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.