israel’s temple had already been destroyed about six hundred years earlier, in 586 BC. And this second temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed in forty years, in AD 70.
Jesus is telling the Jewish leaders that they are like those wicked tenant farmers of the story. They were supposed to manage God’s possessions and produce good fruit. But they didn’t. God sent them many servants: the prophets. But the people rejected the prophets, and even killed them. There are stories in the Old Testament of prophets being killed (Jer. 26:20–23; 2 Chron. 24:20–22) and Jewish tradition says that many of the prominent prophets, like Isaiah, were martyred. Hebrews 11:36–38 says that many were killed. At then end of the book of Chronicles, which chronicles a long portion of Israel’s history, we’re told this:
14 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem.
15 The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy (2 Chron. 36:14–16).
And right after that passage, we’re told about the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, the act of judgment that God brought upon Jewish people because of their idolatry and sin (2 Chron. 36:17–21).
So, in this story, the servants are the prophets, and they are treated worse and worse. Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his own son, thinking that the tenant farmers will treat him with respect. But these wicked tenants kill him, thinking that, somehow, they can keep the vineyard that way. This is the owner’s only son. He is thrown out of the vineyard and put to death. But because of that death, the owner will destroy those evil tenants and give the vineyard to others. Those who reject God’s Son will be judged, and other people, those who embrace the Son, will become part of God’s people.
When Jesus tells this story, the crowds say, “Surely not!” They understand what Jesus is saying about Israel. They don’t want God to judge them and replace them with others. But Jesus says that the Son who is rejected will be the foundation of a new people of God, anyone who comes to the Son. He quotes Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I talked about Psalm 118 a bit a couple of weeks ago, when we looked at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and how people quoted another part of that Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Ps. 118:26). Jesus is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But he’s also the one who is rejected, the one who will be taken outside of the city walls and crucified, even though he was an innocent man. Yet even though he is killed, he rises from the grave, and he becomes the cornerstone of the church. The church is built on Jesus, the one who is rejected by sinful humans but who is precious and chosen in God’s sight (1 Pet. 2:4).
Jesus is saying that he is the one sent from God. He is the Son of God. But he also knows that he will be treated like the prophets. He will be rejected and killed. Yet this is all part of God’s plan. God’s uses evil and turns it for good. The people will kill the Son of God because they don’t believe him. But God’s plan was always for the Son to become human and die, so that the sins of his people could be punished without the people themselves being destroyed. This was the Son’s plan as well as the Father’s. Jesus lays down his life for his people.
So, the irony is that while these wicked, faithless leaders think they can stop Jesus, by arranging to have him killed, they are actually making sure that the Son’s plan comes to pass. Jesus cannot be stopped or thwarted. He is the ultimate authority. If people try to kill him, he will rise from the grave. And when people try to kill Christianity by persecuting Christians, more people come to Christ. God uses evil for good. In fact, God’s plans include using evil for good. So, evil cannot stop God. It is no match for him. These Jewish leaders conspired to kill the King of the Jews. And Jesus was killed. But that was his plan all along. He was crucified so that sinners could have their sin punished. He was exiled from the vineyard so more people could enter into it. And that vineyard is given to people who trust in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Gentile. No one is born into the vineyard. But we can be born into God’s vineyard if God transforms us, gives us the Holy Spirit, and leads us to turn away from our sins and to trust in Jesus.
What does this passage have to do with us? Let’s think through what Jesus is doing in this passage. He comes to the temple and acts like he owns it. As the Son of God, he owns everything. He owns us, because he made us. What would it look like for Jesus to show up in our lives right now? What would Jesus find if he were to investigate our lives? Would he find us trusting in him and living life on his terms? Would he see that we believe he is the ultimate authority because he is God? Would he see us obeying his commandments? Or would he find us faithless? To put it another way, how would Jesus cleanse our lives? What from our lives would he drive out? Or, to look at the situation from another perspective, what good things would Jesus drive into our lives?
Those are personal questions. I can’t answer them for you. I imagine that what he would see would vary from person to person. But I’m sure that all of us have things in our lives that need to be driven out. All of us live in ways that don’t completely line up with the way of Jesus. We are often like those Jewish leaders—we want to be the ones in control, we want to be the ultimate authority. To quote that popular song from the ‘80s: “Everybody wants to rule the world.”
If you are a Christian, I ask you to pray to God something like this: “Father in heaven, please reveal to me the ways in which I’m being rebellious. Please show me where I’m not following Jesus. Please show me the things in my life that need to be removed. Give me the strength the follow Jesus the way that I should.”
If you’re not a Christian, I urge to trust in Jesus. You can fight against his authority. You can deny him and ignore him. But you can’t avoid him forever. You will have to deal with him, either now or on that great day of judgment. And you will either be part of his vineyard because you’ve come to embrace him in this life, or you will be removed from his vineyard, where there is nothing but a joyless and painful existence for all eternity. Turn to Jesus now. There is no greater authority, because he is God. To reject Jesus is to reject your Maker. And there will be consequences for that. But know that Jesus is not just some harsh preacher of judgment. He’s also the one who lays down his life for sinners. His death can pay for all the sins you’ve ever committed. There’s no sin that Jesus’ sacrifice can’t atone for. But to have your sins forgiven, you need to trust in Jesus. And that will lead to a change in your life. You will live as if he is King. I would love to talk to you about following Jesus if you’re not doing that now.
There’s still another thing for us to think about. What if Jesus came to all churches that bear his name? What would he find? Many churches don’t worship the way the Bible tells us to. Churches ignore what the Bible says about church leadership. They ignore what the Bible says about preaching. They ignore what the Bible says about evangelism, about telling people the good news of Jesus. They ignore what the Bible says about making disciples, teaching them all Jesus commanded—either directly or through his prophets and apostles. They ignore what the Bible says about money and generosity, or about church discipline, or about all kinds of things. No church is perfect. This church is certainly not. Churches contain people who strive for positions of power, like the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. It is often the case that people who aren’t godly try to gain control of a church. And they don’t want to give up that control, even if that would lead to following the Bible’s instructions more closely. Struggles for power often make people do very ungodly things. It’s happened in this church, and I can assure that it has happened or is happening right now in just about every church there is.
What would Jesus say about this church? What would he drive out? Let us think about that and pray about it. May God give us the wisdom and the grace to make any changes that are necessary.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- I must give credit for this interpretation to Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 161–164. ↑
It’s October 6 today, which means it’s only twenty-five days from Halloween. It also means it’s less than thirteen months away from the next presidential election. Frankly, I’m not sure which one is scarier. On Halloween, we’ll see kids dressed up as all kinds of characters, and we have all kinds of characters running for president.
If you’re like me, you would like to have some different options for who is running for president. Who do you think would be an ideal leader? Some people want a leader who is able to maintain composure under pressure. We’ve had some presidents who have been military leaders, like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe your ideal leader is the most educated, the most intelligent. John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were professors; Barack Obama was a lecturer. Perhaps you would like an entertaining president. Ronald Reagan was an actor, and Donald Trump was—and still is—a reality show star.
Whatever you think of the presidents we’ve had, they have had different strengths and many different weaknesses. But not one of them could ever compare to Jesus. There has never been a leader like Jesus, and there never will be. He is rightfully called the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).
We have been studying the life of Jesus for some time by carefully examining the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Today, as we continue our study, we’re going to see that Jesus is the King who approaches the capital city of Jerusalem. We’re going to see that Jesus has a number of paradoxical properties. Jesus is a King who is in complete control, yet he knows what will happen in Jerusalem—he will be killed because of an angry mob and leaders who refused to take responsibility. We’ll see that Jesus comes not as a typical king, proud and full of himself. And yet he says that he deserves praise, that if people stopped showering him with accolades, even the stones would cry out. Jesus was a King that was prophesied in the Old Testament. Yet when he came to Jerusalem, the people who knew the Old Testament didn’t recognize him. Jesus is a King who was received by some and rejected by many others. And Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him, yet who also weeps over that rejection.
We’ll see all of this and more in today’s passage, Luke 19:28–44. We’ll begin by reading verses 28–40:
28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Jesus and his disciples have been making their way to Jerusalem for quite some time now. Jesus has told his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem (Luke 18:31–33). Yet as he approaches the city, he prepares a royal entrance, fit for a king.
As I said, Jesus is a King who is in complete control. He tells his disciples to do something specific, to arrange for him to ride into Jerusalem on a colt. He knows exactly where the colt is, he tells them what to say to its owners, and the disciples do exactly as he tells them. We should notice that even as Jesus approaches his own betrayal, arrest, and execution, he is in complete control. We have no reason to think that he had somehow secretly arranged for his disciples’ conscription of this colt. So, how does he know where it is and what they should say? Because he’s not just a man; he’s also God. As strange as it is to think about, Jesus has a divine nature and a human nature. That means that he has a divine mind, a mind that is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows what is going to happen to him. He is arranging everything, including his own death. What happens to Jesus is not an accident. He will lay down his life, but he’s no victim. Everything must happen as it does to fulfill God’s plan.
So, Jesus tells two of his disciples to take a colt, a donkey, for him to ride on. In all that we’ve read about Jesus, we have never read that he rode on anything. He has always traveled by foot. So, why does he need to ride on a donkey? Well, there are two reasons. I’ll deal with one right now. His entrance in Jerusalem on a donkey might have reminded some people of events in Old Testament history. When Israel’s great king, David, was dying, there was some political intrigue in his kingdom. One of his sons, Adonijah, claimed that he would be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:5). But David chose his son Solomon to be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:28–30). David ordered that Solomon should ride into Jerusalem on his own mule and be anointed as the next king (1 Kgs. 1:32–35). And that is what happened, and when Solomon was proclaimed the next king of Israel, the people rejoiced (1 Kgs. 1:38–40). Also, the fact that people here spread their cloaks on the ground, giving Jesus something like the red-carpet treatment, is reminiscent of when another king of Israel, Jehu, was anointed (2 Kgs. 9:13).
Jesus, like Solomon, rides not a war horse or a chariot, but a more humble animal, a donkey. As in the case of Jehu, people spread their garments before him. And a large group of disciples praise God for the mighty works he has done through Jesus, and they quote Psalm 118:26. The original says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But here, the disciples say, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” They make it clear that Jesus is the King of Israel. That Psalm was one of several that was sung at Passover, the feast that remembered God’s great salvation of Israel when they were in Egypt. The Psalm is all about God saving his people: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Ps. 118:14). “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (Ps. 118:21). “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” (Ps. 118:25). The people realize that God has come in the person of Jesus. “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (Ps. 118:27).
That same Psalm says this:
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes (Ps. 118:8–9).
The disciples realize that Jesus is no mere man, no ordinary king. He is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6–7), the one who has come to reconcile rebellious sinners to their Maker. He is the one you can put your trust in. And we’ll see why we can trust him as we continue to look at this passage.
Part of the reason why Jesus is trustworthy is that he isn’t like a typical king. He doesn’t come on a war horse, or on a chariot, with a great show of power. He’s riding a donkey, accompanied by a rag-tag group of ex-fisherman and other oddballs. Jesus could have arrived in a chariot of gold. He could have ridden into Jerusalem with a great army. But he didn’t. He’s a humble king, born in humble circumstances, living in a small town and working as a carpenter. Imagine how a political leader travels today: in a private plane, and in armored, black SUVs, with bodyguards. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a minivan with a bunch of nobodies.
But even though Jesus is humble, and doesn’t show off, he knows who he is. He’s not falsely humble or modest. He’s self-assured. When his disciples call him the King, some Pharisees, an important group of religious leaders, tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They want him to correct them. But Jesus doesn’t. He knows that he’s the King. He knows that he is worthy of praise. He says that if the disciples were quiet, even the stones would cry out. If no humans praised the Son of God, then creation itself would cry out. Jesus’ humility and his self-confidence seem to be paradoxical, but truly great people don’t need to show off or draw attention to themselves.
Here’s another thing that is paradoxical about Jesus: He was the King that the Old Testament promised would come, but many didn’t recognize him. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Jesus. Here, Jesus fulfills perhaps two prophecies. Both come from the prophet Zechariah. The more obvious passage is Zechariah 9:9:
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
It seems that Jesus ordered the disciples to get a colt for him to ride so that he could fulfill this prophecy. Jesus is the righteous king who comes to bring salvation. The very next verse in Zechariah says that this king will bring weapons of war to an end, and that he will “speak peace to the nations” and rule “from sea to sea.” Jesus didn’t bring an end to all wars the first time he came, but he did come to bring peace to those who had been enemies of God. And his rule does extend to the whole world, even though many people don’t recognize that he is the true King.
Another passage in Zechariah, this time in chapter 14, speaks of a day when the Lord will come to Jerusalem to fight for his people. It says, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward” (Zech. 14:4). When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he came from the Mount of Olives, and I don’t think that’s an accident. When Jesus came, obviously the mountain wasn’t split in two. But the language of the prophets isn’t always literal. It’s often symbolic. The idea of the mountain being split in two is that a path has been opened, and it’s an earth-shattering event. Jesus will later be in the Mount of Olives on the night before he is died. It is where he will be arrested. Jesus knew he had to die. He knew he had to face God’s righteous judgment against sin. He had to drink the cup of God’s wrath, poured out against those who destroy his creation, who rebel against him. Jesus’ grief at that moment is so great at that moment, that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). We might say that Jesus was being split into two as the moment of his sacrifice was approaching.
The prophet Zechariah says, at the end of chapter 14, that all of Jerusalem will be made holy. It ends with this comment: “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). Jesus will soon go to the house of the Lord, the temple in Jerusalem, and he will cleanse it of traders (Luke 19:45–46). In time, Jesus will replace the temple. There will no longer be a need to offer up animal sacrifices for sin, which couldn’t really pay for the sins of human beings anyway. Jesus himself will be the true sacrifice, the only one need to pay for all the sins of his people, and he will offer himself up on the altar of the cross. All who put their trust in Jesus, instead of putting their trust in themselves or politicians or in anything else, have all their sins removed, wiped out, completely forgiven, and they have access to God. Christians don’t need to go to a special place in order to pray or worship. We do need to come together to worship, to encourage one another, but we don’t need to make a pilgrimage to a holy city. We already have access to the city of God, wherever we are. What Jesus did was earth-shattering.
So, Jesus fulfills prophecy. The Jewish people should have seen this. There are so many ways that Jesus fulfills the promises of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. He is the one born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), the son of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), the one of the tribe of Judah who has a donkey’s colt (Gen. 49:10–11), the son of David anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:1–2), the suffering servant who “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3—see Isa. 52:13–53:12). Yet so many of the Jewish people who knew the Scriptures best didn’t recognize Jesus. The Pharisees, who took the Old Testament very seriously, couldn’t connect the dots of Scripture to Jesus. They had eyes that couldn’t see the truth when it was standing right in front of them. And nothing has really changed. So many people today can’t see who Jesus is, even when all the evidence points to his true identity.
And this leads us to the next several verses in Luke. Jesus knew he would be rejected, and he knew that judgment would come to those who reject God’s anointed King. Yet the same King who promises judgment also weeps over the fact that judgment is coming. Let’s read Luke 19:41–44:
41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Jesus is a King who was gladly received by some but who was rejected by many others. Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him. This is something he has done several times in this Gospel. If you read any of the Gospels, this becomes very clear. Those who reject Jesus reject God. You cannot have a right relationship with God without having a right relationship with Jesus. Those who reject Jesus will be condemned for their sin. There is no forgiveness for them.
Yet Jesus isn’t just a tough preacher of hell. Jesus also also weeps over the fact that people reject him. It’s amazing to think that the eternal Son of God, who is all powerful, would weep about anything. But this shows us that God has emotions. He is not cold and impersonal. And even though his eternal plan includes the condemnation of many, it’s not because he doesn’t care.
I want to point out something here in case we come to a wrong conclusion about why Jesus is weeping. Some people would say that Jesus is sobbing because he can’t make people love him, as if he were an unrequited lover. Jesus desperately wants people to believe in him, but he can’t violate their free will, and they don’t believe in him, so he’s really sad. That’s what some people think. But that’s not the case. And the reason we know that is because of what the whole Bible says. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, God has predestined some to salvation, which means all others will be condemned. And God crafted a plan that, for reasons that only he knows fully, includes sin, and all the works of Jesus, including his becoming human and dying on the cross and, later, rising from the grave. And all of this brings God glory. But even in this passage, we see that this is God’s plan. Jesus says, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” The unbelieving Jews should have seen that Jesus came to do “things that make for peace.” But they couldn’t see those things. Why? Because “now they are hidden from your eyes.” Who hid these things from their eyes? When the passive voice is used this way in the Bible, it means that the actor is God. Why God would do this is something of a mystery. But all of this is part of God’s plan. And yet Jesus weeps.
This is all very similar to what happens when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the grave (John 11). Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to die. He says that this is all part of God’s plan to glorify himself (John 11:4). Lazarus had to die so that Jesus could raise him. Jesus knew all of this. Yet when Lazarus died, and his sisters were mourning, Jesus wept (John 11:35). And then Jesus rose Lazarus back to life (John 11:38–45). The Son of God, who is in complete control, weeps that some things must happen.
Jesus is like the prophet Jeremiah. (We’ve been studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings, and you all are welcome to join us.) Jeremiah was given the difficult task of prophesying to Judah shortly before Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian empire. That destruction came because the people didn’t believe in God. They didn’t respond rightly to his words. Instead of trusting in God, they trusted in the words of false prophets, other messages that said things they wanted to hear. They worshiped false gods, gods they could manipulate. Jeremiah was told he would “pluck up” and “break down,” he would “destroy” and “overthrow,” he would “build” and “plant” (Jer. 1:10). And Jeremiah spoke God’s words to unbelieving people. Like Jesus, he promised destruction to those who didn’t trust God. Like Jesus, he wept (Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17). And, like Jesus, Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
Here in Luke, Jesus says that enemies will come to Jerusalem and set up barricades to surround the city on every side. These enemies will destroy the people, the city, and the temple. Why? “Because you did not know the time of your visitation.” That means that they didn’t know that God had visited them in the person of Jesus. They didn’t know that Jesus was a man of God. They didn’t realize that Jesus is God.
What Jesus says here comes to pass forty years later. Because the Jewish people will rebel against the Roman Empire, the Romans will retaliate. They will surround the walled city of Jerusalem. And they will then destroy the city and its temple, killing many people in the process. This finally happened in the year 70. This destruction came because of the people’s rejection of Jesus, which was a rejection of God. And the stones of the temple were destroyed because the temple was no longer needed. The true temple, where God meets with his people, where people pray to God, and where sacrifices were offered to God, is Jesus’ body. And Jesus’ body on Earth is the church.
Jesus didn’t just come to tear down and to destroy. He also came to build up. He came to build the kingdom of God on Earth. To build a kingdom, you need citizens of that kingdom. In order for people to become citizens of the kingdom of God, they need to come under God’s rule. But the human condition is that we don’t want that. We don’t want God to be our ultimate authority. We like calling on God when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want God’s words to dictate how we live. That was true of the first human beings. Because they didn’t love God and trust him, they rejected his words. And because of that, God rejected them. He removed them from his special presence, from paradise, where there was no evil and no death. And ever since, humanity has been living in a wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, and dying. To get back into God’s good graces, we need someone who provides a way back.
We need someone who will take the punishment for our sin that we deserve so that we can be forgiven. We need someone to be exiled so that we can go back home. To be built up as God’s people, we need our sin to be torn down and destroyed. How can God destroy sin without destroying us?
The answer is Jesus. As a human, he can sacrifice his life for other humans, paying their penalty in full. As the God-man, he is infinite, and can pay not just for one person’s sins, but for the sins of the world. Jesus’ disciples quoted part of Psalm 118, the part that says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Earlier in that Psalm, it says,
22 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 118:22–24).
Jesus is the stone rejected by humans, but who becomes the cornerstone of a new temple. Jesus said that if the Jews didn’t praise him, the rocks would. Earlier, John the Baptist said that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In other words, God can make his people out of nothing. It doesn’t matter where you were born, who your parents were, how much sin you’ve committed. What matters is if God takes you and brings you to faith. And if he does that, you have a place in God’s kingdom. In fact, you are a living stone who is part of the true temple of God.
Consider what the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:4–5:
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Why does John the Baptist say that God can make rocks into his people? Why does Jesus say that the stones would cry out? Perhaps they had in mind what Peter would write later. God takes people like us, nobodies, and makes them into his people. God takes people like us, undeserving, not particularly powerful or smart or even lovable, and uses us to make his temple. And if we’re part of God’s people, we are a holy priesthood. We’re priests of the King! We don’t have to offer up sacrifices for our sin. That sacrifice was offered when Jesus died on the cross. But we offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and of doing good works (Heb. 13:15–16). We offer up our very lives as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). Or, as Peter says a few verses later, God’s people have been rescued from sin and condemnation so “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are supposed to “abstain from the passions of the flesh,” from our sinful urges. We are supposed to “Keep [our] conduct . . . honorable,” so that when other people see us, “they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:10–11), that day when Jesus comes again in glory.
The question for us today is, Which king are we following? We will follow some authority. We will put our trust in the “princes” of politics or in ourselves, or perhaps in our money or entertainment or in our spouses or other loved ones. But they will all fail us. The one who never fails is Jesus. There has never been a king like him, one who is in complete control yet who would lay down his life, one who is humble yet perfectly self-assured, one who speaks tough words but who also weeps. “Blessed is the King” and blessed are those who come under his authority.
If you are not a Christian, I strongly urge you to consider the claims of Christ Jesus. Do not reject him. No politician will die for you. And they’re certainly not in complete control. No other person can remove your sins and bring you to peace with God. No one else and nothing else will give you eternal life, in a restored world where there is no suffering and no death—that’s another promise that Jesus makes. If you don’t know a lot about Jesus or if you have questions, please talk to me. I would love to help you know more about Jesus. If you are ready to follow Jesus but don’t know how or what that would look like in your life, I would love to help you get started.
If you are a Christian, live like Jesus is your King. Praise him. Don’t be afraid of what others say, the ones who reject Jesus. Some of them may come to “glorify God on the day of visitation.” And let us imitate Jesus as far as we are able. We aren’t in complete control. We aren’t the rulers of the universe. We can’t pay for the sins of others. But we can be humble and do God’s will. We can be tough-minded and tender-hearted, speaking truth with tears in our eyes to people who may not listen. Let us tell others about our King. Perhaps one way to start a conversation with people is to ask who or what they put their trust in. Ask people who their ultimate authority is. They may never have thought about that before. Then tell them about who your ultimate authority is.
“Blessed is the King” and blessed are his people. May the Lord bless us.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
Who is your ultimate authority? Who is your king? There has never been a king like Jesus, in complete control, yet laying down his life, prophesied yet not recognized, accepted by some and rejected by others, who promises judgment to those who reject him yet who weeps over that fact. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 19:28-44 on October 6, 2019.
“You’re on the wrong side of history!” Have you heard that before? That line was being said a few years ago against anyone that would dare say that marriage has a fixed definition: it is a complementary union of a man and a woman, a relationship that is meant to last a lifetime. People who wanted to redefine the institution of marriage assumed that they were “progressive” and “on the right side of history.” Anyone who stood in their way, who held to the definition of marriage that the Bible states clearly, the one that God created and Jesus affirmed (Matt. 19:4–6), was somehow on “the wrong side of history.” They were likened to people who tried to stop the abolition of slavery (or desegregation in schools or in any other public place).
“You’re on the wrong side of history!” is a nice bit of rhetoric. It’s a threat, really. After all, who wants to be on the wrong side of things? And who wants to be viewed as some regressive, backwards bigot? I doubt that any of us want to be viewed that way.
But think about that argument for a moment. What does it even mean to be on the wrong side of history? Does it mean we’ll be viewed as on the wrong side in a year or two? What does that matter? Imagine that Adolf Hitler had said, at the beginning of World War II in 1939, that all who opposed the Third Reich were on the wrong side of history. That might have appeared the case for a year or two. But it certainly wasn’t the case after D-Day, in 1944. At that time, people might have said, “Hitler, you’re on the wrong side of history!” Less than a year later, he committed suicide and Allied forces celebrated victory in Europe. And it would be hard to imagine how Hitler could possibly be vindicated at any later date. So, it seems that at any point in history after 1945, Hitler will be on the wrong side of history.
But there are many cases that aren’t so clear cut. How do we know when to judge people as being on the wrong side? Do we pronounce such judgments twenty years later? Fifty years later? One hundred years later? Even then, we could be mistaken.
Take the case of Christianity. Obviously, when Jesus died, many people probably thought he was on the wrong side of history. But Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, so it’s hard to say that he’s on the wrong side of history or even death. Still, many people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave. Christians were persecuted at different times in the Roman Empire. It would have been easy for unbelieving Jewish leaders to say of the first group of Christians, who were also Jews, that they were on the wrong side of history. Gentile pagans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history. A little over thirty years after Jesus died on the cross, Christians faced persecution under Emperor Nero. There was another wave of persecution in the late first century under Emperor Domitian. As late as the early fourth century, almost three hundred years after Jesus died, there was another outbreak of persecution under Emperor Diocletian. At any point in time during those years, Romans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history, and that might have seemed plausible.
But history is a funny thing. Fast-forward a couple of millennia, and there are supposedly two billion Christians in the world. I think the number of true Christians is significantly less, but the point is that there are a lot of Christians in the world. And, last time I checked, there is no Roman Empire.
My point is that you can’t really know what’s going to happen in history. How do we know what will happen throughout history? How do we know where history is going?
Different worldviews say different things about history. It used to be that many people thought that history was cyclical. The Stoics, a group of people who held to a certain Greek philosophy, believed that the world was destroyed in a series of fires. History goes in cycles, round and round again. Their view of history has been summarized this way: “Once upon a time, there was nothing but fire; gradually there emerged the other elements and the familiar furniture of the universe. Later, the world will return to fire in a universal conflagration, and then the whole cycle of its history will be repeated over and over again.” It’s hard to see how anything would matter in such a view of the world. There could be no lasting progress or achievement. You just go round and round on history’s carousel.
That may seem like an odd view, but it’s not totally different from the view that some people have today. Those who believe in reincarnation believe in some form of cyclical history. Some believe we are in the midst of a countless number of big bangs and big crunches of our universe. These people believe that there is no god, and no purpose to life. While not all atheists share that view of an endless series of big bangs and big crunches, all atheists believe we’re here because of some accident. Somehow, the universe got started, without a creator or a designer, and it has developed throughout a long period of time, improbably leading to all the complexity of life we find today. But it will all end, at least in our solar system, when the sun dies, billions of years from now. Whatever we’ve accomplished ultimately won’t matter. A famous atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”
Strangely, Russell didn’t seem to be bothered by this. He thought it was noble to carve out some meaning for one’s life, even if there really is no ultimate point. He wrote, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only . . . to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces” that will trample over him one day. It’s hard to see how self-made shrine bound for destruction is worthy of worship.
If there’s no purpose to life, there is no goal of history. If history has no goal, no final day of reckoning, there’s no wrong side of history. There’s no right side of history, either.
So, is history just an accident? Perhaps Macbeth was right when he said:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 
Or perhaps history is not an accident, and not an endless cycle, but perhaps it’s going somewhere. Perhaps history has a certain beginning and a certain ending. Perhaps it has meaning and purpose.
But how can we know that? How can know where it’s all going? We would need God to tell us. And God has told us. When we look to the pages of the Bible, we see that God has given us a broad outline of all of human history. It has a certain shape, marked by significant events. It has a definite beginning: God created the universe to be his temple, a theater to display his glory, and the great actors in that theater are human beings, made in God’s image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). We were made to worship God, love him, serve him, represent him on Earth, reflect his greatness, and obey him. But after Creation, the first act of the great drama of the Bible, comes the second act, the Fall. The first human beings decided that they didn’t want to follow God’s script. They didn’t want to obey God. They didn’t trust that God was good. They wanted to be like God. And as a result, everything in this world has become polluted, cracked, broken, tainted. Once there was no hate and war, and not even a hint of death. But now, when sin entered the world, everything changed. When humans turned away from God, the source of light, love, beauty, truth, and life itself, God gave them over to their desires. He said, more or less, “You don’t want me? Fine. Go your way.” And when we turned from God, we found the opposite of light, love, beauty, truth, and life. We found darkness, hate, ugliness, lies, and death.
The whole story of the Bible is basically a rescue mission, an adventure story of how humanity can get back to God. The path back to God truly opens up again with the third act, Redemption. God sends his Son into the world to fulfill his design for humanity. Only God the Son, who is truly God and also becomes truly a man, lives the perfect life. He is the perfect image of God. And though he lived a perfect life, he dies in place of his people. He takes their punishment so they can be forgiven. He is sealed in a tomb so that they can go free. He is exiled so that they can come back home.
It’s a wonderful story, and it’s potentially a sad one. It would be a tragedy it not for the fact that Jesus rises from the grave on the third day, triumphing over sin and death. His resurrection shows that he defeated sin on the cross. Death can’t stop him. And all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the dead in bodies that can never be destroyed. But that great day of resurrection is in the future, in the final act of the Bible’s story, Consummation. We only get glimpses of what life will be like when all is restored, when God’s plans are consummated. But what we understand is that all God’s people will live with God forever in a world that has been remade, purged of all evil, cleansed of all sin, recreated so that there is only peace and life, not conflict and death.
But there’s a long period of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of his people. There’s a long period of time between the coming of the King of kings to inaugurate his kingdom, and the return of that King, to establish his kingdom fully. We live in those in-between times. And what do we do during that time? We use what Jesus has given us for his purposes, to the glory of God.
We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we’ll look at one parable that Jesus told, a story that tells us some important truths about the kingdom of God. Jesus was about to go Jerusalem, and his followers thought that he was the Messiah, the descendant of the great king of Israel, David. The Messiah was the one who was going to make everything right. He was going to defeat all powers that were against God and his people. He would overthrow all opposing forces, which in their minds included the Roman Empire. Jesus tells this story to correct their expectations.
Let’s now take a look at today’s passage, Luke 19:11–27:
11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”
Most of that passage is a long parable about a king and his servants. That story could be interpreted in many different ways. The only clue that Luke gives us is verse 11. He says that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Jesus had already said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are under God’s rule and blessing, where God is present with them. The God-man, the King of kings, was there in their midst, so he could rightly say the kingdom of God had come. But it wasn’t going to arrive in its fullest form when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He wasn’t going to receive a golden crown, sit on a glorious throne in a palace, and command an army to defeat all his enemies. Instead, he was going to go away. And while he’s gone, he expects his followers to be engaged in a certain kind of business.
The story itself isn’t too hard to understand. There’s a nobleman who leaves to go to a “far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” Before he leaves, he gives ten servants one mina each. A mina was a coin worth about three or four months of wages. So, the nobleman left them all a very significant amount, but not a massive amount, perhaps equivalent to $10,000 to $15,000. Then, the nobleman tells his servants to “engage in business until I come.” We’re not told how long the nobleman is gone, but he expects his servants to use that money to make more money.
Before continuing with the story, let’s think about how this relates to Jesus. Jesus is the nobleman who, after dying on the cross and rising from the grave, will go to a “far country,” heaven, to receive his Father’s kingdom. In a sense, the Son of God always possessed this kingdom, but the New Testament says that upon Jesus ascending into heaven he is exalted. As God, Jesus has always possessed the kingdom. As a man, the Davidic King, he sits on his throne when he goes to heaven. His work has been accomplished.
While away, Jesus has given his servants a task to do. He has given all Christians different callings and different spiritual gifts. We may not all do the exact same thing for Jesus, but we are all expected to engage in Jesus’ business while he is away. We have no idea how long he’ll be gone. He might return in a few years or in a millennium or more. But while he’s gone, he expects us to use what he has given us.
Now, back to the details of the parable. After the nobleman leaves on his journey, his citizens get together a delegation and they go to the authority who is going to give this nobleman his kingdom. This delegation expresses what the citizens are thinking: “We do not want this man to reign over us.” The story has some parallels to something that happened in history about thirty years earlier. After Herod the Great died—he was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the one who had the infant boys of Bethlehem killed—his kingdom was divided among his three sons. His sons had to have their rule confirmed by the Roman Empire. So, Archelaus, one of the sons, went to Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time. Before he left for Rome, Archelaus entrusted his castle and his wealth to his officers. After leaving, the Jews revolted. They didn’t want Archelaus as their king. They sent a delegation of fifty men to Rome to oppose Archelaus. Augustus decided that Archelaus wouldn’t be called a king, but instead he would be an ethnarch, a ruler of his people, until he could prove himself to be worthy of the title of king. When Archelaus returned, he removed the high priest and replaced him.
What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, perhaps Jesus is saying, “You know what happened with Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great? That’s kind of what will happen with me.” The details of the Archelaus story, and the details of this parable, can’t be mapped onto Jesus’ story exactly. That’s not how parables work. But there are certainly many people who don’t want Jesus to be their king. Of course, they can’t send a delegation to God the Father to complain. And they wouldn’t want to do that, anyway. But they rebel against God and his Son all the same.
Well, what happens when this nobleman returns? He checks the work of his servants. Did they engage in business while he was away? One servant was able to take his mina and make ten minas in profit. And he receives a commendation: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” He took his relatively modest sum of money and made a ten-fold profit. And as a reward, he has authority over ten cities. He has proven that he is responsible, and he is given more responsibility. Something similar happens with another servant. He has made five minas, and he then is rewarded with authority over five cities.
Then, there is a third servant. When called to account, he says that he hid his coin. He didn’t put it in a bank, or even bury it in the ground, but wrapped it in a cloth. That’s not the best kind of safekeeping. And he offers a lame excuse as to why he didn’t do anything with that coin. Then he says that did this because he was afraid of the nobleman. He calls him a “severe man” who takes what he didn’t deposit and reaps what he didn’t sow. Think about his: if this servant really was afraid of the nobleman, he would have worked hard to make something with the money he had been given. Also, the nobleman has just rewarded two servants with positions that far outweigh what they had made for him. So, it doesn’t appear that he is harsh or greedy. So, it seems this servant is making a very poor excuse. In reality, he doesn’t know, trust, and love the nobleman. And, as a result, the coin he had is taken and given to the one who had made ten minas.
What does this have to do with Jesus? When Jesus returns in glory, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. And we will have to give an account for our lives. As I’ve said before, I don’t know exactly how this will work. We’re not given all the details. But what we’ve done in this life will be examined. As the apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 4:5, when “the Lord comes,” he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Those who have served Jesus will be given some kind of reward. But that reward isn’t probably what most people think. We tend to think in terms of money. But notice that the servants who made money weren’t given money. They were given authority. The truth is that all Christians will receive the greatest reward possible: God himself. There is nothing greater than God. All Christians will be in the direct presence of God for eternity. You can’t top that. But we’re given some hints that Christians will have different positions in eternity, perhaps some who have been particularly faithful in this life will have greater responsibilities.
Perhaps we can think of an analogy in sports. Those who work hard in practice will be rewarded with more playing time. The quarterback who learns the playbook thoroughly and works hard to execute the plays exactly as the coach imagined them will be rewarded with a starting position. The one who is lazy and doesn’t do what the coach wants will be but cut from the team. In that way, “to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
What does this have to do with us? If you’re truly a servant of Jesus, you’ll do what he wants during this time in history when he is “away,” in the “far country” of heaven. And when he returns, he will reward your work. The reward may simply be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might mean that you will have some wonderful things to do in eternity in the new creation. Whatever it is, Jesus will acknowledge your work. What you have done will not be have been done in vain.
In this parable, the third servant showed he wasn’t a servant at all. He made a lame excuse. And what he had been given was taken away. There are some people who think they’re Christians. They think they’re Christians because they believe some statements about Jesus are true. But Satan knows those truths even better than Christians do (James 2:19), and he won’t be with God for eternity. Just because someone has said they believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian. Just because someone has been baptized doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian.
Salvation is a gift. It is not something earned. But, salvation is a work of God, and it’s not just about having sins forgiven. That’s a huge thing, but that’s just one facet of salvation. Salvation also includes being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, being a new person. When God saves a person, he starts to transform that person. So, a real Christian should, over the course of his or her Christian life, have some works to demonstrate that change. The apostle Paul said we’re saved by grace through faith, and this is not our work. But he says we’re saved to do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). James, the brother of Jesus, says that a so-called “faith” without works is a dead faith. It’s not real at all (James 2:17). Faith is demonstrated by works (James 2:18). Works are not the root of our salvation, but they are fruit of our salvation.
So, on judgment day, I expect that there will be many who thought that they were Christians who are surprised to learn that they never really trusted Christ. If they truly loved him, they would obey him (John 14:15, 21, 23).
And, speaking of judgment day, in this parable, the noble man will punish those who were opposed to him, the ones who said, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” And we’re told Jesus will do the same. Now, some people think Jesus would never do such a thing. But the Bible doesn’t flinch away from punishment. In the Old Testament, several men of God slaughtered God’s enemies. Joshua killed five Amorite kings (Josh.10:16–27). Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:32–33). Elijah slaughtered hundreds of prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:40). Don’t think that this is just some Old Testament violence. The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as a greater Joshua, slaying those who refuse to repent (Rev. 19:11–21). That’s just one picture of condemnation (similar to 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Another is sending people into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). Another picture is the damned being thrown into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:14–15). These are all images of a reality that is too awful for us to fully appreciate. It’s what we deserve. We are all like those people who say, “We don’t want this man to be our king!” If God hadn’t changed our hearts, we would reject him still.
If you think all of this is too harsh, you need to understand how serious our sin is, how great a rejection of God it is. And you need to remember that Jesus himself subjected himself to violence. He volunteered to become a man, to be hated, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed in a gruesome way. His death wasn’t an accident. It was the triune God’s plan, so that sin could be crushed without having to crush all sinners.
Jesus isn’t a harsh King. He’s a king who sacrifices himself so that we can live. He’s a King who will richly reward us for our service to him. He has given us a modest amount of time, a modest amount of money, a modest amount of talents, a small amount of opportunities and spiritual gifts. He expects us not to receive those things and hide them. He wants us to put them to use. We may not all do massive things for the kingdom of God. Living a quiet life of humble obedience to Jesus may not look great in the world’s eyes. But doing that is huge in God’s eyes. And he will reward us.
Our reward will be to live with him forever, and to have even greater responsibilities in the new creation. What will that be like? I don’t know. But this life is a shadow, and the substance is eternity, a never-ending existence. Will we serve God in his kingdom or will we be cast out into darkness forever? If you want to serve in God’s kingdom forever, you will serve in it now. Your refusal to serve now is an indication that you won’t be with God forever. Jesus is warning us not to be like that third servant, the one who truly didn’t love, trust, and even know the king. That servant was no servant at all, and what he thought he had, he lost.
Let us use the gifts that Jesus gives us now, because all of history is pointing to him. Several people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The idea is that justice will certainly come, even if it takes a long time to get there. More recently, one Christian author corrected this line: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.” Let us get ready for that day when we stand before Jesus by using what he has given us.
Let’s be on the right side of history by being on the right side of Jesus.
- For an assessment of the “wrong side of history” argument, see Kevin DeYoung, “What’s Wrong with the ‘Wrong Side of History’ Argument?” The Gospel Coalition, August 5, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/whats-wrong-with-the-wrong-side-of-history-argument. ↑
- Anthony Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81–82. ↑
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106. ↑
- Ibid., 107. ↑
- Ibid., 115. ↑
- Ibid., 117–18. ↑
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth V.v. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe. ↑
- Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 204. ↑
Where is history going? Does it have an intended goal? Christianity says that it does, and history’s end is Jesus. We will all have to give an account of our lives to him. What will we do with the time and other resources that he has entrusted to us? Find out how Jesus responds to different people by listening to this sermon, based on Luke 19:11-27, preached on September 29, 2019 by Brian Watson.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are really good at remembering things, and those who . . . wait a minute . . . I can’t remember who the other people are.
To be serious, when it comes to matters of faith, it does seem like there are two types of people in the world. There are people who want to know facts before they believe. They want to know what Scripture says. They want to think through good arguments for why they should believe. These want a faith that makes good intellectual sense. They want a religious faith that isn’t contradictory, one that makes sense of the basic facts of life. They don’t believe based on feelings, but on whether something is true.
Then, there are people who won’t believe it unless they see it or feel it themselves. We might say these people want evidence, but not evidence that can be read in a book. They want to see miracles personally or have certain positive feelings. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, couldn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, though that is what the other disciples told him. No, Thomas had to see the risen Jesus for himself in order to believe. When Thomas finally did see Jesus, he fell down at his feet and famously said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28–29).
I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently, because some churches rely on producing feelings. Recently, I saw that another church baptized a large number of people, and they posted a testimony from someone who supposedly came to faith. Maybe this person really does believe. I don’t know. But the testimony was all about her feelings. She felt happy. She felt excited. She felt love. But nowhere in her words was there a mention of basic facts of the gospel message. There was no mention of sin, of who Jesus is, what he did to save her, and no mention of trusting Jesus and repentance. There was talk about being devoted to Jesus, but it was more about him helping her than her rather taking up her cross and following him.
I mention this because as we will see in today’s passage, Luke 17:20–37, Jesus makes a bold claim about the kingdom of God. He says it has come upon the Earth, but “in ways that can be observed.” Jesus’ own coming to Earth was rather quiet. Yes, it came through a miracle: the Son of God took on human form. But most of his life was lived quietly. He was a carpenter’s son. He didn’t draw attention to himself. When the time was right, he did have a public ministry. And he did perform some amazing miracles. But he didn’t produce what everyone was expecting. And Jesus never said that life in the kingdom of God, at least in this age, will always feel good. He never promised it would be easy. The word “fun” doesn’t appear in the Bible, and generally what we often think of as “happiness” or “self-fulfillment” doesn’t appear in the Bible either. That’s not to say that God doesn’t give us pleasures. He does, and I trust that he will do more of that in the future. It’s to say that we follow Jesus because of truth, not feelings. And we need to know what Jesus himself taught in order to follow him.
So, with all that being said, we’re going to start to read today’s passage. I’ll begin by reading Luke 17:20–21:
20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
Jesus is once again being questioned by the Pharisees, one group of Jewish men who were influential religious leaders at this time. They ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. The idea of the kingdom of God could mean many things, depending on the person. What they probably had in mind were prophecies in the Old Testament that a descendant of David would come and rule God’s people. This anointed king, the Messiah, would crush the enemies of God’s people, Israel, and establish a reign that would never end (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:2–7; 11:1–5). The Pharisees probably wanted to know when this king could come and defeat the Roman Empire, the occupying force in Palestine at that time. The Jewish people wanted the freedom, the power, and the land that was theirs during the time of King David and his son, Solomon.
Jesus knew they were expecting this display of power when the Messiah comes. But Jesus, who is the Messiah, the King of kings, says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.” He means that it wouldn’t come in the way they expected it, with huge demonstrations of national strength, with military victories. Then he says, more or less, “Don’t listen to people when they say that it’s here or there. The truth is that the kingdom of God is right in your midst.”
Now, Jesus does not mean something that I’ve heard from others. There are some translations, like the earlier version of the NIV, that says, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Some people take that to mean that God is already in you, or that you have some divine spark within you. I actually heard this from a man who claimed to be a Christian, yet who also believed in a lot of New Age or eastern religious concepts like reincarnation or the idea that we’re all divine in some way. This man appealed to this verse, in that translation—“the kingdom of God is within you”—to prove that Jesus taught this.
In any of you watched the first two debates featuring the approximately 300 Democrats currently running for president, you might know who Marianne Williamson is. She has long been a kind of New Age spiritual teacher. In an interview, she said this about Jesus:
Jesus was a human being who while on earth completely self-actualized and fulfilled in all ways the potential glory that lies within us all. He became one with the Essence and Christ Spirit that is in all of us. In that sense, he is our evolutionary elder brother. He demonstrated our destiny. He displayed for all to see the destination of this journey that we are on. The only thing lacking in any situation is our own awareness of love, and Jesus realized and taught that.
Jesus is a personal symbol of the Holy Spirit. Having been totally healed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus became one with him. Every thought, action, and deed of Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit instead of ego. He’s not the only face the Holy Spirit takes on—he is a face. To think about Jesus is to think about and bring forth the perfect love inside us. Jesus actualized the Christ mind, and was then given the power to help the rest of us reach that place within ourselves.
He was sent down by God—as we all are. We are all extensions of the mind of God. We all contain nuggets of glory.
If you have read the Gospels, you know that this is not what Jesus taught. If you’ve read any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, you can’t believe this. Jesus would never say to the Pharisees, who thought they knew God but really didn’t, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus didn’t say the kingdom of God is in us. He said that we must be born again to enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
Jesus was that the kingdom of God is right in front of you. It’s here. The king is in your midst. If they only had the eyes of faith to see the truth, they would know that Jesus is the Messiah. He didn’t come the first time to overthrow the Roman Empire, to take political office, to make a lot money. He came to teach people about God, to show that he is the Son of God, the true King, and to save people from their sins, which is their greatest problem.
Our greatest problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money, or enough political power. Our greatest problem isn’t that we feel bad. We feel bad because we are bad. We are all affected by the power of sin, the power of rebellion against God that entered into the world when the first humans turned away from God. Because of this power of sin, we commit sins. We don’t love God as we ought. We don’t obey him. We don’t love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus came to fix that problem, not to make us feel better.
In the rest of the chapter, Jesus turns to his disciples and warns them not to think like the Pharisees. The kingdom of God will come in its fullest in the future, but they won’t see it. Before that time, Jesus will have to suffer. And I think he implies that they will suffer, too. But he encourages them, and us, to follow him. There will be a day when Jesus comes a second time. That time, he won’t come quietly and humbly. He will come in glory and power. He will reign on Earth, but not before he judges everyone who has ever lived. Jesus wants us to be on the right side of that judgment.
Let’s now read the rest of the passage. Here is Luke 17:22–37:
22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
I want to explain what Jesus says here by highlighting four truths. The first truth of his message to his disciples is that they will not see the day when Jesus returns in glory. At least, they won’t see it before they die. These disciples had the privilege of witnessing Jesus teach and perform miracles for two or three years. There will be a time when Jesus will leave them, and he will not return in their lives on Earth. There will be times in their lives when they will long for the days of the Son of Man—that’s a reference to Jesus. They will wish Jesus is with them. They will wish it was already the time when the whole world would know who Jesus really is, when he comes to judge the living and the dead and to establish fully his kingdom. (Theologians say the kingdom is already here, but not fully consummated.) The Old Testament often spoke of “the days are coming” in terms of God’s judgment upon his enemies (Isa. 39:6; Jer. 7:32; 16:14; Amos 4:2). The disciples will long to see that. If you’re a Christian, you surely have days when you want to see that. So many people don’t believe in the true Jesus. They don’t live as if he is their King. We want to see everyone recognize who Jesus is. We want people to turn away from living for themselves, to turn away from their sin, and to turn to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and restoration.
The second promise of Jesus’ message that I want us to see is this: Jesus says that before that time of judgment, before he overthrows all the powers that are hostile to God, he must suffer. Jesus has already predicted his death several times (Luke 9:22, 44; 12:50; 13:22–33). He alludes to it again here. He says he will be rejected by “this generation” and that he will suffer. The Jewish people expected a Messianic king who would conquer, not one who would suffer. They didn’t connect promises of David’s offspring who would reign forever to prophecies about a suffering servant who would die for the sins of his people (Isa. 52:13–53:12).
I think Jesus highlights his upcoming death to indicate that the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness can’t happen without him first dying on the cross. He will die not because he did anything wrong. He is the only person who never sinned. No, he will die to pay the death penalty that all sinners deserve. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Our sin corrupts, distorts, and ruins God’s creation. God, who is a righteous judge, can’t have that. All crime must be punished. But God graciously sent his Son to die in our place. And Jesus volunteered to do that. It was his will just as much as it was the Father’s. Jesus wants his disciples to know that what he is about to do is a key part of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth.
I also think that Jesus is teaching us that before glory comes suffering. That’s certainly true of his ministry. Before he died on the cross, Jesus lived a humble life. His miracles got the attention of many, but he had no money, no political office. At the end of his life he was betrayed, abandoned, rejected, tortured, and killed. He died naked, in shame, nailed to a cross and hung there until he could no longer breathe. In the world’s eyes, that’s not glory. But Jesus rose from the grave, showing that he paid the penalty for sin and that he has power over sin and death. He is now exalted in heaven, and he will return in glory.
Jesus probably wanted his disciples to know that the pattern of suffering now and being raised to glory later is the pattern that Christians will experience. Jesus never promised us we would feel a lot of positive feelings. He did promise great things for those who turn to him in faith: forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, a new family of Christians, a place in God’s kingdom, peace with God. But those benefits are not something we always feel. We must trust that they are true. And Jesus also promised his followers that they would experience persecution and hate. They would suffer. The apostle Paul said the same thing. In Romans 8:16–17, he writes,
16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Christians suffer because there are times when the world hates them. So, Christians suffer because of what others do. Christians also suffer because they still live in a world that is stained by sin. All that bad things we experience, such as fighting, diseases, and death, are a result of sin in the world. Christians also suffer because they must wrestle with their own sin. They must put their old patterns of sin to death, and this doesn’t come quickly or easily. It can be painful. Yet Jesus promises, as we see in verse 33, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
The third truth that Jesus teaches in this passage is that his second coming will be obvious, public, universal, and unmistakable. He knows there will be people who claim that Jesus has secretly returned. People will say, “Look here” or “Look there.” Jesus tells us not to bother with people who make those false claims. When Jesus returns, everyone will know. There will be flashes of lightning, which are often associated with an appearance of God (Exod. 19:16; Ps. 77:18; Rev. 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). Somehow, everyone on Earth will know that Jesus has returned. It will be as clear as lightning in the sky.
Some people have taught that there is a secret return of Jesus, a secret “rapture.” I have tried in the past to teach against this is subtle ways, but I won’t do that this morning. Let me be clear. The Bible does not teach that Jesus will come quietly or secretly. Every passage dealing with his return talks about either visual signs or a great noise. Now, the Bible has one passage that teaches a rapture. First Thessalonians 4:17 says that when Jesus returns, Christians will be “caught up” with Christ in the air. But that passage says nothing about what happens next. The most popular end-times theology taught today isn’t what the church has believed for almost two thousand years. It was developed around 1830 by a man named John Nelson Darby, who believed that the church was a failure. Of course, he established his own church, which he believed was the only true church. But he also devised a very fanciful end times theology that teaches things that the Bible really doesn’t teach. We see in this passage that Jesus combines his public glorious return with salvation and judgment and the consummation of his kingdom on Earth. Most passages in the New Testament that talk about his return describe those events as happening at the same time.
And that leads me to something else that is very clear in this passage. The fourth truth is that when Jesus returns, there will be a division among all people. Some will be spared God’s condemnation. They will be saved. Others will be condemned. Jesus gives us two examples from the book of Genesis. In the days of Noah, people were wicked. God sent a flood upon the Earth to judge everyone. The only people who were spared were Noah and his family. Noah was instructed to build a large ship, an ark, to save his family and various species of animals. Now, Noah was prepared for the flood. But everyone outside his family wasn’t. They went on living as if their lives would never end. But when the flooding started, it was too late. Noah and his family were safe on the ark, and everyone else would perish. (See Genesis 6–9 for the story about Noah and the flood.)
The other example is of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and what happened to the city of Sodom. We are told that Lot and daughters were spared a judgment that came upon Sodom for their sexual immorality and their pride (Gen. 19:1–29; Ezek. 16:49; Jude 7). Lot, like Noah, responded to God’s word about a coming judgement. Noah found safety in the ark, while Lot was told to flee the city. Everyone else went on living in the city as if nothing was going to happen. Even Lot’s sons-in-law didn’t believe that judgment would come. But then judgment came, and it was too late for them to repent.
Those two events in Genesis foreshadow a final judgment, when Jesus returns. All who have failed to trust in Jesus will be condemned. Those who don’t believe that he is the Son of God, those who don’t repent, those who don’t live as if he is King, those who don’t trust that he has done everything to make us right with God—those people will face something worse than death. They will experience eternity apart from God and from any scrap of goodness. And that is just, because they didn’t want God in this life.
Jesus says the division of all people will occur within families. He says there will be two people in a bed. One will be taken, the other left behind. In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems that the one taken is taken in judgment, just as the people in Noah’s day were swept away by the flood (see Matt. 24:37–41). Here, it seems that the one taken is brought to safety, and the one left behind is judged. I don’t think the details matter. What matters is that the division will cut right through families. Families in those days all lived in close quarters. The people in bed could be a husband and wife, or a father and his son. Families often worked together. The who women grinding grain at the mill could be a mother and her daughter, or two sisters. Just because one person in a family is a Christian doesn’t mean the others are. Each person must personally trust Jesus to be spared condemnation.
I also think those examples—people sleeping in bed, people at work—show us that we don’t know when Jesus will return. It could be at night or it could be in the day. It could be while we’re sleeping or it could be while we’re working. We don’t know when Jesus will return. The way to be ready is to put your faith in him now, to admit your sins, confess them to God, repent of your sin, and actively follow Jesus. That is the only way to be prepared.
How do we apply the great truths of this passage to our lives? One way is to know that God’s kingdom is already here. Yes, many people don’t live as if God is King. They don’t live as if Jesus is their King. But he is. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are living under his rule and experiencing his blessings. God’s kingdom right now doesn’t always look very impressive. It looks a lot like what you see right now: some very ordinary people gathering to hear God’s word, to sing together, to pray together, to encourage one another and correct each other if necessary. God’s kingdom may look like a married couple faithfully loving each other. It may look like a single person living a quiet life of devotion to his or her true spouse, Jesus. It may be parents teaching their children, or someone at work working hard as if they are working directly for Jesus. It may look like someone quietly and humbly loving other people by doing something kind. It may look like someone having the courage to speak the truth to people who don’t want to hear it but who really need to hear it.
The kingdom of God is here now. It’s not announced with signs and wonders. It doesn’t look impressive. Entering into it may not always feel dramatic. But Jesus and his followers urged people to enter the kingdom. And that is still true today. I urge anyone here who is not truly a Christian to turn to Jesus, to bow before him, to confess all sins, to seek the forgiveness that only he provides. You may not feel like doing this. If you do it, I can’t guarantee what you’ll feel. The only reason to be a Christian is that this message is true. And it takes the eyes of faith to see that. Jesus promises us a return that we haven’t seen. He warns of a coming judgment that many people think will never happen. None of us have seen Jesus in the flesh. But we have his words. We have testimony about him that has been given to us by people who saw him, who knew him. And we believe this testimony comes ultimately from God himself. I encourage anyone who may have doubts about Jesus to learn more about him. Understand what the Bible teaches. If you have doubts, I would love to talk personally with you. I can give you many reasons why this message is true, why it makes sense of all of life. But know that the only reason to believe is because it’s true and it’s right to live for Jesus.
If you went to your doctor and were told you have cancer, and if you believed your doctor, and if you didn’t want to die an early death, you would begin treatment. If you’re here and you believe this message that you have the wound of sin, a wound that we cannot cure, if you believe that Jesus can alone can cure that wound, and if you believe that unless that wound is cured, you will be condemned, you will turn to Jesus now. Do so before it’s too late.
For those of us who have turned to Jesus, I want to point out what Jesus has said here. Don’t believe people who say they know when Jesus is returning. Don’t listen to the end-times madness that is out there. Follow Jesus now and you don’t have to worry about when he comes. What does following Jesus look like? Jesus tells us. He says, “Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” In the story of Lot, when he and his family left Sodom, they were told not to look back. But his wife looked back at the city. She probably wanted to go back. Perhaps she didn’t want to leave her old way of life. Whatever she was thinking, she didn’t trust God’s message. So, she was turned into a pillar of salt. She was made into a statue. She is a warning that when we follow Jesus, we cannot turn back. We must make a commitment to him.
Our old lives can seem very alluring. When we were living for ourselves, we might have had a lot of fun, a lot of pleasure. It’s tempting to go back and do the things that we used to do. It’s tempting to do what other people in the world are doing now. But we can’t. There are certain actions and attitudes that simply are not compatible with Christianity. We are told to flee these things. We must lose our old lives in order to be saved. Those who refuse to do so, those who seek to preserve their old lives, will lose their lives in the end.
This doesn’t mean that there is no joy in following Jesus. There are joys in following him. God has given us many good things that we can experience by living according to his design. Christians can have fun. They can be happy. But we must learn to find our joy in Christ, to make him our greatest treasure. When we do that, we are willing to follow him, no matter what. When we see that Jesus is a greater treasure than anything in the world, we can endure suffering for his sake. When we see that eternity hangs in the balance, that this life is brief, but that where we spend eternity will last forever, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. Whatever suffering we experience now will be brief, but eternity with Jesus will be more pleasurable than anything we can imagine. As David once wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Glory will come to all who enter into God’s kingdom, but not after some measure of suffering.
Jesus’ kingdom is here, right now. Let us live like he is our King. When the King returns in glory, it will be too late to turn to him in faith.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- The Pharisees often question Jesus or complain about him, usually to trap in saying something they think will get him in trouble. See Luke 5:21, 30; 6:2, 7; 7:39; 11:38, 45; 13:31; 14:15; 15:2; 16:14; 18:18. ↑
- William J. Elliott, A Place at the Table: A Journey to Rediscover the Real Jesus with the Guidance of Various Teachers, from Billy Graham to Deepak Chopra (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 238. ↑
Jesus divides people into two groups: those who produce good fruit by listening to his words, and those who produce bad fruit by refusing to hear him and do what he says. People in the first group build their houses on the solid ground, but those in the second group are like those who build a house without a foundation. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:43-49.
Jesus tells his disciples to “judge not.” What does this mean? How are we not to judge? Does this mean we don’t make moral evaluations? Find out by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on October 14, 2018.
Jesus challenges the world’s priorities and values by saying that the poor, hungry, sorrowful, and hated are blessed, while the rich, full, laughing, popular people are to be pitied. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:17-26, which includes the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.”
I haven’t used the Proverbs much at all in my preaching, which isn’t by design. Proverbs is a very important book of the Bible, full of wisdom and insight. And there are some very funny proverbs, like this one:
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (Prov. 11:22).
You have to think about that a little bit to get it.
Another one of my favorite proverbs is this:
A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating (Prov. 18:6).
That’s a good one, isn’t it? The idea is that foolish people speak before they think. They rush to judgment, and the consequences aren’t good.
There are a couple of proverbs near that one that address similar issues. The next verse says,
A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
and his lips are a snare to his soul (Prov. 18:7).
So, the words of a fool lead him into trouble. That’s because they’re not based on knowledge, but only opinion. Proverbs 18:2 says,
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
A lot of times, we form opinions quickly. It seems like people don’t think, they just react. They see a person and they quickly form an opinion. They hear of something on the news, and they quickly have a theory. The problem is that opinions don’t require a lot of thought. In fact, they often don’t require any conscious thought at all. Often, our opinions are no more than gut reactions.
But Christians are supposed to seek wisdom and understanding. We’re not supposed to go on gut reactions and quickly-formed opinions. Proverbs 18:15 says,
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Knowledge is often very different from opinion. Our first reaction to things may very well be wrong. Proverbs 18:17 says,
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
Our first impressions and our “hot takes” can be wrong. What first seems right can later seem wrong.
Why do I bring this up? Because in the passage that we’re looking at today, the apostle Paul tells his younger associate, Timothy, that he shouldn’t prejudge, that he shouldn’t do anything from partiality. In other words, Paul tells Timothy that he wouldn’t act rashly. He shouldn’t make decisions unless they are based on real evidence. And that’s a good lesson for all of us to learn.
Today, we’re going to look at 1 Timothy 5:17–25. This book of the Bible is a letter from Paul, the preeminent evangelist and church planter of the first century, to his younger associate, Timothy, who was responsible for the health of a church. In this passage, Paul tells Timothy about some things related to the leaders of the church. Here, they’re called elders. Elsewhere, they’re called overseers (1 Tim. 3:1) or shepherds (Eph. 4:11). We often just call them “pastors.” Now, that might not seem very relevant to you if you’re not a pastor, or if you’re not a member of a church. But the principles that we see in today’s passage should inform the way that all of us live, particularly those of us who trust our lives to Jesus Christ.
So, let’s read today’s passage, then we’ll break it down into parts to understand it, and finally we’ll think about how it should affect our lives. Here is 1 Timothy 5:17–25:
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
Let’s walk through this passage together.
As I said, this paragraph is about elders, or pastors. The first two verses state that elders should be paid. Paul says that those “who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” “Double honor” may refer to receiving both respect and financial support. It’s not enough to give a pastor one or the other. Other passages in the New Testament teach this idea. Some passages teach about respecting and submitting to leaders of the church (1 Thess. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:17). Others teach about the importance of financially supporting ministers. Galatians 6:6 says, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Paul also talks about this in 1 Corinthians 9. He says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” (verse 7). And then he says, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (verse 11).
There are many reasons why a pastor should receive financial support. We can talk about the value of spiritual leadership, the eternal value of the word of God, the fact that a financially-supported pastor is free to work without stress, and so on. But it comes down to simple, proverbial wisdom. Everything that is of benefit comes at a cost, and someone has to pay that cost. I’ll come back to that idea later.
Before I move on, there are a couple of interesting details in verse 17 and 18. In verse 17, Paul refers to those who rule in the church, and then he says, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some churches have taken this to mean that there are ruling elders and preaching elders. But that clause could be translated, “namely those who labor in preaching and teaching.” That’s a picky grammatical point that rests on how we translate one Greek word (μάλιστα, malista). But I think that’s probably the right translation. What Paul is saying is that those who labor are those who preach and teach. The work of a pastor is largely preaching and teaching the Bible. He leads with the word of God.
The other interesting point is that in verse 18, Paul quotes two other passages in the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Paul calls both of these passages Scripture, which is a way of saying that they are the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). The first passage, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” is from Deuteronomy 25:4. It teaches a basic principle: an animal who is treading the grain, in order to separate the kernel of grain from the husk, should be able to eat some of that grain. Paul applies that principle to supporting pastors. The idea that we should take away is that though the Old Testament law is not in force today, we can and should apply basic principles of that law to our lives. The second passage, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is from Luke 10:7. Jesus spoke these words. I just want to point out that Jesus viewed the Old Testament as God’s word (see John 10:34–35, for example), and Paul viewed Jesus’ words as God’s word. The apostle Peter believed that Paul’s letters were Scripture, too (2 Pet 3:15–16). There are many such verses that indicate that the whole Bible is God’s written word.
In verse 19, Paul shifts gears. He says that charges against elders must be based on two or three witnesses. This is a biblical principal. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Interestingly, that passage in Deuteronomy goes on to talk about a “malicious witness” who accuses someone of wrongdoing. Paul may have that in mind here, too.
Why does Paul single out accusations made against an elder? It may be that people are more willing to wrongly accuse pastors of something. It may also be that Paul knows that all it takes is one false accusation to ruin a man’s life. So, if people accuse a pastor, there should definitely be multiple witnesses who can attest to the pastor’s sin. And when we’re talking about sin, we mean a sin serious enough to address publicly, something that, if not repented of, could disqualify a pastor.
Why would people make false accusations against an elder? Because they think the church is “theirs” and they don’t like the way the pastor is leading. Power struggles are behind a lot of ungodly behavior. The thirst for power can lead an otherwise good man to do a bad thing.
And lest you think I’m making this up, I can tell you that multiple pastors have told me that they have been falsely accused of something by people who want to gain or reassert their power in a church. Less than two weeks ago I met a man who has been the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania. He has been at that church for seven years. He told me that the same married couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against him. (I believe the husband in the couple is a leader in the church, possibly the youth group leader—I can’t remember.) This pastor explained to me that his church’s by-laws clearly state that there are two reasons to dismiss a pastor: for teaching false doctrine and for immoral behavior. Early on in his tenure at the church, he switched the Bible translation that the church used. They were using the King James Bible, and he switched to the English Standard Version, the same translation we’re using here. This couple tried to accuse him of teaching some kind of false doctrine. I can’t remember the details. But more recently, the wife in this couple tried to start a whisper campaign against the pastor. He had preached a sermon in which he happened to address the men. He said that lust and pornography were serious problems for men, and they are. This woman then started to whisper in the church that the pastor had an “eye problem.” She meant that the pastor was looking at things he shouldn’t be looking at. So, the pastor and the other elders had to address this couple. He said he put the man “in quarantine;” if he wanted to continue to be the youth group leader, he had to meet with the pastor and the other elders to study what it meant to be an elder in the church. So, this couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against this pastor, but their attempts have been thwarted.
Now, there are times when accusations against pastors are backed by multiple witnesses. And if that is the case, the pastor can either confess his sin and repent, or they may “persist in sin,” as Paul says. Paul tells Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Unrepentant elders should be rebuked in public, in front of the congregation. This will cause the other elders—“the rest”—to stand in fear, lest they fall into sin as well. Publicly addressing sin serves as an example. It says, “This kind of behavior won’t be tolerated here.” Paul is clearly talking about those who continue in sin, probably some kind of egregious sin. He doesn’t mean that those who sin once are kicked out of a church.
Since disciplining a church leader is difficult, and since we’re so prone to have our emotions and biases get in the way, Paul tells Timothy not to be prejudiced and not to be biased. In verse 21, he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” Timothy shouldn’t be prejudiced against an elder. He shouldn’t show partiality towards an elder or an accuser. Instead, he should act as though he were standing in the presence of God, Christ, and angels, because in reality we all stand in their presence, though we can’t see them. We all should act as though God is witnessing everything we do, because he is.
While on the topic of rebuking and possibly dismissing sinning elders, Paul tells Timothy not to put someone into that position of leadership too quickly. In verse 22, he says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” Paul may be thinking of installing new elders. Or he may be thinking of reinstalling an elder who had sinned. Either way, Timothy shouldn’t act too quickly. If he puts a man who is unfit for the job into a leadership role, it could harm the church.
Paul also tells Timothy not to participate in the sins of others and to keep himself pure. Earlier in this letter, Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). There is always the possibility that any of us could fall into sin. So, be careful.
But it’s possible that Timothy might take that command to be pure in the wrong way. In Ephesus, where Timothy was located, there were false teachers who taught that people shouldn’t eat certain foods and that they shouldn’t marry (1 Tim. 4:1–5). They might have taught that people shouldn’t drink any alcohol whatsoever. Timothy might have been observing that supposed rule. But in verse 23, as a bit of an aside, Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” There’s nothing wrong with drinking some wine—at least if you’re not addicted to it. If you’re an alcoholic, stay away from it! The Bible doesn’t forbid all drinking; it warns against drunkenness, but it also says that wine is a gift (Ps. 104:14–15). In Timothy’s case, Paul says he should drink wine for his stomach problems and for his “frequent ailments.” We don’t know what these were. Perhaps Timothy had experienced a great amount of anxiety and stress, and a little wine might relax him. That’s a bit of speculation, but I think it makes sense given how difficult leading a church can be, and how Timothy was probably experiencing opposition in Ephesus, at least from the false teachers.
In the last two verses, verse 24 and verse 25, Paul returns to the idea of not making hasty decisions. Timothy shouldn’t quickly put someone into a position of leadership because a man’s qualities are not always easy to see. Some sins or character defects are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. Some good works or good characteristics are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. That’s what Paul means when he writes, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” Sometimes, our initial view of people is wrong. We don’t know everything about a person. We should refrain from making judgments until we’ve given things time. In this case, when someone is being considered as an elder candidate, the church needs to know who he really is. Some men can appear godly, but they have sinful characteristics that they are hiding. Some men may seem rather ordinary, but their godliness comes through in the end. The basic principle is that you can try to hide sin, but you can’t hide sin forever. Your sin will find you out. And you can’t hide your good works. In the end, those will be revealed. That is certainly true when we are all judged by God on the last day. Everything done in darkness, whether bad or good, will be brought into the light.
Now that we’ve walked through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives.
There are some obvious applications to life in the church. The church should pay pastors, those who labor in preaching and teaching. I am grateful that the church takes care of my family. If you are here and you’re not giving generously to the church, please consider doing that. The finances of the church don’t all come to me. Twenty percent of what goes in the offering plate goes to missionaries. We also need money to maintain and upgrade this facility, to have materials to use, to pay for utilities and insurance, and so on.
We should also be careful about making accusations against pastors. Pastors are flawed, sinful people like anyone else. And some egregious sins must be addressed. But some people will attack pastors if they feel threatened, usually because the pastor has made some decisions that they don’t like. And all it takes is one accusation to end a man’s pastoring career. As another pastor friend of mine told me, some people will chase off a pastor and not think twice about what that does to the man’s life, to his family. As long as they can have control of the church, as long as the church can be “theirs” or go the way they like it, false accusers don’t care. So, there must be real charges against a pastor and they must be backed by multiple witnesses.
Another application to the life of the church is that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a candidate for leadership. If we don’t really know a person’s true character, we shouldn’t rush to make them a pastor, or a deacon, or a teacher, or any other position of authority. We should get to know a person. Again, our first impressions can be wrong—so can our second and third impressions. We shouldn’t rush to judgment.
Now, all of that may not seem very relevant to your life right now. To be honest, you might not care at this moment about what happens to pastors. I understand. But this passage still applies to you. Just as we can learn basic principles from the Old Testament and apply them to our lives, we can do the same with this passage. And one basic principle we all can learn is that we shouldn’t rush to judgments. We shouldn’t be hasty in forming our opinions.
One of the great problems in our society today is that we rush to judgments. We are all very reactionary. This is most true when it comes to political issues. But it also seems to be true of any potentially controversial topic. We are all very quick to have an opinion, to believe that we’re right about something, even if we don’t really know what we’re talking about. It’s like we’re rooting for a sports team. If you’re a Red Sox fan—and you should be—then you don’t need to know who plays for the Sox or who plays for the Yankees. You know the Sox should win and the Yankees should lose. You don’t care if the Sox players are using steroids and corked bats. All you care about is that they win. You know the Yankees are a detestable lot and they deserve to lose.
Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic here. But that’s how people react to heated political and religious issues. And it’s a problem. We shouldn’t rush to make judgments about complex issues. Perhaps we should slow down and think.
There’s a great book I read recently called How to Think, written by Alan Jacobs. I think the subtitle of the book tells us what it’s really about: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. At the beginning of the book, he says that most of us don’t want to think. Instead, we just emote. He quotes T. S. Eliot: “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” We tend to view anyone different from us as a “repugnant cultural other.” Before they open their mouth or write a word, we just know they’re wrong.
Jacobs says we should be more virtuous than this. We should actually listen to people and try to understand them. We should slow down and not react when we hear something we think may be wrong. We shouldn’t mischaracterize other people in order to win an argument. We should value learning over debating. In other words, we should slow down and think, and we should treat other people with respect, even if they may be wrong.
Christians should be leaders in doing this. It’s embarrassing that more Christians don’t know how to think deeply about a complex world. It’s embarrassing that Christians don’t act virtuously. And I think some Christians don’t apply their theology to their own lives. Christianity teaches us that we’re all sinners. We have all turned away from a holy God who created us to know him, love him, and worship him. Because of that turning away from God, the power of sin is at work in us. Even Christians struggle with the lingering effects of sin. And sin can affect the way we think. We can be wrong in our judgments. So, we should slow down and consider whether we actually know what we’re talking about. We might very well be wrong. Christians should be the most humble people of all, willing to consider their own faults instead of pointing fingers at others.
Earlier, I said that any benefit we receive comes at a cost. That’s the way the world works. Every gain we have comes at a cost. The thing we can never forget is this: Our ultimate gain—being reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, and granted eternal life—came at an ultimate cost. Our sin is so bad—we’re so bad!—that it took nothing less than the Son of God becoming a human being and dying for us to fix the problem of sin. The gospel—the core message of Christianity—teaches us that all humans are sinful. Our desires are messed up. We want the wrong things. We make wrong judgments. We go astray. The only way we can be restored is for Jesus to come, to be the perfect man, and to die in our place. That way, his perfect righteousness is credited to our account and the debt of our sins is wiped away. It’s as though we owed trillions of dollars to God, and Jesus paid off that debt and left an extra trillion in our account. But we only receive that benefit if we trust him. This should humble us.
I would urge us all not to be hasty in our judgments. Christians, we should known for our thoughtfulness, our patience, our carefully considering evidence. This should all be part of loving God with all our minds.
And if you think you know all about Jesus but still don’t trust him, consider the possibility that you may very well be wrong. Consider that you may be rejecting Jesus because you want to retain authority over your life. Consider that you may reject Jesus because you don’t want to change. It’s not that there is insufficient evidence for Christianity. It’s that you don’t even want to consider that evidence in the first place. We all can be that way about various things in our lives. But that doesn’t get us to the truth, and only the truth can set us free (John 8:32). Jesus himself is that truth (John 14:6). He came to rescue us from our wrong judgments. The only way to be saved from condemnation on that day when all our sins and good deeds are finally exposed is to run to Jesus and find refuge in him.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017). ↑
- T. S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), quoted in Jacobs, How to Think, 22. ↑
We shouldn’t rush to judgment, whether in church matters or anything else. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:17-25.
Brian Watson explains what the Protestant Reformation principle “Faith Alone” means and why it matters. How are we reconciled to God? By trusting in the work of Jesus on our behalf.
Today, we’re resuming our series on the five “solas,” the major theological principles of the Protestant Reformation. Many churches, writers, and Christian organizations celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, which is supposedly the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It’s debated whether Luther nailed these to the church door, but we do know that on that date, he posted a letter containing the Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. These theses were short statements protesting the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse of indulgences, which supposedly help shorten people’s time in purgatory. These were being sold, with the promise that the money could free the dead from purgatory and into heaven. At any rate, the Theses didn’t get to Albrecht until the end of November. So, it’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation even now. And, as we’ll see, these principles are always relevant.
One of those principles is “faith alone.” We are reconciled to God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That means that salvation is a gift. It cannot be earned. It can only be received by faith, by trusting in the only one who can save us, Jesus. It is his work on our behalf that puts us in the right with God, so that God is for us and not against us.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was a monk, a priest, and a university professor, and his theology was undergoing a massive change. Prior to 1517, he had been wracked with guilt and he doubted whether he stood in the right with God. According to a recent biography of Luther, “There was in medieval Christian life the strong implication that if one could not earn one’s salvation outright, one could certainly go a long way toward earning it, and one had better do what one could.” This was Luther’s mindset. He wanted to be sure he did everything he could to earn God’s favor. So,
Luther’s overactive mind was constantly finding ways in which he had fallen short, and so every time he went to confession, he confessed all of his sins, as he was supposed to do, but then, knowing that even one unconfessed sin would be enough to drag him down to hell, he racked his brain for more sins and found more. There was no end to them if one was honest about one’s thoughts, and Luther was entirely honest.
Luther seemed some kind of unprecedented moral madman on a never-ending treadmill of confession. Instead of looking upward and outward toward the God who loved him, he zealously and furiously fixated on himself and his own troubling thoughts.
That kind of anxiety over sin might seem foreign to many of us. I think most people go through life without thinking of sin too much. I suppose that’s because we don’t think of God as much as Luther did. I don’t know may people who would argue that the world was better five hundred years ago, but it was better in one way: people had an awareness of the existence of God and the problem of sin. In our modern world, it seems we have little room for God.
It’s only when certain things happen in our lives that we start to wonder about the wrong things we’ve done and where we stand with God. It may be when a loved one dies, and we think about our own death. It may be at a funeral. It may be in the middle of a dark night of the soul, when we’re tired and can’t sleep, and all our failures come to mind. It may be a rare moment of introspection when we think about what our lives amount to. In these moments, we may wonder if our lives mean anything. We may wonder if we are worthy. We may wonder if God loves us, if he will accept us as his children. We may wonder what will happen when we die.
Just yesterday, I was in Bridgewater at the Veteran’s Day parade. I happened to pass the funeral home and saw some of the people who work there. (They were outside giving out doughnuts and coffee.) The director of the home said they were doing some “community relations” and that business had been slow lately, because “they come in waves.” I said, “but they come in the end,” meaning they will always have business because everyone dies.
Now, back to Martin Luther. During this period of his life, he started to teach at the University of Wittenberg. He spent years teaching through the Psalms, the book of Romans, and the book of Galatians. During this time, he had a breakthrough. He realized that we are not acceptable to God because we confess all our sins to a priest and do numerous good works to work off our sin. In 1517, while wrestling with his guilt and his fear of—and even hatred for—God and his righteous judgment, Luther realized the apostle Paul’s message, that “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4; quoted in Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Luther later recalled, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Luther came to this realization while studying the book of Romans, and this message was confirmed when he studied and taught Galatians. I think it is easiest to see this message in the book of Galatians, so we’ll turn there this morning.
The apostle Paul wrote the book of Galatians to a church that he helped start on one of his missionary journeys. He preached to them the good news that we can be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus. If we trust that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and the world’s only Savior, and we trust only in his work to save us, then we are justified, or declared “in the right,” by God. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are no longer guilty of sin, and we are credited with all that Jesus did as the only perfectly righteous human being who has ever lived. This is what Paul taught. But the Galatians seemed to doubt this message. They turned to false teachers who claimed that they must have faith plus works in order to be saved.
In the first chapter, Paul writes,
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6–9).
Those are strong words. He says to this church, “You’re turning to false teachers who are teaching a different message. There’s only one gospel and they’re not teaching it. I don’t care if an angel tells you something different. To hell with him if he does. And even if I come and tell you a different message, well, to hell with me.”
In chapter 2 of Galatians, Paul makes it clear that the only way to be reconciled to Jesus is by having faith in him. This is what he writes in verses 15 and 16:
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Paul doesn’t mean that Jews aren’t sinners. He says, “Gentile sinners,” because that’s the way Jewish people like him would have looked at Gentiles. Paul means, “We’ve all sinned against God. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is. It’s not an ethnic problem we have, it’s an ethic problem. We’ve all done wrong and God knows it! And the only way we can survive God’s judgment is to trust in the one solution he gave us, which is Jesus.
That’s seems pretty clear to me, but there are some theologians who think that the phrase “works of the law” doesn’t refer to the law in general, or to doing good works in general. They think it refers specifically to Jewish religious rites like circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and eating only certain foods. Those were boundary markers that kept Gentiles out of Israel. They think that Paul isn’t saying that good works don’t factor into what is called justification. (Justification is a term that comes from the law court. If you’ve been accused of a crime and a judge finds that you’re innocent, you are justified, pardoned, declared innocent.)
So, the question is, are we “in the right” with God because of Jesus’ work on our behalf, received by faith, or is God for us because of our faith plus something else?
I think Paul is clear that God is for us and not against, that we are adopted into his family, that we are united to Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit not because of anything that we’ve done, but because of God’s grace. We receive the gift of salvation by faith alone. We see that in chapter 3 of Galatians.
Let’s read the first nine verses of that chapter:
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Paul calls them foolish because they turned away from the true gospel. When he says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified,” he doesn’t mean that the Galatians actually saw Jesus die on the cross. They were a long way in time and place from Jerusalem. Paul means that his preaching portrayed Jesus as God’s anointed one, sacrificed on the cross for sin. Jesus laid down his own life at the cross, and when he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant it. There is nothing to add to Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death.
Then Paul asks them some rhetorical questions. The point is that the Galatians didn’t receive the Holy Spirit by “works of the law,” nor were they growing in their faith by those works, nor were miracles performed in their midst because of those works. All the benefits of Christianity came through faith. And this has always been the case. Just as it was for Abraham, so it is for all of God’s people. We are considered righteous in God’s sight because we trust him and his promises. Now that Jesus has come, we must trust Jesus, the Son of God, the one who is truly God and truly man. God’s plan was always to bless the nations through the true son of Abraham, Jesus.
Then, in the next few verses, Paul makes it clear why we cannot earn salvation through our efforts. Let’s read verses 10–14:
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Paul presents a logical reason why we cannot be justified by works. He says that all who rely on works are under a curse. That is, they’re condemned. Why is that the case? He quotes a verse from the law, Deuteronomy 27:26, which says that if the Israelites failed to do everything written in the law, then they would be cursed. Deuteronomy was written right before the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. At the end of the book, there are promises of blessings and curses. If they obeyed God, they would live and be blessed. If they disobeyed, they would be cursed and would perish. Paul’s implied point is that the Israelites failed to obey all the law.
And I think the implication is that if Gentiles were given this law, they would fail, too. It seems to me that the law given to Israel was a particular expression of God’s moral law. The Ten Commandments are representative of God’s moral law (Deut. 5:1–21). Worshiping idols, dishonoring parents, coveting, stealing, and lying are all wrong and we’ve all broken these commandments. We may not have murdered someone or committed adultery, yet Jesus tells us that hating someone and lusting after someone are like killing a person and committing adultery, because these things reveal problems in our hearts (Matt. 5:21–30). We’re all guilty.
What Paul doesn’t explicitly say here is that God requires the perfect obedience of a covenant partner. That is, if we’re going to have fellowship with God, we need to be perfect. And, clearly, we’re not. I don’t have time to explain covenant theology right now, but the idea is that God wants humans to relate to him through covenants, and humans are represented by covenant heads. All merely human covenant heads—Adam, Noah, Abraham, David—are not perfectly obedient. Israel covenanted with God, but they were disobedient, too. All these covenant partners broke covenant with God.
You may wonder why God requires perfection. The answer is that God is too pure to dwell with evil. Sin, or evil, corrupts and destroys. Yet God is holy, perfect, and pure. He cannot allow his special presence to coexist with the corrupting power of sin. As David said,
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you (Ps. 5:4; see also Hab. 1:13).
God requires perfect obedience and if we are going to trust in our own efforts, we need to be perfectly obedient. That’s why Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5, which says, “if a person does them [God’s “statutes and rules”], he shall live by them.”
Paul also says that God’s people have always been saved by faith. Abraham was credited righteousness because of his faith (Gen. 15:6). And “the righteous shall live by faith,” (Hab. 2:4). The Old Testament’s witness on justification is that it comes by trusting God and his promises. So, the righteous can live by perfect obedience or faith. Those are the options. And our sinful desires will not allow us to take the first option. And, if we try to take it, it shows that we don’t trust God’s provision. That is why Paul can say “the law is not of faith.”
If you’re tracking with me, you may wonder how that works. You may think, “That doesn’t make sense.” Or, in the words that my seven-year-old son likes to say these days, “It’s not fair!” How is that that disobedient people can be declared innocent, as if they have done the right thing and not the wrong? Shouldn’t we at least try to earn our standing with God?
Those questions are good ones to ask. As for that second question, I already said that our trying to earn God’s favor is bound to fail because we don’t do what is right. Even if we started right and now and had a perfect record from here on out, we would have to do something about our past failures. Our current efforts cannot erase our past sins. And even if we did the right thing now, our sinful character guarantees that we do things for the wrong reasons, or for the wrong motivations. For example, we may give to the poor in order to look generous or altruistic. As Isaiah 64:6 says,
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
As to that first question—how can guilty people be declared innocent—Paul gives us the answer. He says that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law—if we have faith—by becoming a curse for us. In other words, Jesus took our condemnation for all who trust in him. Paul quotes one more verse from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 21:23, to demonstrate this truth. In that passage, we’re told that a person who has been given the death penalty for sin and has been hanged on a tree is cursed by God. Apparently, the perpetrator was made an example of, which is why he would be hanged. Paul takes this little bit of information and shows that Jesus, by being crucified on a “tree,” a piece of wood, not only took our curse but became a curse. God regarded him as our sin and Jesus was condemned in our place. Jesus was crushed so that we don’t have to be. This was the Father’s will and the Son’s will.
The point is that God can declare the guilty just because Jesus took their penalty and paid it in full. Not only that, but Jesus gives us his perfect obedience, his righteousness. Only Jesus, the perfect God-man, kept covenant with God. He perfectly obeyed and fulfilled God’s law and God’s design for humanity. Yet, as Paul says, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus, God the Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus was regarded as sin and he died—and rose from the grave, showing he paid our penalty in full. And we are regarded as God’s righteousness, as having his perfect moral character. This has been called “the great exchange.”
It is also called the “sweet exchange” in an early Christian document, probably from the second century, called The Epistle to Diognetus. This is part of that letter:
He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, “the just for the unjust,” the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!
There’s another way of expressing this truth. When we are united to Jesus, we are his bride and he is our bridegroom. Of course, this is a metaphor. Our relationship to Jesus is only analogous to the way a bride relates to a groom, and there are limits to analogies. But I think it’s true to say that when two people get married, they share all their lives together. Jesus, though sinless, takes on our sin; and we, though sinful, take on his righteousness.
When Kathy and I married, she had debt and I was blessed to have inherited money from my grandparents. One of the first things I did was pay off her debt. Her debt was erased; she had equal share to my money. But here’s where the analogy starts to break down. When I paid off Kathy’s debt, I had less money. But when Jesus pays off our debt, he doesn’t have less righteousness. Because Jesus is not only man, but also God, he’s infinite. He can pay for an infinite amount of sin and he never loses any righteousness. His righteousness knows no end and can be credited to a multitude.
I think the idea of union with Christ and the picture of a marriage help us to understand the nature of faith. If you’re married, did you earn your spouse’s love? I think it would be strange if you said yes. You were the object of your spouse’s love because, well, he or she loved you. Love is hard to explain that way. When you entered that relationship, you received that love. You didn’t work for it. If you loved this person in return, you trusted this person enough to marry him or her. And when you have that kind of trust and love, your life changes. Again, this is just an analogy, but it helps us understand the personal nature of faith.
And it helps us to understand that the object of our faith matters. We can’t have a generic “faith.” Sometimes people talk about their faith. They say, “She has great faith,” “I’m relying on my faith,” and things like that. But our faith doesn’t save us. The object of our faith can—if it’s Jesus. We must have faith in the one who saves. We must be united to him. There is no other savior. There is no other person who is perfectly righteous for us and who takes the punishment we deserve for us. Our faith is personal, and it must be in the only person who can save, Jesus.
Also, faith isn’t mere head knowledge. Yes, faith involves believing that what the Bible says about sin and salvation is true. It involves knowing that Jesus is the only Son of God, who is truly God and truly man, who lived a perfect, sinless life and atoning death, and who was raised to life on the third day for our justification. But faith is more than just knowing facts. Faith trusts a person. And real faith leads to action. Real faith will lead to obedience and good works. Those don’t save us. They don’t put us into a right relationship with God. But once we’re in that relationship, they will come quite naturally. Just as a healthy tree will bear fruit, a person who has been restored to spiritual health will produce spiritual fruit.
That’s why James, in his letter, says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Then he goes on to say this, in James 2:18–24:
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Here’s what James means. Real faith isn’t believing some statements to be true. The demons know truths about God, but they’re not reconciled to him. Real faith leads to action. Abraham was credited righteousness because he believed. But that faith also led to obedience. This doesn’t mean Abraham was perfect, because he wasn’t. But his faith led him to do some very hard things. He was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, because God was testing him. (God didn’t actually require Isaac to be sacrificed, by the way. The story foreshadows that God’s only Son would be the sacrifice that God would provide.) This obedience demonstrated that he had true faith. In that way, Abraham was justified by works. We might say his faith was demonstrated to be true because he had some obedience to show for it.
But it’s important to say that our good works don’t add to our right standing with God. When we first believe in Jesus, we are completely justified. Our right standing is based on Jesus’ perfect work for us. And when we come to real faith in Jesus, we our transformed. We have the Holy Spirit. We are united to Christ. And this new status will inevitably lead to good works.
In the end, this isn’t any different from what Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–9. Paul says that we were saved by grace through faith, and that this is a gift from God. We cannot boast about it. We can’t even regard faith as some wise choice that we made because that is part of the gift. But why were we saved? The next verse, Ephesians 2:10, tells us: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were saved to do good works. We should do them out of love and gratitude and trust.
There’s a lot more that can be said about the nature of faith, but I have to wrap things up for now. So, let me ask you to imagine something. Imagine your time has come. You have crossed the bar from life to death. And imagine that it’s Judgment Day. You are before God, and your life is now coming under God’s scrutiny. God is the Judge, and he is perfect. Because he’s all-knowing, he knows every bit of your life, all your thoughts, desires, words, and actions. He sees all the evidence and it’s clear you’re guilty. What will you offer in your defense?
This day will come for all of us, whether we’re Christians or not. So, what is your excuse? What is your defense? What is your plea? Will you protest and say that you’re innocent? Will you give excuses and try to justify why you did some wrong things? Will you shift the blame to others? Will you claim ignorance of God’s commands or inability to do them? If so, you don’t really understand the nature of God, human nature, and the problem of sin. I would invite you to take a more honest, more sober look at your own life. You can fool other people, or even yourself, but you can’t fool God.
Perhaps you won’t say you’re innocent. But instead of acknowledging that you have a debt that you could never repay, a guilt you could never work off, you boast about all the things you’ve done. You might say, “God, you can’t condemn me because I said I believed in Jesus and I was baptized at age 12. I repeated a prayer someone told me. And then I attended church every Sunday. I even gave ten percent of every little bit of income I ever had. Surely that means something, right?” If that is your posture, I would also invite you to reconsider how serious your sin is and how tainted your good actions are with bad motivations. I would also say that if you are trusting in your own efforts, you’re not a Christian.
Jesus told a parable about this. In Luke 18:9–14, he describes two men who come to the temple. One is a Pharisee, and when he prays, he simply boasts about how he’s obeyed the law. The other man was a tax collector, known for taking more than they should. And all he said in his prayer was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And this is Jesus’ verdict: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
That’s why this matters so much. If you trust your own efforts, you’re not trusting God’s provision. And, I would add, you don’t understand the truth about the depth of your sin and the insufficiency of your good works, whatever they are. You can’t be part of God’s family and kingdom if you don’t live by faith. No one here today can say they don’t understand this message of the gospel, the good news of Christianity, which says that sinners can be in the right with God by trusting his Son. Everyone here has heard that the only way to be right with God is through God’s grace, expressed in Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death, received by faith. Accept God’s grace by faith. You’ll never have a right standing with God if you think you can earn it.
Perhaps when you stand before God, you’ll rightly say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” You might say, “God, I know I rebelled against you. I have done more wrong things than I even know. My only hope is Jesus. I know he is the Righteous One, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior. I know he died for my sins and rose from the grave for my justification. I have put my faith in him.” That is good. I hope we all can say something like that and mean it.
But what if God were to ask us, “How do I know you have faith?” How would you demonstrate that you have faith? In other words, what in your life are you doing that requires faith in Jesus? Being here is a good start. So many people who claim to be Christians aren’t committed to a local church, which simply makes no sense to me. Part of living by faith is submitting to the leadership of a local church and serving—and being served by—that body of believers. I think it takes faith to give generously to the church and to those who need. That shows that you’re willing to do with less in this life because you know being generous is good and right. Serving in the church takes faith, because we don’t always see the fruits of our efforts. Sometimes, we’re not thanked for what we do. It takes faith to stay in a marriage that doesn’t feel perfect. We do that because we know it’s right and ultimately good for us, and we hope and pray and work to make that marriage better. It takes faith to tell other people about Jesus, because they may reject us and call us names. It takes faith to deny yourself pleasures that other people indulge in. You trust that such things will ultimately harm you and those around you.
Many other things take faith. The point is that real faith cannot be separated from the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Real trust leads to real action. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and we are saved to do good works to the glory of God alone. May we all trust in Jesus only for salvation, and may our lives show that such faith is real.
- Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 43. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., 47. ↑
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986), 34:337, quoted in Metaxas, Martin Luther, 96. ↑
- Over two years ago I preached a sermon on Galatians 3:1–14. This sermon, “The Righteous Shall Live by Faith,” was preached on July 12, 2015 and is available at https://wbcommunity.org/galatians. ↑
- Epistle to Diognetus 9:2–5, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 547–549. ↑
Most of us want to know how stories end. When you read a novel, are you tempted to turn to the last page before you’re finished? Are you the kind of person who looks up spoilers of a new movie—perhaps the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi,” which comes out next month—or a TV show? Are you the kind of person who can’t wait to know how the story ends?
Many people are fascinated with how the story will end. They want to know how the world, or the universe, will end. Atheists believe the universe will likely come to an end billions of years from now, as the universe continues to expand and entropy continues. In that case, everything will get cold, leading to death on earth. If the universe began with a Big Bang, it may very well end with a Big Freeze.
Many theists believe that the universe will end when God decides to bring human history as we know it to a close. Christians believe that human history will end when Jesus returns to earth. There is no shortage of speculation about when Jesus will return and what will happen when he returns. I suppose it’s quite natural for people to want to know when and how Jesus will return, because it’s closely related to how our lives will end. Christians hope that Jesus will return soon because it will mean the end of suffering and pain. We hope Jesus will return soon so that we won’t die. We hope Jesus will return soon so that we can live with him forever.
Over the last several weeks I’ve been answering questions that were submitted to us. We had asked people, “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Two people asked different questions about the end of the world. One person asked Jesus, “When will you come again?” Another asked, “How will the world end?”
I’ll try to answer these questions today. I’ll spend more time on the second question, because the answer to the first question is, “We don’t know.” We don’t know when Jesus will return. People in every generation since Jesus ascended into heaven thought he would return in their lifetime. Those who have predicted when he would come have been proven wrong, time and again. The fact is that we’re not supposed to know. Jesus himself said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). Shortly before ascending into heaven, Jesus told his disciples, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We simply don’t know and it’s foolish to think we could figure it out.
The only thing that seems to be clear is that before Jesus comes, there will be some kind of heightened evil. The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, says that there will be a certain “man of lawlessness,” who proclaims that he is God (2 Thess. 2:1–12). But we’re not given much information about what exactly will happen when that occurs. This seems to be the same event as described in Revelation 20, when Satan is released to deceive the nations (Rev. 20:8ff.). But we’re given such little information about these events that it would be impossible to predict when they will occur. And I think that’s by design. We’re not supposed to speculate on when Jesus will return. Any information in the Bible related to Jesus’ second coming is meant to comfort us and motivate us to live holy lives.
Before I continue, I should add this: I’ve already preached or taught different messages about Jesus’ second coming. About two and a half years ago I preached a message on Jesus’ return when I preached a series of sermons on Jesus. At the beginning of 2016, I preached a sermon called “The Returning King,” which was part of a sermon series on the big story of the Bible. In that sermon, I discussed the passages in 1 and 2 Thessalonians related to Jesus’ return. I also taught through the book of Revelation in our Sunday morning Bible study. All of those materials are on our website. Since I don’t want to repeat what I’ve taught earlier, I’m going to look at a different passage today.
So, let us be more concerned with the second question: “How will the world end?” To answer that question, we’ll look at 2 Peter 3. I would invite you to turn in your Bibles to that passage to see what happens when the world as we know it ends.
We’ll being by reading the first four verses:
1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”
The apostle Peter is the author of this letter, and he begins this chapter by referring to a previous letter he wrote. A number of skeptics don’t think Peter wrote this letter, but I find their arguments very weak. Many people who oppose the authority of the Bible do so by trying to create doubts in our minds. But since this letter is written in Peter’s name, I believe it is the work of the apostle. He may be referring back to 1 Peter. It’s possible he’s referring to a letter that didn’t become part of Scripture. What’s important is what he’s trying to do in that previous letter and this one. He’s trying to remind them what the prophets and the apostles taught.
The “holy prophets” are likely Old Testament prophets (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16–21; Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21). The prophets of the Old Testament taught people in their day to turn back to the Lord God. But they also looked into the future and told of the “day of the Lord,” a day of salvation and judgment, when God would redeem his people, defeat their enemies, and restore the world.
Peter also mentions “the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.” This shows us that Jesus teaches us through his apostles, such as Peter and Paul. “The commandment” that Peter has in mind is probably all of Jesus’ teachings, which can be summed up in the commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:37–40). But it also includes Jesus’ command to his followers to “stay awake,” or to be ready for his return. In Matthew 24:42, Jesus says, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Then, he adds, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:44). Again, we don’t know when Jesus will return.
Peter wants his readers to remember what the prophets and Jesus himself taught because he knows that “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” In the previous chapter, Peter warned about false teachers that would come into churches and lead people astray to follow sinful desires. These may not be the same people as the scoffers, but Peter realized that Christianity has opponents of all kinds. Peter said these scoffers will come in the “last days.” This shouldn’t be interpreted to mean the “end times,” the very last days before Jesus appears. The New Testament often refers to the period between the first and second comings as the “last days” (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2; 2 Tim. 3:1; James 5:3).
Peter probably heard these scoffers say something like, “Didn’t Jesus say he was coming again? Well, I don’t see him. Hasn’t it been decades since he left?” These skeptics mocked the Christian faith. They probably failed to see how the coming of Christ changed human history in any discernible way. Christianity teaches that when Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. It teaches that when Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for the sins of his people, he dealt a decisive blow to Satan and the powers of evil. Christianity teaches that when Jesus rose from the grave two days after he died, he was the first installment of a new creation that will come in its fullness when Jesus returns. Yet for these scoffers, nothing had changed. For them, “things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” Ever since their ancestors had died, people had lived and died. Life goes on. And so does death. Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end to death?
But Peter goes on to say that these scoffers have overlooked something important. Let’s read verses 5–7:
5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
Peter says these scoffers have overlooked important things in history. One is the creation of the world, and the other is the judgment that God put on the world during the days of Noah. Here, Peter is making literary allusions to these events in the book of Genesis. In Genesis, we’re told that God fashioned or created the world out of a watery chaos. I don’t think Peter is making the claim that everything on this planet is made out of water, or any other detailed scientific claim. He’s saying that, according to Genesis, the world as we know it emerged when God made a distinction between sky and water and between dry land and water (Gen. 1:6–10). This was done by God’s word. In other words, Peter is saying that history is not infinite. History as we know it had a beginning through a miraculous event, which occurred at the command of God. If history begins with God’s command, it can certainly end at God’s command.
Peter then refers to the flood during the time of Noah, when God judged the earth because people were so evil. According to Genesis 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So, at God’s command, he brought judgment to the world through water, through the flood, which killed everyone on the earth except Noah and his family. So, human history has not gone on forever without decisive acts of judgment. The flood is a foreshadowing of what will happen on the final day of judgment, when God punishes those who have rejected him and his Son.
So, in the past, God acted decisively by water and his word. But in the end, he will act decisively by his word and fire. The “heavens and earth that now exist”—the universe and everything in it—“are stored up for fire,” which will come on the day of judgment. When God judged the world with water, it didn’t remove sin. Noah and his family were sinful. They didn’t love God with all their hearts. They weren’t perfectly obedient. But a final, ultimate judgment through fire will purge the world of the ungodly. Peter’s main point is that there will be a final judgment, and it will come when God wants it to come. But when it comes, it will be too late to repent, to turn from sin and to turn to God.
Let’s now read verses 8–9:
8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
The scoffers overlooked the fact that God had acted in human history. His point is that if God acted decisively in the past, he can do so again in the future. Now, Peter wants his readers not to overlook something else. God hasn’t failed to fulfill his promise. Jesus will return. But it won’t be on our timeframe. In God’s timing, “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Peter is referring back to Psalm 90, which begins with these verses:
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
4 For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
In that Psalm 90, we’re told that while God is eternal, we are not. Though God has no beginning and no end, our lives had a beginning and our lives in this world do have an end. For God, a thousand years are nothing. But our lives are like grass that is here today and gone tomorrow. The scoffers thought God had broken his promise to set all things right because he was taking too long. Peter wanted his readers to know that God never takes too long, even though it may seem that way to us.
The reason that Jesus hasn’t yet returned to judge the living and the dead is because God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” What do we make of this verse?
Some people think that God doesn’t want anyone to be condemned; instead, he wants people to turn from their sinful ways of living and turn to him in faith. Of those people, some people believe that while God wants everyone to be saved, he can’t go ahead and save everyone because that would somehow violate free will. To those people, I would point out that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If we were left to our own choices, we would never choose God. We are spiritually dead before coming to Jesus (Eph. 2:1–3). Until we are born again, we can’t even see that there is a kingdom of God, much less enter it (John 3:3, 5). Dead men don’t make themselves alive. They can’t even choose to do that. So, unless someone has been transformed by God, they would never choose Jesus. But there are some who will come to Jesus. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). He also says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). So, who can come to Jesus? Only those whom the Father draws to Jesus. What happens to them? Jesus will never cast them out; they will be raised to eternal life on the last day, when the dead are resurrected and judged. On that day, Jesus’ people will live with him forever in a new creation. But those who have rejected him will stand condemned.
So, I don’t think that God wants to save everyone but his hands are tied because he must wait on our free will. I believe we do have a will, but it isn’t free to choose anything. We are only free to choose what we desire, and apart from God’s intervention, we don’t want him.
Another possibility is that God wants everyone to be saved but, for reasons that are hard to understand, he doesn’t plan to save everyone. Some theologians talk of God’s will in terms of his desire and in terms of his decrees, what he has decided will happen. According to this line of thinking, God would like everyone to be saved, but his plan doesn’t include the salvation of everyone. In this case, it’s not because he so values human freedom. In this case, it’s because somehow his plan brings him more glory. Remember that Jesus didn’t truly want his friend Lazarus to die, but he allowed Lazarus to die because it was part of his plan to bring God glory (John 11). In some way, the fact that not all are saved by God is similar. It brings him glory to save only some. If everyone were saved, salvation would be cheap and meaningless.
But perhaps there’s an easier way to understand this passage. Remember that Peter is writing this letter to Christians. He’s writing to those who have faith, as the first verse in the letter states (2 Pet. 1:1). And in verse 9 of this chapter, he says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Why has Jesus not returned yet to put an end to human history as we know it? Because he is patient towards you, Christian! He is giving more time for people to be saved. It might be that when Peter says “any” or “all” he means, “any” of those the Father has given to the Son, or “any” of the ones God has chosen to be saved. And if someone today is legitimately asking, “Why hasn’t God ended it all by now,” the answer is that he wants more people to be saved. If Jesus came back in 1975, I would never have existed. And if Jesus had come back in, say, 1991, I wasn’t truly a Christian then. So, it’s good for me that he hasn’t come back yet. Otherwise, I would be on the wrong side of his judgment.
God is waiting for all who will put faith in Jesus to put faith in Jesus. God the Father gives some to the Son, and those people will never be cast out. Rather, they will be raised up to eternal life. But we also know that faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. We need to trust Jesus while we still have time. That means that we trust that he is the eternal Son of God who became man to live the perfect life that we don’t live, satisfying and fulfilling God’s designs for humanity, and to die a sacrificial, atoning death on the cross, to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against sin. He did that so that everyone who trusts him can be credited with his righteousness and can have their sins paid for. That is the great exchange. When we are united to Jesus, he takes our sin and we take his perfection. If you’re hearing this message now, I urge you to turn to Jesus while there is still time. Jesus may not come soon. But we will die. And whether he comes before or after we die, there will be a time when it is too late to turn to him in faith.
We don’t know when Jesus returns. He will come at an unexpected time. But when he comes, things will be changed. Let’s read verse 10:
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
The day of the Lord is the day when Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead and to restore, or recreate, the universe. And it will come “like a thief.” That’s what both Jesus (Matt. 24:43–44) and Paul (1 Thess. 5:2) said. A thief doesn’t tell you in advance when he’s coming. He comes when you’re not expecting him.
And when the Lord comes, then “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” This seems to mean that the heavenly bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, will be removed from the sky, laying the earth bare before the eyes of God, who sees everything that has ever been done (or even thought or desired) on it. I don’t know how literal or figurative this language is. But the idea is that everything is being stripped away. Everything that stands between God and us will be removed. We will stand before God in judgment, with nothing to hide us or protect us. We’ll be like Adam and Eve, naked before God in our sin (Gen. 3:10–11). The only thing that can cover up our sinful deeds, thoughts, and desires is the righteousness of Christ, and we can only wear that if we trust him.
So, we will be judged. What happens next? Let’s read verses 11–13:
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
What happens is that God will recreate the universe. There will be a new heavens and earth. Some people think the old creation will be totally annihilated and then a new creation will be made. I don’t think that’s the picture we’re getting here. Instead, it seems like the old creation will be refined by fire. It will burn up everything that is sinful, everything that doesn’t align with God’s will and design. Everything that doesn’t glorify God, that doesn’t display his brilliance, will be burned up. All sin and evil will be destroyed. Even Christians will have their character permanently altered so that they will no longer be able to sin. And then Christians will live in a new creation, “in which righteousness dwells.” In the book of Revelation, we’re told that in this new creation, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Other passages in the Bible depict this new creation as a tremendous feast (Isa. 25:6–8). The idea is that the new creation will be a Paradise. It will be perfect. God’s people will live with God there forever.
Peter tells us this in order to motivate us to live “lives of holiness and godliness.” All the passages that speak of Jesus’ second coming seem to do one of three things. One, they comfort us, teaching us that this life, marked by sin and death, will not last forever. God will make everything right someday. Two, they warn us against being complacent and lazy in our faith. If we continue to sin, we may not really trust Jesus. Some mentions of Jesus’ second coming remind us of judgment. All our works will be exposed before God. So, live as if you really are part of God’s family. God uses these warnings as a means to keep believers on the right path. And, three, these passages motivate us to live holy lives now. We don’t want Jesus to return while our lives are a sinful mess.
It seems that Peter wants to comfort his readers against the mocking of these scoffers. But Peter also wants us to motivate us to live in light of eternity. What he’s saying is, “If righteousness dwells in the new creation, and you’re going to live there forever, you better start living righteously now.” He doesn’t say this because we earn salvation. He doesn’t say, “Be good and you’ll get into heaven.” He doesn’t say, “If you’re not righteousness enough, you’ll be cast out.” He’s saying, essentially, “Be holy, for God is holy. You’re going to live in the direct presence of God. Start living that way right now.” That’s why Peter goes on to say, in verse 14: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”
Yes, we are saved by God’s grace. In other words, salvation is a gift. A right relationship with God is something that we can’t earn. We are saved by Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death. But salvation also includes being transformed by God. Salvation includes having the Holy Spirit live inside of us, changing us from the inside out. And if we truly belong to Jesus, we’ll obey him. We’ll do this out of love and gratitude, not fear. In the end, we’ll live with Jesus forever in a perfect world. Shouldn’t we want to start living life right now as if we’re already there?
Now that we’ve examined this passage, I want us to think about three ways that it might apply to our lives.
The first is that there will always be scoffers. From the beginning, there have been people who have mocked Christianity. They will always be there. If you’re a Christian, this is something that you must get used to. Don’t let it throw you.
If you’re not a Christian, I would ask you to question why people mock Christianity. People who think the idea of creation or the idea of an apocalypse are silly assume history has always gone on the way it has and that it will continue the way that it has. This is an unwarranted assumption. There are limits to what science and history can tell us. And they can’t predict with absolute certainty what will happen tomorrow. Many people say that Christians are now on the “wrong side of history,” but how can they say that when they don’t know what will happen in the future? How can they say that if they don’t know how the world will end?
This brings me to the second way this passage may apply to us. If you’re not a Christian, this may seem like crazy stuff. But consider this: don’t we all fear being seen for who we are, for being found out? Don’t we all fear that our deepest, darkest secrets will be exposed? Where does that come from? Maybe we fear that because we intuitively know that we will be judged by God. And don’t we really want a final judgment, a final assessment of history, so that evil will be judged? If there is no final assessment of what is right and what is wrong, then our lives will be meaningless. It wouldn’t matter if we were Hitler or Mother Theresa. It’s all the same, because in the end, everyone dies and then the whole universe will decay and everything will be forgotten. But if there is a God who lives forever and who will evaluate everyone’s lives, that means life is meaningful and we will never be forgotten. And, more than that, we have the promise that God will refine and recreate the universe to be perfect. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
If you’re not a Christian, the time to repent is now. You don’t know how long you have to live. God is patient with us, but he will only be patient for so long.
Here’s the third way this passage affects us. If you’re a Christian, live your life in light of eternity. Earlier theologians used to use a Latin phrase, coram Deo, which means “before the face of God.” The idea is that we should live right now as we will in eternity, as if God were right here with us.
Do you want Jesus to return when you’re being lazy? Do you want Jesus to return when it’s been months since you read the Bible on your own, not in church? Do you want Jesus to return when you’re sitting around watching TV and not trying to obey him? Do you want him to come when you’ve been living only for yourself? Do you want him to come when you’re watching pornography? I think we know the answer to those questions.
If we are going to live in a new creation where righteousness dwells for eternity, shouldn’t we start to live righteous lives now? Shouldn’t we focus our lives on things that matter eternally, things that won’t be burned up? We should focus on learning more about God, loving him, and obey him. We should focus on loving other people, which means treating them according to God’s design for human lives, not ours. We should do that now in order to prepare for the time when we will stand before our Lord.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- That sermon, “Jesus Will Come Again,” was preached on May 3, 2015 and can be found here: https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
- “The Returning King” was preached on January 31, 2016 and can be found here: https://wbcommunity.org/story-of-the-bible. ↑
- Those lessons are available here: https://wbcommunity.org/revelation. ↑
- See Isaiah 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5. Some of these uses of “the day of the Lord” refer to times of salvation and judgment that would occur in the near future, while others look to the ultimate day of the Lord, which is what Peter has in mind in this chapter. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson answers questions about the return of Jesus and the end of the world by looking at 2 Peter 3.