When Jesus was arrested, he refused to fight back. He was treated unfairly, but he was willing to suffer to fulfill God’s plans. Find out what we can learn from Jesus. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 16, 2020.
Throughout the history of religion, there have been two topics that have been disputed: who God is and how we should respond to him. In fact, if you study different religions, you will see that while religions teach similar things about ethics, they say very different things about what God is like and how we can have a right relationship with him. And throughout the history of Christianity, most heresies, or wrong teachings, have involved who God is and how we can be reconciled to him.
Today, we’re going to look at a story that gives us a glimpse of God’s character and how we should respond to him rightly. This story will also give us a picture of two wrong and very common ways to respond to God.
One of the things I do here is talk a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I teach the message of Christianity so that we understand it and can tell it to others. I encourage us all to share this news with others. And I encourage us all to live in light of the gospel. So, what I’m preaching here today isn’t going to be very new to you, unless you’re very new to church and to the Bible. But what matters most is not whether I teach something new, but whether I teach something that is true. And the fact is that whether you’re someone who is not yet a Christian, or you’re the most seasoned saint, we all need to hear the gospel, time and again, to learn it, remember it, and press it deeply into our minds and down into our hearts so that it affects the way we live. As Tim Keller has written, “The gospel is . . . not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life.” The gospel isn’t something we learn once and then leave behind for more important things. The gospel is the main event, not the undercard. It’s the headliner, not the opening act.
To experience the gospel once again, today we’re going to look at Luke 15. As we do that, we’re going to see a few important things. We’re going to see that there are two wrong ways to respond to God. We’re going to see that there is a right way to respond to God. We’ll see the heart of God. And we’ll see Jesus, his mission, and our mission.
Let’s begin by reading the first two verses of Luke 15:
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
It’s important to see that Jesus is speaking to two groups of people here. The first group are the tax collectors and “sinners.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were Jews who collected taxes for the Roman Empire. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. Tax collectors also had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should (Luke 3:13). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.” In the Pharisees’ view, “sinners” were people who didn’t keep their standards of purity—standards added to God’s commandments. “Sinners” could also refer to people who rather obviously broke God’s commandments.
But these people came to hear Jesus. Jesus had a message that attracted people who had made a shipwreck of their lives. He gave them hope, and they wanted to hear more.
The other group of people Jesus is talking to are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, or the scribes. They represent the religious leaders of Judaism. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with these religious leaders. Jesus says they’re greedy hypocrites who care only about appearing religious while in reality their hearts are corrupt (Luke 11:37–52). They try to justify themselves before God by appealing to all their religious works (Luke 18:9–14). They adhere to the letter of the law while missing the heart of God’s commandments, which is simply to love God and to love other people.
We’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling. That’s a loaded word in the Bible. It’s used of the Israelites when they complained about Moses after they were delivered out of slavery in Egypt. So, Luke is showing that these people are aligned with those faithless, disobedient Israelites. They complained that Jesus hung out with “sinners” (Luke 5:30–32), and they were out to get him (Luke 11:53–54).
All of this is very important to understanding what Jesus teaches in this chapter. Jesus then tells this audience a parable. Notice that chapter 15 is one parable in three parts. I’m going to spend most of my time on the third part, but let’s first read verses 3–10:
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I think the point of these stories is clear: “sinners” are worth seeking. In both stories, something precious is lost, someone goes searching for what was lost, and when the lost is found, there is great rejoicing. Jesus says that’s the way it is when sinners, people who were separated from God, are found by God, when they turn away from their sin and turn back to God.
It seems like Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they should be searching for the lost, not grumbling when they come to God.
Then Jesus tells what is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The parable might better be called, “The Parable of a Father and His Two Sons,” though that isn’t as catchy. But this parable is as much about the older son as it is the younger son. First, we’ll see what happens with the younger son. Let’s look at verses 11–16:
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
The younger son approaches his father and asks for his inheritance now. That’s shocking. What would you be doing if you asked your parents for your inheritance now? You’d be saying that you wished they were dead so you could take their money. He doesn’t want his father; he wants his father’s stuff. Amazingly, the father obliges. In Jewish law, the eldest son inherited a “double portion,” twice as much as the other sons. In this case, the younger son would have inherited one-third of all the father’s possessions. The father gives this to the son, who then leaves for “a far country.” There, the son engages in “reckless living.” He lives it up and he squanders everything that his father has given him.
In this parable, the father obviously represents the Father, God. And the attitude this younger son has is one wrong response to God. We might call this licentiousness or law-breaking. If you want to know the story of the Bible and the story of humanity in a nutshell, you can find it in this story. God is a perfect Father who created the world and all that is in it. He made us in his image, to reflect his glory and to serve him, and he made us after his likeness, which he means he made us to be his children, to love him and obey him the way children should love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, people have said to God, “We don’t want a relationship with you. We want your stuff. Go away. We’ll call you if we need anything else.” The first humans didn’t trust that God was good, they wanted something other than what God had given them, and they were banished to a far country where they found famine and death. And that’s our story, too. We live in his world, we enjoy his blessings, but we don’t really want him. The heart of sin isn’t just breaking God’s commandments. The heart of sin is a rupture in our relationship with God. So, we, too, find ourselves in a distant country. We’re exiles. That’s why we often don’t feel at home in this world.
Now, back to the parable: When the son has spent everything, a famine occurs. He has no one to turn to. There’s no family around. So, he becomes a hired hand, working for a Gentile, feeding pigs. Things were so bad for him, he wished he could eat the pigs’ food. Pigs were unclean animals (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8). He was unclean, lower than the pigs. This would indicate to a Jewish audience that this son could go no lower. He had reached bottom.
But then comes a change. We see this beginning in verse 17:
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’
The son comes to his senses! Before, he wasn’t thinking rightly. He decided he could have a better life apart from his family. But once he hit bottom, he woke up to the truth. So, he prepares a little speech. He will tell his father that he sinned “against heaven”—this is another way of saying he sinned against God. And he sinned against his father. He realizes that because of this, he is not worthy to be called a son. He asks merely to be a hired hand.
This is the right response to God. We must realize that because of our sin, we are not worthy to be called God’s children. We must confess our sin and turn back to God, appealing only to his grace. This is what repentance looks like: coming to our senses. We had once exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and our thinking was futile (Rom. 1:18–25). But when we come to see who God is and who we are, we come to our senses and turn back to God.
When we turn to God, he welcomes us back home. In this story, we already saw that the father let the son go his way. Now we see him welcome his son back home. This represents the loving character of God. I’ll read verses 20–24:
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
The prodigal son returns home, and as he approaches, his father sees him. The father is filled with compassion and he can’t wait to be with his son, so he runs. He doesn’t care about how he looks or what anyone might think about him. The father embraces the son; he doesn’t wait for an apology or a confession. But the son does confess, repeating much of the speech he recited earlier.
Yet the father doesn’t say, “You’re right: you’ve sinned!” There is no penalty. There is only acceptance. The father asks his servants to put his best robe, a ring, and sandals on the son. These things illustrate that the son is received back into the family. His relationship with his father is restored. And this is celebrated. The father calls for a feast to be prepared. This would have been a very rare occasion, because a fattened calf was expensive. The whole village was probably invited to this feast. Why does the father celebrate? “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
When sinners turn from their sin and put their faith in Jesus, they become spiritually alive. We once were dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1), but now have been made alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5). We once were lost, but now we’re found. This is a great reason to celebrate.
The idea of a feast is fitting, because eternity with God is sometimes described as a feast. One day, Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all who have put their trust in Jesus will live with God forever in a new world, a world in which all evil is removed. The idea of a feast is far more than just eating a lot of good food. It’s being welcomed into God’s home, joining him at his table. It’s communing with God, sharing in his abundance. In fact, the Bible even says that when this great feast is served, it will never end. It won’t end because when the feast is served, death itself will be removed (Isa. 25:6–9).
Now, if we stopped here, it would be a nice story, but we would miss one of the major points of this parable. So, we must see how the elder son reacts. The elder brother shows us another false response to God. One way to reject God is to be like the younger brother, to break all the rules, to seek meaning in life through entertainment and pleasure, to squander everything in “reckless living.” But there’s another way to reject God, and this may come a little closer to home. Let’s look at verses 25–32:
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
When the older son hears that his brother his home, he doesn’t come running. Instead, he gets angry and he refuses to join the feast. Why is the brother angry? It’s possible that he thought he might lose part of his inheritance. Before, he was to receive two-thirds of his father’s estate. But his younger brother is now restored. That suggests that the younger son might get a third of the current estate. If that’s true, then the older brother just lost a third of his inheritance.
But perhaps the brother is simply jealous of his brother. Look at how he talks to his father. He says, “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. But you’ve never celebrated that. You’ve never even given me a little goat.” It looks like he resents the attention his brother is getting. He calls his brother “this son of your yours,” and he says his brother wasted money on prostitutes. How did he know that? Was he speculating, or did he hear it through the grapevine? At any rate, he’s angry and resentful.
Perhaps the older brother thinks his father is playing favorites. At any rate, this doesn’t appear fair to him. Sometimes, people don’t think the gospel is fair, but they don’t understand that it would be fair for God to condemn all of us for our sin. But he doesn’t. That’s mercy. Sometimes, people don’t understand the point of grace: no one deserves salvation. That’s why it’s grace—it’s a gift.
Now, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the younger brother represents the tax collectors and the sinners, and the older brother represents the Pharisees and the scribes. The first group of people had sinned, but they were coming to Jesus. They were coming home. The second group was grumbling, like the older brother. You see, there is a very religious way to reject God. We might call this legalism. You can try to earn God’s favor. You can try to obey all the rules. You may even think God owes you something for all your work. But if you are merely trying to earn something from God, you don’t really want God. You don’t really love him. But God doesn’t just want our obedience. He wants our hearts. He wants a relationship with us. This older brother looks like he didn’t care about his relationship with his father. By not coming to the feast, he was dishonoring his father. He was so consumed with working to earn his inheritance that he rejects his father and his brother.
If we fail to see that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we will become like the older brother. If we believe we are Christians because we’re good people, because we’re moral, we may be in greater danger than the “sinners” around us. Christianity is not moralism. Christianity doesn’t say, “If you’re good enough, you can get to God.” That’s what a lot of other religions say. Christianity say something more shocking. It says “You’ll never be good enough to earn God’s favor. Your best deeds are polluted by selfish motives and your sin (Isa. 64:6). In fact, you’re so bad that God had to become man and die in your place.” But that’s the great thing: Jesus did that for us. The Father loves us so much he would send his Son, and the Son loves us so much that he would leave his home and go to a distant country to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).
That’s brings me to Jesus. Of course, Jesus is telling this story. But the story hints at what Jesus himself does. You see, the first two parts of this story were about someone finding something precious. A shepherd goes to find a lost sheep. A woman searches for a lost coin. You would expect that in the third story, someone goes to find something. But that doesn’t happen.
If you think more about it, it seems that the older brother should have been the one to go find the younger brother. The father might have been too old, or too busy managing his property, to go and seek his youngest son. But the older brother knew that his brother was living a life of sin, and he didn’t seem concerned. Again, he was too busy trying to earn something from his father to leave and find his brother.
But perhaps the older brother of this story isn’t the true older brother. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t tell us about someone going to find the younger brother, because he wants us to see that he is the one who has come to find his younger brothers. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes his own mission: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
There’s another way to see that this story is about Jesus. The story doesn’t tell us the basis for salvation. But perhaps it hints at it. I said earlier that Jewish law states that the eldest brother gets a double share of the inheritance. That law is found in Deuteronomy 21:15–17. But I want us to look at what comes right after that passage. Deuteronomy 21:18–21 says a rebellious son deserves death:
18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
The younger son in Jesus’ story deserved to die, according to this law. And the older son, with his own rebellious heart and his refusal to come to the feast, deserved death, too. We’re all like those sons, stubborn and rebellious children who deserve the death penalty for our sin. But if you are a Christian, you have received eternal life. How is that possible? Look at the next two verses (Deut. 21:22–23):
22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Now, if you don’t see Jesus there, don’t worry. It’s not immediately obvious, by any means. But the apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:13, quotes part of that passage to show how we are reconciled to God. He writes, “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.’” When Jesus died on the “tree”—the cross—he died so we don’t have to receive God’s wrath. He paid for all our sins on the cross. He sought us and bought us with his precious blood. If we have faith in Jesus, he is our true elder brother.
You’ll notice that the parable ends without a response from the older brother. Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees and scribes to come to the feast, to surrender their pride and rely only on God’s grace.
And I’ll end by pleading with you. I don’t know if we have any younger brothers here today, because I don’t know you all personally, and I can’t see your hearts. If you’re seeking meaning in life by breaking all the rules, if you’re trying to be your own god, if you think you’re the ultimate authority in your life, I promise you that path will only lead to destruction. Running away from God may feel fun for a while, but this reckless living will leave you empty, and you’ll find yourself in the muck and mire, far from home, without comfort and hope. I urge you to come to your sense, to come home to God, to turn to Jesus.
I think it’s far more likely that there are older brothers here. If you’re an older brother, you may look down at other people. You may be bothered if a messy “sinner” comes to church on Sunday. You might think God owes you something for all your years of service. You may resent it when things don’t go your way. We should rejoice when sinful people show up at the church. My hope is that you’ll see more of those people here in the future.
If you’re neither a younger brother nor an older brother, but if you’re a true child of God, then consider how you can be like Jesus. He came to seek and save the lost. What are you doing—what are we doing—to seek and save the lost around us? Jesus’ brother, James, writes this at the end of his letter: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20; see also Gal. 6:1). We should go after people who have wandered from the truth. We should go after people who have never known the truth. Start with prayer. Ask God to bring people who need Jesus into your life. Think about the people around you who aren’t yet Christians and pray for their souls. Pray for opportunities to talk to them about Jesus. And, when the opportunity is right, plead lovingly with those around you to consider Jesus.
My hope is that this church would be one that sees younger brothers coming to their senses, but this can only happen if we aren’t older brothers. Start praying that people around you would come to your senses. Seek them out, love them, tell them the good news about Jesus, and invite them to the feast.
- Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 119. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Exod. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Num. 14:2; 16:41. ↑
- Deut. 21:15–17. ↑
There are two wrong ways to respond to God: to run away from him and break all the rules, or to try to earn favor from him by obeying all the rules (and for selfish reasons). But there is a right way to respond to God, and when we turn to him, he is like a loving father who welcomes us back home. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 15 on July 7, 2019.
Have you ever wanted what someone else has? Of course, you have. At some point in our lives, all of us have probably wanted someone else’s money, house, car, or job, or perhaps their popularity or celebrity. But I’m not thinking of those kinds of things. I’m thinking more about abilities or personalities. Have you ever seen someone do something so well that you thought, “I wish I could do that”? Have you ever met someone who has a certain personality trait and you thought, “I wish I was more like that”? Perhaps the ability is something practical like the ability to cook well, or to fix a car. Perhaps the character trait is something like kindness, or perhaps you wish you were funnier or more intelligent.
A lot of times, when we want something that someone else has, it’s a sin. It’s envy. Or, we might call it coveting. But there are times when we see someone able to do something, and we think, “I want to learn how to that.” That’s not coveting; it’s emulating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on our motivation. It’s not wrong to see someone who is able to cook a great meal or fix their own car and think, “I would like to learn how to do what they do.” It’s not bad to see someone who acts calmly under pressure, or who treats everyone with grace and kindness and think, “I want to learn to be more like them.”
So, let’s say you know someone who has an ability or a characteristic that you desire to have. What would you do? Perhaps you would try to copy them. But, if you really know that person well, you might simply ask, “Could you teach me how to do that?” Or, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you always act this way, and I really admire that. What’s your secret?”
I imagine that Jesus’ followers had a similar experience. They were around Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, and they saw how unique he was. He was an incredible teacher. He possessed great power—he could miraculously heal and feed people. He was able to handle stress and pressure without breaking. He never got his feathers ruffled. He was able to answer difficult questions in the most brilliant ways. He was the most spiritually mature person they ever met. He had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was selfless yet self-assured, tender yet tough, humble yet confident. There simply was no one like him.
And Jesus’ disciples must have realized that Jesus often prayed. It’s something that Luke in his Gospel brings up again and again. Jesus prayed when he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him (Luke 3:21–22). He prayed alone and then people sought after him. The result was that he taught in many synagogues (Luke 4:42–44). Jesus prayed before healing a paralyzed man (Luke 5:16ff.). He prayed before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He was praying right before Peter confessed that he is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:18–20). Jesus went with three of his disciples to pray when he was transfigured, appearing in all his glory (Luke 9:28–29). He urged his disciples to pray that more people would do the work of God and then he prayed to God with joy when his disciples returned successfully from their mission (Luke 10:2, 21–22).
So, prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life, and he often prayed at critical times. I’m sure his disciples noticed that when Jesus prayed, big things happened. Perhaps they connected his power and his abilities to his prayer life. It’s only natural for them to observe Jesus and say, “Hey, how do you do that? What’s your secret?”
And that’s what we see today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus. We’re now in chapter 11 of Luke. We’ll see what Jesus has to say about prayer.
First, let’s read verses 1–4:
1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread,
4 and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
Once again, Jesus was praying, and when he was done, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his own disciples. We don’t have any record of John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray, but we know he had disciples, and he must have taught them something about that. At any rate, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer.
What follows is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not an accurate description of the prayer, because it sounds like it’s the prayer that Jesus often prayed. But Jesus wouldn’t need to pray that God would forgive his sins—he never sinned. A better title might be “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because it’s meant to be used by the disciples. But since the old title is so common, I’ll use that.
If you’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that what appears in Luke is a bit shorter than the traditional version you’re used to. It’s shorter than the version found in Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presented it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he’s teaching it privately to his disciples. Jesus must have taught the same things in slightly different ways over the course of his ministry. And the differences show us that the prayer is meant to be used as a framework, a skeleton that we fill out with the body of our own words, our own particular petitions. I don’t think Jesus intended for this prayer to be repeated word for word, without thinking, as if it’s some kind of mantra.
Before we look at some of the things Jesus teaches his followers to pray for, I want to note a couple features of the prayer. The first is that it’s a communal prayer. It’s not an individual prayer. The prayer mentions “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” This teaches us that we should pray together. Of course, we can and should pray alone. But praying together is important. We do that as a church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. If you’re coming to those meetings, I would encourage you to do so.
The prayer begins “Father . . .” That’s another important feature of the prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to address God as Father. That’s one of the stunning things about Jesus’ teachings. There were times in the Old Testament when Israelites were referred to as God’s children or son (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). And there were times in the Old Testament when God was referred to as Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8). But those times were relatively few. According to David Garland, “The term ‘Father’ for God appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, while it appears 255 times in the New Testament.” That’s significant given the fact that the Old Testament is about four times as long as the New Testament. What that means is that Jesus taught his followers to know God intimately as their Father. We can come to God as his beloved children and know him as a loving Father. God is not some distant, terrifying being—at least not to those who put their faith in his Son, Jesus.
But because God is Father and can be known intimately doesn’t mean he’s not the transcendent Creator. So, Jesus teaches his followers to ask that God’s name be “hallowed,” or sanctified. God’s name is his identity, and it refers to his reputation. God himself can’t be made more holy, righteous, powerful, or perfect. God cannot improve. He already is perfect. But the prayer asks that God would make himself known for who he is. It asks that people would see that he is holy, that he is great. When we ask that God would be glorified, we’re asking that we and other people would see how great God is.
There’s a point in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, when God tells the sinful nation of Israel, which has gone into exile because of their idolatry, that he will act to vindicate his reputation. This is what Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:
22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
Because of the way Israel acted, they brought God’s shame upon his reputation. They acted as if he was less valuable than their false gods. If they had seen how great God was, they would have lived differently. And they would have let the nations around them know how great their God was. When we live as if God is the greatest being there is, then we make his name “hallowed.”
In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. God has always been King, so there’s a sense in which his kingdom has always been present. To use, once again, a definition that we recently learned, God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” But since Jesus would have us pray for God’s kingdom to come, it means that it has not come in its fullest yet. Israel often lived as if God were not their King. And today there are many people who live as if God is not King. When Jesus came the first time, he came to establish God’s kingdom. He is the King of kings, and all who turn to him enter into God’s kingdom. They are his people and he is their God. To pray that God’s kingdom would come is to pray that everyone on Earth would bow the knee and worship God and live as if he were their ruler. God is a loving Father, but he’s also a King who must be obeyed. One day, when Jesus returns, the whole world will become God’s kingdom. On that day, it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their daily needs. We are to pray for our “daily bread.” In the ancient world, having enough food to eat each day was no small thing, and it was no guarantee. They couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy that week’s food. Bread needed to be baked on a regular basis. But the prayer isn’t just for bread. It’s a request that God give us what we need each and every day. This implies that this prayer should be prayed daily. We should ask God to glorify himself, for people to enter into God’s kingdom, for Jesus to return, for God to give us everything we need, for God to forgive us our sins, and to protect us—all on a regular basis.
And that leads us to the next petition: forgiveness of sins. Again, this is why this isn’t the prayer that Jesus prayed for himself. Jesus needed no forgiveness because he never sinned. But forgiveness from God is exactly what we need. Luke compares this to being in debt. We owe God love, worship, and obedience. And the fact is that all of us have not loved, worshiped, treasured, and obeyed God—not all the time, and not perfectly. The fact that the first humans sinned means led to a terrible reality: we are separated from God, and God put the world under a partial penalty, or a curse. Instead of living in a garden paradise, we live in a world that is fallen. It’s still beautiful, but it has cracks in it. We can still experience goodness and love, but not perfectly. There is harmony, but there are often discordant notes that interrupt our peace. We’re not at peace with God, not at peace with each other, not at peace with our environment, and we’re not even at peace with ourselves. The only way to be restored to God and to have hope of living in a paradise once again is to seek forgiveness from God.
Forgiveness always comes at a cost. To borrow an illustration from Tim Keller, if you were to damage my property, you would enter into my debt. You would owe me, at the least, the price of repair or replacement of my property. And if I am to forgive you of that debt, I would have to pay the cost. The damage doesn’t go away unless someone pays. So, I can choose to forgive you but then I accept the cost of the damage. In a similar way, for God to forgive us, he can’t simply forget that we’ve done wrong. For our sin to be repaired, someone must pay the price for the damage. And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to pay the price for our sin, which is a debt so large that we could never repay it. Because he is righteous, he had no debt. Because he’s God, he is infinitely wealthy. He can pay for everyone’s sin. But first, you must come to him and trust that he is the only one who can make us right with God. You must trust him personally. And a good way to do that is to take this prayer that he taught and make it your own. Say it to God, but don’t repeat it as empty words. Adapt it with your own words. And mean it.
The prayer teaches us that we are completely reliant upon God, the way that young children are completely reliant upon their parents. We need God to provide for us. And he does. Every good gift we have comes from God (James 1:17). The Bible teaches us that God gives us the power to work and to earn money (Deut. 8:18). God sustains our lives at every moment. Without God, we wouldn’t exist. And without God’s mercy and grace, we couldn’t be reconciled to him, forgiven of our sins, and adopted as his children.
If we are forgiven, we will forgive others. Jesus makes that clear. If we are not forgiving of those who seek our forgiveness, we must not have experienced God’s forgiveness. If you truly know how awful your sin is, and how amazing it is for God to forgive you, then you can and will extend forgiveness to others, even when it’s hard. For there to be true forgiveness, there must be confession of sin and repentance. If someone comes to us, admitting their wrong and seeking reconciliation, we must forgive. We must be like our Father.
We are also supposed to ask for spiritual protection. We are supposed to ask God that he would not lead us into temptation. We should pray that God would deliver us from sinning. We shouldn’t view God’s forgiveness as a blank check to keep on sinning. We shouldn’t think that just because God pays our debt, we can keep running up a huge bill at his expense. We should desire not to sin. Though God gives us trials, these are meant to refine us. We should pray that we would endure the trials. But our Father knows are weaknesses, and we should ask him to strengthen us, not to overwhelm us with temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We should pray to that end.
So, Jesus teaches us to pray that God would be glorified, that God would provide for our needs, that God would forgive us our sins, and that God would spiritually protect us. This gives us a framework for how to pray.
But Jesus doesn’t just give us that model prayer. Jesus also taught us about why we should go to our Father in heaven. He is a good Father who gives his children good things. To see that, let’s look at the rest of the passage, verses 5–13:
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The first part of that paragraph is a bit of a parable. Jesus has us imagine two men living in a village. One has a friend come to him at night. The problem is that this man has no food to give his visiting friend. The friend is probably tired and hungry and, again, there is no way to simply go to the grocery store or call for late night delivery. If the man doesn’t feed his friend, his friend doesn’t eat. More than that, the man would experience shame for being a bad host. So, he goes to his friend in the village at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. The other man in the village may be bothered. He lives in a one-bedroom house. The first man has interrupted his sleep and is in danger of waking up his children. But even if that man is put out, grumpy, and half asleep, he will give his friend what he needs. The point Jesus is making is that if such people are willing to answer the bold request of their friends, how much more does God the Father give good things to his children.
God is always listening. He never sleeps. He knows all. He can process billions of prayer requests at the same time. And God is not some grumpy man who gives begrudgingly. So, Jesus encourages us to go to God, to ask for what we need. We are to ask God, and what we need will be given to us. We are to seek God, and we will find him. We should knock on the door of his kingdom, and the gates will be opened.
Jesus then gives us another reason to go to our Father in verses 11–13. He asks what kind of human father would give his child a serpent instead of a fish. The serpent might have been a water snake used for bait. We might paraphrase this statement by saying, “What kind of father would give his son a worm when he asked for salmon?” If the child asked for an egg to eat, no father would give him a scorpion. Now, I suppose there are some pretty terrible parents who might give their children something bad when they asked for something good, but most parents wouldn’t do this. Most parents give their children what they need, even if it’s not what their children want. And Jesus’ point is that if humans, with all their sin, manage to give their children what they need, how much more will the perfect Father give his children what they need when they ask him.
We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus refers to his followers as “evil.” God doesn’t flatter us. He doesn’t sugar coat things. Even the followers of Jesus have their sins. Christians don’t earn their way to God through good behavior. No one is good enough to be in a right relationship with God. Even the best people are evil because of the power of sin. That’s why all of us need to go to God for forgiveness, and the only path to God is Jesus himself (John 14:6). Jesus does not teach us that we are deserving of God’s good gifts. He teaches us that God gives to those who are undeserving. God even adopts bratty kids into his family and makes them his own children.
So, if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the perfect Father give good gifts to his children. And the chief good gift is the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that Jesus says that at the end: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That seems to come out of the blue.
Well, if the mention of the Holy Spirit seems to come out of the blue, it’s because we’re not thinking of asking God for the right things. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray for: God’s glory, God’s kingdom, what we need, forgiveness of sins, and protection from sin and evil. This is what we need to pray for, and the answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit.
Earlier, I quoted a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where God says that he will act to vindicate his name. These are the verses that immediately follow:
24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24–28).
How does God sanctify his name? How does God vindicate the holiness of his great name? He gives the Holy Spirit to his people. The Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, to see and enter into the kingdom of God by faith (John 3:3–8). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t trust Jesus, we wouldn’t seek forgiveness from God. Without the Holy Spirit, we couldn’t be protected from sin and evil. We may ask God for all kinds of things we want, all kinds of things we think we need. But what we need most is God himself. And God gives himself to those who seek him. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God. God is one being who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So, when Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask, he’s saying that God will give himself. God is the greatest gift. He is what we need, and he can be found and received if we would only ask.
Jesus teaches us today to seek God. Part of our problem is that we don’t seek God for himself. We want things from God, but we don’t want him. You might say that’s the root of sin. Our failure to regard God’s name as “hallow,” or holy, our failure to see that he is greater than his creation, leads us to make created things our gods. We treasure the things of this world more than the “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This doesn’t mean that we utterly reject God. Instead, we often treat him as a cosmic butler. When we really want something or when we’re in a bind, we may call on God to give us what we want, or to get us out of a jam. But we don’t come to God and seek him above all else. That’s because we’re evil.
Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to treasure God above all things. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be convicted of sin. If you’re here today and you feel that you haven’t been seeking God for who he is, and you’re coming to see that you haven’t loved the Father the way a good, loving child should, then the Holy Spirit is working on you. If you’re in that place, then ask God for forgiveness, seek him with all your heart, knock on the door of his kingdom. He promises to open that door, to accept you as his child, to forgive you of anything bad that you’ve ever done. His love, his goodness, and his grace are infinite. If you want to know how to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.
If you are already a Christian, consider how you normally pray. Are you praying the way that Jesus taught? Do you pray above all that God would be glorified? Do you pray that God would give you what you need, instead of what you want? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for him, your knowledge of him, and your obedience to him? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for others?
If you haven’t prayed for these things, there’s good news: God forgives us, and we can boldly seek forgiveness from him, because Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 4:14–16).
God always answers prayer, and he always gives us what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we want, or the things that we ask for. Sometimes, his answer is no. Sometimes, we’re asking God for a serpent, and he gives us a fish. But if we ask things of God that line up with his will, we can be sure that he will give us what we need. The apostle John wrote this toward the end of his first letter:
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:13–15).
Let us go to our Father in heaven and pray the way his Son taught us.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 471. ↑
- Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). ↑
- See the discussion of forgiveness in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 194–200. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1061 n. 36. ↑
Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray and why they should bring their requests to their Father in heaven. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 11:1-13 on March 17, 2019.
When asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus points us to God’s law, which tells us to love God and to love our neighbors. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus shows us what a good neighbor is. Ultimately, Jesus is our true neighbor, who rescues us in our time of need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan on March 3, 2019.
Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.
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 teaches us to do something unnatural: we are supposed to love our enemies and to give to those who cannot pay us back. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:27-36, recorded on October 7, 2018.
The Bible teaches charity, compassion, love. It teaches us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible also teaches personal responsibility. People should care for their own family members and work hard. Pastor Brian Watson shows how both of these ideas come together in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.
Christians have two families, one natural, the other ecclesiastical (the church family). Christians have responsibilities to both families. Timothy was supposed to treat people in the church like family. The church should care for widows, though widows should be cared for first by their own natural families. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:1-8.
If we lose our focus, bad things can happen.
Our youngest son, Simon, started playing tee-ball recently. It’s not a very competitive league, as far as tee-ball goes. It’s mainly an opportunity for the kids to try to hit pitches and use the tee if they fail, and for them to do some very basic fielding. The kids are just getting their feet wet in baseball and most of them lack skills. They tend to lack focus, too. That’s the case with Simon. He’s just happy to be out doing something. When he gets on base, he hops and dances on it. When he’s fielding, he’s talking to his friends. But I try to teach him to focus on the ball the whole time, even when he’s not batting. I figure it’s only a matter of time before a ball is hit at him when he’s not looking. And if he’s not focused on the right thing, he could get hurt.
The same thing is true when it comes to the things of God. We can easily lose our focus. I assume that we are here today because we want to refocus our lives on God, or perhaps get a better sense of who God is and what he requires of us. But if I asked you what the focus of Christianity is, what would you say it is?
If you asked that question to many different people on the street, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some non-Christians might think Christianity is all about rules, a set of dos and don’ts—particularly the don’ts. Others might say that Christianity’s focus is on helping the poor and oppressed. Some Christians might say that the focus of Christianity should be on theology. In that case, Christianity is reduced to a set of beliefs. Christians must give mental assent to the right statements about God. Others would say that Christianity is focused on endless Bible studies. And still others would say that Christianity isn’t about beliefs as much as it’s about a relationship with Jesus.
There is truth to all these things. Christianity does involve rules. Christians should help the poor and needy. Christians should have right theological beliefs. Christians should read the Bible. And Christianity is about a right relationship with Jesus. But all these things are not equal, and it’s easy to focus on only one of them. Sometimes people focus only on the rules, or they focus only on studying obscure passages in the Bible, or they focus only on certain theological teachings. If we lose our focus on the core of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ himself, bad things will happen. Our faith will be distorted. It won’t be healthy.
That was certainly the apostle Paul’s concern. He wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a younger associate, warning him that false teachers were trying to teach something different than what Paul taught. Their teaching was unproductive and unhealthy. It was even destructive. So, Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the truth, and to teach it in love.
We’ll see this today as we look at 1 Timothy 1:3–11. Last week, we started to look at 1 Timothy and I gave an introduction to the book. If you missed that message, you can find it online. Today, we’re moving ahead into the body of the letter. Let’s first read verses 3–7:
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was headed to the province of Macedonia, where the city of Thessalonica was located. But he told Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus. Timothy wasn’t the pastor of the church in Ephesus, but he was an apostolic delegate. He was there to help a relatively new church maintain its health.
Paul told Timothy to tell “certain persons” not to teach a different theology. “Doctrine” simply means teaching. Paul must have had in mind a definite group of false teachers, people who were off track in what they were teaching. They might not have been the pastors of the church, but they were leading others astray.
It’s hard to know exactly what these people were teaching, because Paul doesn’t get very specific, probably because he had already told Timothy these things. When we read letters in the New Testament, sometimes we have to do something called mirror reading. It’s like when you hear someone talking on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, but based on what you hear, you can guess what the other person is saying.
The false teachers were focusing on myths and genealogies. We’ll also see that they were using the law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai in a wrong way. So, these teachers were likely Jewish Christians.
Some Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament became very fanciful. When I was studying a bit about Islam, I found out that some Jewish myths even made their way into the Qur’an. One fanciful Jewish story, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from after the time of Jesus, concerns what happened at Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, after God rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In the Talmud, the story becomes something rather interesting: God had searched the nations for one that would accept his covenant. But only Israel did. And they accepted his covenant because God lifted Mount Sinai over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they did not accept his offer. One rabbi is quoted as saying, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’”
This is obviously legendary material. It’s a myth. But this myth made its way into a few passages in the Qur’an (2.63, 93; 4.154; 7.171), which shows that the Qur’an has historical errors and is likely based on what Muhammad thought the Jewish Scriptures actually taught.
There was also a tendency in Judaism to fill in the supposed “gaps” of the Old Testament, particularly in genealogies. There’s a document called The Book of Jubilees, probably written in the second century BC, which chronicles the time between the creation of the world and the giving of the law. Among other things, it says that Adam and Eve had many children not mentioned in the Bible, and it gives their names, indicating who married whom.
All of this may seem strange to us, but there is a tendency even in Christianity for people to try search the genealogies of the Old Testament for some hidden wisdom, or to become obsessed with figuring out timelines. This can be seen in the book called The Prayer of Jabez, which builds a whole theology on one verse tucked away in the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. First Chronicles 4:10 reports that Jabez prayed, “‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”
Now, that is what the Bible says. But what is descriptive in the Bible is not always prescriptive. God does not always promise to “enlarge our borders.” But people who didn’t know the Bible well touted this prayer as the key to God’s blessings.
There is also a tendency in some circles of Christianity to focus almost entirely on certain doctrines, particularly end times issues. Usually these people come up with fanciful and fairly ridiculous readings of the book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, readings not based on carefully study of history or the original languages. Their readings tend to sound more like science fiction or fantasy.
We’ll learn a bit more about what these false teachers were promoting as we continue to study this book. What matters is that Paul wanted Timothy to make sure that the church didn’t go off the rails.
In verse 5, Paul states his goal: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He and Timothy had good motives and they wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience love, pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. The greatest command is to love God with all our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:34–40; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). This love is at the core of Christianity, and it’s likely that the false teachers were missing it.
Paul also says that the false teachers taught in vain. They claimed to be experts in the law, but they didn’t really understand it. Yet they made “confident assertions” about the law. And that leads us to the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 8–11.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
The false teachers were using the law unlawfully. That’s ironic, isn’t it? The law is not for the righteous, but for the lawless. The law has a right and a wrong use.
Paul has in mind the law given to Israel. We know that because his vice list summarizes most of the Ten Commandments. We’ll explore that in just a moment.
In the rest of Paul’s writings, he says that the Old Testament law had a limited use. In the book of Galatians, he said that the law had held people captive until the time of Christ. This is what he says:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:23–26).
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one ever became acceptable to God through obedience to the law, because no one other than Jesus obeyed it perfectly. Part of the law’s intent was to reveal how sinful we are.
The topic of the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai is complex and it is often misunderstood. I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.
Before we talk about the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai, we should know that there is an objective, universal, eternal moral law. Murder is always wrong, for example. This isn’t said in very explicit terms in the Bible, but it is presupposed. The nations that did not receive the law are still held accountable for their sins, which means there must be some moral or natural law that they transgressed.
But the law in the Old Testament, which we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was given to Israel, God’s covenant people. This law was given only for a limited period of time, though that period of time was over a thousand years. And the law was given for limited purposes.
One purpose of the law was to give specific descriptions of how the moral law should be employed in that particular, ancient society. So, the law taught general moral principles (particularly the Ten Commandment) and applied them in specific ways to that specific time, place, and culture. We can see that in the many specific laws about paying for damages caused to a neighbor’s property (for example, Exod. 21:33–22:15).
Another purpose of the law was to teach certain principles, such that sin is such a serious crime that it deserves death. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s a failure to love, trust, and obey God. The law also taught that sinners can find atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered to pay for the penalties of sin, the idea was that the sins of the people were transferred to those animals, who died in place of sinners. Certain laws provided pictures of what separation from idolatrous people would look like. They were pictures of having different practices. That’s why we there are dietary restrictions and laws regarding not wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, or not sowing two kinds of seeds in one field. Israel was learning how to make distinctions, and to be separate from the nations that surrounded them, because those nations worshiped false gods.
And a third purpose of the law was to reveal how sinful humans are. The law showed Israel that they did not measure up to God’s standards.
But here’s the key thing: we are not saved by obeying the law. No one is. That’s because we don’t obey perfectly. The Israelites failed, time and again, to keep the law. And if we were in ancient Israel, we would have failed, too. So, we do not become right in God’s eyes by first obeying his law. If that were the case, we would never have a right relationship with God.
Even after salvation, we are not bound by the law given to Israel. We are bound by the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17–18). We must understand the law through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. That’s why we don’t offer up animal sacrifices—Jesus is the only sacrifice for sin ever needed. That’s why we don’t have to worry about which animals we eat, or whether we’re wearing a poly-cotton blend. The moral principles of the law are still in place, because they are part of God’s unchanging, universal, eternal moral law. But we can’t simply read a law in the Old Testament and apply it to our lives without first thinking about how it is understood in the light of Christ.
Does that mean we can do whatever we please? No. Certain things are always wrong and continue to be wrong for Christians. Look again at that vice list in verses 9 and 10. This vice list shows us some things that are still wrong. It is always wrong to be “lawless and disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners, . . . unholy and profane, . . . those who strike their fathers and mothers, . . . murderers, . . . sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and [to do] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
Why are these things wrong?
Some people might conclude that God gives us arbitrary rules. Think again of sports. A lot of rules in sports are fairly arbitrary. Why must a football team advance ten yards to get a first down? Why not nine or eleven? Why do they only get four downs to get those ten yards, instead of just three or perhaps five? There’s no great reason. Them’s just the rules. Why three strikes and four balls? There’s really no great reason. It’s just that there needed to be some number that wouldn’t make the game too easy or too hard. Are God’s rules arbitrary? No. There are reasons for them.
Some people assume that if there is some eternal moral law, then that law is greater than God, because even he is bound by it. That’s something captured in a philosophical dilemma called the “Euthyphro dilemma.” The idea is that some things are morally right either because God says them, or because the moral law exists outside of God. If the first option is right, then God could say that murder was morally good. If the second option is right, then the moral law is greater than God.
But there’s a third option. God’s moral law is a reflection of who he is. God says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God’s laws can also be viewed as something like an instruction manual. God is the creator of life. He designed things to function in certain ways. He knows how his creation works best. He doesn’t give laws to oppress us or rob us of joy. His laws are for our good. And if we love God, we will obey his commandments. That’s why the apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2–3).
We were made to know, love, trust, worship, and represent God. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us something about how to relate to God: We should have no other Gods, we shouldn’t have any false gods, or idols, in our lives, we should take God’s name seriously, and we should find our rest in Jesus, his Son (Exod. 20:3–11, interpreted in the light of Christ). So, to be “disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners” is always wrong. When we rebel against God, we are rejecting the very best “thing” there is, God himself. It’s like trying to fight gravity. It’s foolish and harmful.
The fifth commandment is to honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Striking parents or disobeying them is wrong because God designed the family as the basic building block of society and parents are the authorities in the family. Families precede cities and governments and businesses. That’s why Christians care so much about the structure of the family.
Parents were also designed to point us toward a greater Father. Strange as it may seem, God could have designed life so that people reproduced asexually, so that only one parent was needed, or he could have created a world in which no reproduction was necessary. He could have created one generation of a billion people at once, who each lived for thousands of years. Or he could create people out of nothing every once in a while. But he created parents who could create children. And this is a shadow of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity, and of the Father-children relationship of God and his people. Those who dishonor their parents are more likely to dishonor God.
The sixth commandment is against murder (Exod. 20:13). Murder is wrong because it’s killing someone made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5–6). To kill an innocent person is a great insult to God, because human beings are the height of his creation.
The seventh commandment is against adultery (Exod. 20:14). Strictly speaking, that prohibits a man from having sex with another man’s wife. But it was interpreted more broadly to prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31). Jesus even interprets lust as a violation of this commandment (Matt. 5:27–28).
Why is any form of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity, wrong? Are these just arbitrary commandments designed to take away fun? No. God created sex, and he created it to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage. God’s design for marriage is found in Genesis 2, before sin entered into the world and caused all kinds of disordered sexual desires. The definition of marriage in Genesis 2 is also affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7). The reason why God’s laws regarding sex and marriage are so serious is because God designed both to be a shadow of the exclusive, faithful, relationship of God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32). In a marriage two parties who are different come together. In the marriage of God and his people, it’s two different parties. It’s not God and God, or humans and humans. It’s God and human beings. Or, if you like, it’s the God-man, Jesus Christ, and his people. But what matters is that Jesus is God, and he is united to mere human beings. That is best reflected in a heterosexual relationship.
Of course, I realize that what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is rejected by most Americans today. But just because a majority of people hold an opinion doesn’t mean that opinion is right. It’s often the case that what is right is rejected by many people.
The passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality are rather clear. Revisionist scholars try to say that those passages are really about something other than committed, consensual homosexual unions that we find today. They say they are about men dominating teenage boys, which certainly was common in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. They say those passages really are about some strange sexual rites performed at pagan temples. They say these passages really prohibit excessive lust. But the passages don’t discuss these issues. Most of the passages are rooted in God’s design for men and women, and they often echo Genesis 1 and 2. (The language of Rom. 1:18–23, which precedes descriptions of homosexual activity in Rom. 1:24–27, echoes Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which also includes homosexuality in a vice list, comes before a quotation of Gen. 2:24 in 1 Cor. 6:16.)
If the biblical prohibitions in the Bible are regarded as arbitrary, it’s hard to provide a reason why there can’t be three people in a relationship instead of two, or why two brothers or two sisters couldn’t be in a sexual relationship. Yet most reasonable people realize there are boundaries to sexual relationships. So, why not trust that the boundaries that God has drawn are the right ones?
The fact is that most of us are sexual sinners. Even if we have never had sex, or have only had sex with our spouses, we have likely sinned or coveted another person’s husband or wife. The Bible focuses a lot more on heterosexual sin than homosexual sin. And there is hope for heterosexual and homosexual sinners. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Any sinner can be made right with God. The question is whether that person will turn to God and away from sin. Not one of us will be perfect in this life. We will struggle with sin even after becoming Christians. Remember, we’re not saved from condemnation because of our perfect obedience. But salvation comes to those who trust in Jesus, and that requires repentance, a turning away from our old ways.
Getting back to Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy, he makes reference to the eighth commandment, which is against stealing (Exod. 20:15). But he does that by mentioning “enslavers,” those who kidnap people and make them slaves or sell them as slaves. Stealing someone else’s property is wrong, because it harms that person. It elevates things above people. But this goes further: stealing a person is wrong because it treats a person as a thing. Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century, said, “A kidnapper also is a thief; but he is, moreover, a thief who steals the very most excellent thing that exists upon the earth.”
Some people have claimed that the Bible doesn’t say anything against slavery. But that’s not true. This verse says otherwise. So does the book of Philemon. But we’ll talk more about slavery when we get to 1 Timothy 6:1–2.
Paul also references the ninth commandment, which is against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod. 20:16). Paul says “liars, perjurers,” which deals both with legal false witness as well as a broader category of deceit. God is a God of truth and Jesus himself is the truth (John 14:6). So, lies are contrary to God and his ways.
Paul doesn’t mention the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Exod. 20:17), but he does give a blanket statement that sinners are those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
The word “sound” means “healthy.” Sins aren’t healthy. Right theology leads to health. Bad theology leads to disaster.
We can be unhealthy by believing false things about God. We can be unhealthy when we focus too much on true things. When we get obsessed with minor doctrines and make those ultimate priorities, we can quickly become unhealthy. We shouldn’t major on minors and minor on majors.
The center of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being. The gospel is healthy, because it restores us to spiritual health. And it glorifies God because God gets all the credit for saving sinful wretches like you and me. If we were saved by our own obedience, we would be glorified. But the gospel says that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The gospel says that only Jesus lived the perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), yet he died to pay for our sins. He is the true substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. We must never forget that we are not saved by our knowledge, our obedience, our goodness, or our strength. No, Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Today, I urge us to know and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus brings true, eternal health. Christianity involves knowing right things about God, but it’s more than that. It is about a relationship with Jesus. If we truly know Jesus, we will know facts about him, and we will live a life that is pleasing to him. That means turning from sin and embracing God’s moral law, not as a means of earning God’s favor or maintaining a relationship with him. No, our standing with God is based on whether we trust Jesus or not. But if you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, and you will find that they are not burdensome, but they are intended for your good.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This is quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2013), 233. It apparently comes from section BB of Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011). ↑
- Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000). ↑
- “In line with Pauline thought elsewhere, but not expressed here, the law functions to reveal sin (Rom 3:20; 5:13; 7:7–12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19). The law is good (Rom 7:7, 12, 14; 3:31), but human sin has made it ineffectual (Rom 7:13–25; 8:3) because it could not empower a person to follow the law. The righteous have outgrown the law (Rom 7:1–4; Gal 3:19, 23–4:7), have died to it (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19), and are now captive to the law of Christ (Rom 7:4–6, 22, 25; 8:2, 7), slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and of God (Rom 6:22; Gal 2:19), not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 34. ↑
- Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 617. ↑
- MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made that claim in 2013. See Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible, NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. ↑
The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.
These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city. In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly. Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.
This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:
We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.
Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.
New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.
When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.
So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”
But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”
Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.
What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.
When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.
And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.
This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.
The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!
This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.” Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.
Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:
Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.
The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.
The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.
Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.
As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.
But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.
These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.
Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.
But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.
Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.
Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.
Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?
I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.
If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.
And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says. We need to keep coming back to Jesus.
Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.
Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.
The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.
People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.
Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.
I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.
We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?
Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).
- Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a ↑
- An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html ↑
- Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/ ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497. ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251. ↑
- “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” ↑
Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.
On September 6, 2015, Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 6:1-10, in which the apostle Paul discusses the need to help each other in the Christian life.
When is it permissible to divorce? If someone gets a divorce, will that separate that person from the love of God? Pastor Brian Watson teaches what the Bible has to say about marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 5:16-26 on August 30, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul tells us that the Christian must walk by the Spirit, who produces righteous fruit within us. Yet we still battle against the “flesh,” our old, sinful nature. Listen to find out how walking by the Spirit enables us to be like Jesus, whose life was full of the fruit of righteousness.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 5:1-15 on August 23, 2015. This passage speaks about our freedom in Christ and how that freedom is threatened by legalism and licentiousness.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on another principle of the Protestant Reformation: grace alone. Salvation is a gift of God. Ephesians 2:1-10 is explored to show how that works.
Most of us had relationships with our grandfathers. A few us of have relationships with our grandfathers now. Grandfathers are special people. We have different names for them: Granddad, Grandpa, Grampy, Papa, Pops, Pawpaw. My mother’s father was known to us as Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop was a very influential person in my family’s life. He was very generous to us. I suppose he was generous because he had the ability to give. Though he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he accumulated wealth. He was able to do this because he was frugal (he lived through the Great Depression), he worked hard (he served in World War II as a member of the construction battalion in the Navy, building things in the South Pacific), and he had the good fortune to build houses in northern New Jersey, in the suburbs of New York City, during the Baby Boom, during a time of postwar prosperity. Also, my mother was his only child. So, he could afford to be generous to us.
When my brothers and I were children, my grandparents used to give us money for our birthdays. I think they used to give us a dollar for every year we were alive. So, for my tenth birthday, I would get $10 from my grandparents. But as Pop-Pop got older, he would give us larger amounts of money. So, when I was, say, 18 years old, he didn’t give me $18. He might have given me $100. I don’t remember if that was the exact amount, but his gifts became larger in the last few years of his life. When he gave me these more generous gifts, I would say, “You don’t have to do that.” And he said this to me more than once: “I don’t have to do anything but die.”
“I don’t have to do anything but die.” I suppose if he were a bit more precise, he would say, “I don’t have to do anything but die and stand before my Maker to give him an account for my life.” But, generally speaking, he was right. He didn’t have to eat his next meal or even take his next breath, let alone be generous to me and my family. But he did have to die. That was his way of saying that he realized he didn’t have to give me that money, or whatever gift it was. He was under no obligation to give. And it wasn’t as if I earned that gift. He wasn’t giving me money based on how good of a grandson I was. He didn’t say, “Because you’ve been a good grandson this year, I’m going to give you an extra amount of money.” I’m sure I wasn’t the best grandson. (Though I think I was a better grandson than son, but that’s another story.) No, my grandfather, Pop-Pop, freely chose to give me that gift. He gave it to me because he loved me.
That’s a lot like God’s grace. “Grace” is one of those particularly Christian words. It’s a very churchy word. But we don’t often define what grace means, or have a clear idea of how significant the idea is. And in this year, when we celebrate Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which were written five hundred years ago and which kicked off the Protestant Reformation, it is important to remember the concept of grace. (By the way, PBS recently aired a documentary on Martin Luther called “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World.” You can watch it online.) Luther and the other Reformers recovered the biblical teaching that salvation from sin, death, and condemnation comes through grace by faith. That is, we are reconciled to God, put back into a right standing with him, through God’s gift of salvation. We receive this salvation through faith. But, as we’ll see, even the ability to have faith is itself a gift.
At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church taught that God’s grace was necessary for salvation. But they also taught that such grace could be lost, and that such grace needed to be supplemented with good works, namely taking the sacraments of the Church, like penance. Really, to receive God’s grace meant to be in the Roman Catholic Church, to be baptized in it, take the eucharist (what we call the Lord’s Supper), confess one’s sins to the local priest, and so on. Though the Catholic Church has changed in some ways over the last five hundred years, they still talk about merit when they talk about God’s grace. We still see this in these statements in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.
2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.
Notice how those statements say that though God’s grace initiates salvation, we then merit graces needed to attain eternal life. This is not what the Bible teaches.
In order to see that, today we’re going to look in particular at a passage in the New Testament, Ephesians 2:1–10. This passage comes from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Ephesus. Paul’s writings were particularly influential in Martin Luther’s theology. Today, we’ll see why.
So, let’s turn to Ephesians 2. I’ll read the first three verses.
1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Paul is writing to a group of Christians and he begins this passage by talking about their former condition. Prior to becoming Christians, they “were dead in the[ir] trespasses and sins” and they followed “the course of this world,” the flesh, and the devil. They were not children of God, but children of God’s wrath.
Now, if you’re not a Christian, that might sound strange and extreme. How could these Christians have been dead? Well, obviously they were physically alive before becoming Christians. But they were spiritually dead. To understand this concept, we need to understand why we exist. Human beings were made in the image of God. That means that we are meant to know God, represent him, rule the earth by coming under his rule, love him, and obey him. It means that we exist to worship God, to glorify him. Our lives should center around him the way the way this planet orbits around the sun. That’s why any human exists. Really, it’s why anything exists.
Before I describe the human condition, let me say this: God didn’t have to create the universe. He wasn’t bored, looking for something to do. And he didn’t have to create human beings. He wasn’t lonely, in need of someone to love. God doesn’t need us. In fact, when Paul was in Athens, talking to people who didn’t understand who the true God is, he said that God isn’t “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). The God of the Bible isn’t a manmade god, an idol. He doesn’t need us and he didn’t need to create us. So even the act of creating the universe and everything in it is grace, a gift that we don’t merit or deserve. We’re not entitled to exist.
But we do exist, because God has made us to be in a certain relationship with him. That’s good news, because it means our lives have meaning and purpose. But there’s bad news: from the beginning, humans have not related to God rightly. We rebel against him. In short, we replace God in our lives with something else. We try to de-god God, as it were. The first human beings thought that they could become like God by disobeying him (Gen. 3:1–7). And we’re really no different.
There are many ways to deny God his rightful place in our lives. One way is to make something or someone else the object of our worship. When we love, trust, and obey something or someone else more than we love, trust, and obey God, that thing or person—whether it’s a job, money, a relationship, entertainment, or anything else—becomes our functional god. In Christianity, we call this an idol. I’ve talked about idolatry quite a bit in the past. But today I want to talk about two other ways that we can deny God his proper place in our lives. One is by breaking God’s commands. When we break God’s moral laws, the laws that are built into the very design and fabric of creation, we reject God’s authority.
This past week, I was reading a book on God’s grace by a theologian named Carl Trueman. In his discussion on sin, he writes, “When I break God’s law, I stand above God’s love, and I feel like I am God, the one in control.” I think that’s right. Sometimes, we know we’re doing the wrong thing. But there’s a certain thrill that comes from breaking the law. It’s the rush of feeling that no one can tell us what to do. When we do that, we feel like God. I know I felt that rush a number of times in my 20s. When we disobey God and break all his rules—all the while enjoying the life he gave us—it would be like me taking that $100 check from my grandfather and using to spend on things he disapproves of and then never talking to him again.
That’s one way of usurping God’s place. Another way is very different. When we strive to be a good person and don’t rely on God’s grace, power, or provision to be a good person, we deny God his place in our lives. This can happen with the most religious people, or with people who simply feel like they have no room for religion in their lives because they’re generally good people. I know that sounds strange, but think about it: when people busy themselves with doing good things, trusting in their own efforts to live a good life, they don’t think about having a relationship with God. Very religious people can talk about church attendance, how much they’ve given to charity, and so on, and not talk much about knowing God in a personal way. Nonreligious people can be very similar, focusing on how they’re good citizens, good employers or employees, and not thinking they need any help from God. This way of treating God would be like taking that $100 check from my grandfather on my birthday and tearing it up and saying, “Thanks, but I don’t need this. I can earn my own money.”
Both ways of rejecting God can be found in Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In that story, a father has two sons. The younger one demands his inheritance while the father is still alive, which is like saying, “You’re as good as dead to me, and I don’t want a relationship with you. Just give me your money.” Then he goes and squanders all that money in a reckless lifestyle. The older son stays home and obeys the father by working hard. When the younger son comes to his senses, he returns home, hoping to grovel in order to be forgiven. But the father rushes to greet him, welcomes him back home, and celebrates the occasion with a feast. The older brother is furious that his father greets his brother that way. He refuses to join the father’s feast, because he doesn’t feel that his younger brother deserves such treatment. After all, he was the one who stayed home and obeyed his father. Shouldn’t he be the one who gets the feast?
In that story, when the younger son returns home, the father says, “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). In other words, he was as good as dead, because he didn’t have a relationship with the father. At the end of the story, we wonder if the older brother is as good as dead to the father, because he refuses to join the feast.
That is what is meant by being dead in our sins. Our relationship with God is fractured. We’re as good as dead because we don’t relate to him rightly. And because of the power of sin in us, we are completely unable to live for God. Instead, we obey the world, which means the forces opposed to God. We obey our flesh, which doesn’t mean our bodies, but our moral weaknesses, our evil desires. And we obey Satan, the “prince” of this world. When we think of Satan, we often think of over-the-top evil, like Adolf Hitler. But Satan often doesn’t work that way. He just wants us to deny God, to doubt God’s goodness, and to live for some other cause. When nice people do good works but don’t have a relationship with God, they are doing something pleasing to Satan, the mysterious, evil spiritual being who is opposed to God.
Again, all of this may sound extreme to non-Christians. But this is the human condition. And the longer I’m alive, the more I am aware of the darkness of my own heart. I’m also aware that most “good” people have some secret sins that they hide very well. And I’m aware that we don’t really seek after God the way that we should. We’re not able to desire God because of our sinful nature. And for that reason, we’re “children of wrath” before being Christians. That means that we are destined to receive God’s right, holy, just condemnation for our rebellion against him. That’s how all of us start out in life.
That’s all bad news. But then Paul gets to the very good news. Let’s read verses 4–7:
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
“But God”—those are two very powerful words. We once were lost—“but God.” We once were dead—“but God.” God, because he is merciful, doesn’t give us over to what we have earned, which is condemnation, and because he loves us, he made us alive with Christ. Remember, Paul is talking to Christians. He doesn’t mean everyone is made spiritually alive. But those who have a relationship with Jesus Christ have that relationship not because they earned it. No, while they were spiritually dead, unable to seek out God, they were rescued and made alive by God. And Paul makes it clear that this is God’s gift—“by grace you have been saved.”
Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who lived the perfect life. He didn’t take what was God’s and squander it, living for himself. He didn’t ignore God by focusing on his own efforts. No, he always lived for God the Father, loving him, obeying him, and trusting him—even to death on a cross. He was crucified, which was a torturous way to die. And beyond the physical pain, he experienced God’s wrath. For the first time in his eternal existence as God’s Son, he felt like he was separated from the Father. He experienced hell on earth, not because he deserved it, but because we deserve it. He took that so that whoever comes to him in faith will not experience condemnation. And whoever has a relationship with Jesus is credited his perfect life.
Jesus didn’t just die. He rose from the grave in a body that is imperishable. It is impossible for him to die again. And he is now in heaven, in the direct presence of God the Father, reigning above all things. And Paul says that we Christians are seated with Jesus in heaven. Obviously, we’re still living on the earth. But our true life is with Jesus and all that he has is ours. We may suffer in this life, but truly we are kings and queens. That is, if we know Jesus.
The purpose of this salvation is to display God’s grace. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul says that God saved us “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6) and “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12, 14). For all eternity, God’s grace—his gift of salvation that we are not entitled to, that we did not earn or deserve—will be celebrated. Grace is often defined as God’s unmerited favor. Think of it as a gift that we don’t deserve or earn. It’s not something God is obligated to give. The fact that he would give it to unworthy people who weren’t seeking after him is amazing.
In the next three verses, Paul further explains this gift. Let’s read verses 8–10:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We are saved from God’s wrath and put back into a right standing with him not through our efforts or good works. No, salvation is a gift. And it is received through faith, which is trusting in God. It’s trusting his promises. In short, it’s trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. It’s agreeing with God that we are in a terrible predicament because we’re dead in our sins, and it’s agreeing that the only way to have real and eternal life is through Jesus.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Paul says that the whole process of being saved by grace through faith is a gift. Even our faith is a gift. The ability to receive the gift comes from God. Without God making us alive, we wouldn’t be able to receive a gift. After all, how many dead men have opened up their hands to receive something? I could have rejected the gift my grandfather gave me. But the gift of salvation is different because God changes our nature so that we receive the gift. He changes us so that we want to receive the gift. Otherwise, we would reject it.
Last week, Ron Bridge referred to John 3, where Jesus says that unless we are born again, we can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it. And that process of being born again, of becoming a new creation, occurs when the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one true God, comes upon us and gives us the eyes of faith to see our true condition and the only solution, which is Jesus. God causes us to be born again so that we can have faith. This is not something we generate on our own.
As I was thinking about all of this, another image of salvation came to mind. When we talk about God giving us a gift, we think of something like my grandfather, holding out a gift that I could either take or reject. But God’s salvation is more like this: because of our own foolishness, we had overdosed, and we were choking on our own vomit. If left alone, we would surely die. But God stepped in and rescued us. He changed our position so we wouldn’t choke to death. He cleaned us up. He got us sober. And he gives us the power not to destroy ourselves through our reckless living.
If faith were something we did without God’s help, then we could boast about it. Yes, we could boast if going to church, following the rules, giving to the poor, and so on reconciled us to God. We could say, “Look what I did!” But if faith is something that we do, we also could boast. We could say, “I looked at all the evidence, and I chose to trust in God. I’m very wise, because I made the right decision. Look what I did!” We could look at others who considered the same evidence, those who don’t have faith, and say, “Well, obviously they’re not as smart or as good as me. If they were smart, they would make the right decision.”
The whole process of salvation is God’s work. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Ps. 3:8; Jon. 2:9; Rev. 7:10; 19:1). Consider what Paul writes in another one of his letters, Romans. This is Romans 8:28–30:
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
God calls people, which is Paul’s way of saying he saves them. He doesn’t just call; he also gives us the ability to answer. God predestined Christians. He chose them before he created the world (Eph. 1:3–6, 11–12). He did this because he foreknew them, which means he set his love upon them. And then he called them. He brought the message of Jesus, the gospel, to them and he gave them the ability to answer. He also justified them, which means that he gave them a right standing, not on the basis of their works, but entirely on the basis of Jesus’ works. Christians are now being “conformed to the image of his Son.” We’re becoming more like Jesus, growing in our obedience and moral purity. And one day we will be glorified. We will receive resurrected bodies that cannot die again and we will live in glory in a new creation with God forever. Paul already sees this as a done deal, because the whole process is God’s work. This is grace that cannot be lost. “[H]e who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6).
Does that mean we sit around and do nothing? No. The reason that we are given the gift of salvation is so that we can do the good things that God has prepared for us. When God predestined Christians to salvation, he had in mind things that we would do upon receiving salvation. While verses 8 and 9 are justly celebrated, we shouldn’t forget verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were created and recreated for God’s glory, to display his greatness. We are saved by grace to display God’s kindness and love. And when we do what God wants us to do, we also glorify God. Of course, these works are also empowered by God’s grace, by the work of the Holy Spirit. As Augustine said in his famous Confessions, “If anyone lists his true merits to you, what is he enumerating before you but your gifts?” When we live for God, we are returning his gifts to him. If I were a great grandson, I could have used some of that $100 to buy my grandfather a birthday gift. After all, his birthday came a month after mine. (But I wasn’t a great grandson, so I didn’t do that!) In light of the gift of salvation, we should want to obey God and do what is pleasing to him. We should love God more, and we express our love for him by obeying him.
Now that we’ve looked at this passage, what does it mean for our lives?
First, I want to address an issue that both non-Christians and Christians might have with what I’ve said. Some non-Christians might say, “If I’m not a Christian, it’s because God didn’t predestine me. Then how can God judge me if I don’t have faith, since he didn’t give me that gift? That isn’t fair.” If that’s your attitude, let me point out two things. One, by saying that something isn’t fair, you’re judging God. And by judging God, what you’re doing is taking the place of God. You’re again trying to de-god God. The root of our rejection of God is pride. You’re not God, and neither am I. We don’t have the right character, the wisdom, and all the evidence before us. Therefore, we’re in no position to judge God. As a Christian, I trust that God has good reason for what he has done. Two, you are right that it isn’t fair, but not in the way that you think. God would be perfectly just to condemn the whole human race. He was under no obligation to send his Son to rescue any of us from condemnation. We have rightly earned God’s wrath, because we choose to reject him. What’s amazing is that God would save any of us, changing our hearts so that we desire him.
I know that Christians struggle with the same thoughts. They may think that the concept of God electing and predestining and granting faith isn’t right or fair. Again, I think pride is the main issue here. I once heard a Christian say that he can remove himself from the grace of God. Well, I would say this: The Bible says otherwise. I can point to many, many passages to demonstrate this truth. If the Bible says that salvation is, from start to finish, the work of God, then to say we can thwart God’s plan for our salvation is to claim we are stronger than God. Again, this is pride. It’s not just a wrong theological position. It’s something to repent of.
Here’s a second thing I want to say, and this is directed to any non-Christians who might be listening. If you’re here today and hearing about how God is gracious, about how he can save the worst of people entirely on the basis of what Jesus has done, and you find yourself desiring to have a relationship with God, then I want you to know this: God is at work within you. If you want to know God truly, to feel his love and acceptance, and to live with him forever, you can. God has ordained the preaching of his word to bring people to salvation. If you’re hearing this message and you find yourself warming up to a relationship with God, I would urge you to follow Jesus. Turn to him and trust him. Turn away from your old ways of rejecting God, whether that comes through breaking all his rules or by striving to be a good person on your own. The opposite of pride is humbling yourself before God. The opposite of striving to earn something from God is resting in Jesus and the work that he’s done. I would love to talk to you more about this if your heart is warming up to this idea.
Now, if you are a Christian, I want to say two more things. First, be grateful. The opposite of entitlement is gratitude. God had no obligation to save you, but he has. And this is not your own doing. You can’t boast at all. God didn’t save you because you were so lovable, or good. He didn’t save you because you were better than others. He saved you because he loved you. Thanks be to God!
It’s so easy for us to look at the world and see all the negative things, the things that aren’t right. And it’s so hard for many of us to be content. Some people look at the glass half full, and others look at the glass and see it’s half empty. There are many times when I say, “Wait, there’s a glass?!?” If we truly know the human predicament, which is being dead in sin, and if we truly know that we’re not entitled to anything, and yet we also know that God has saved us by giving us a priceless gift, how grateful should we be? We should see all of life as a gift. So, be thankful.
And be humble. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, often says that the gospel tells us that in our sin we are far worse than we suppose but in salvation we are more loved than we could imagine. The gospel humbles us and makes us grateful. In short, the gospel shatters pride but also inspires love for God. We can’t boast in ourselves, but we can boast in Jesus and God’s gift of salvation.
Here’s the second thing I want to say to Christians. God’s grace should change the way we treat others. We often treat people according to merit. We think other people have earned our respect or love, or they deserve bad treatment from us. But remember God’s grace. He gave to us though we deserve only judgment. And we should treat others not according to what they deserve, but with grace. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for punishment of crimes, or for consequences of wrongdoing. But it means that we should treat people better than they deserve.
It’s often said that respect is earned. I suppose there’s a bit of truth in that, in the sense that people who are respected have often earned trust. But the Bible tells us to honor people and submit to them not because they have earned it, but because their position requires it. We’re not told, “Honor your father and mother if they’re good parents.” We’re not told, “Submit to political authorities only when they do everything right.” We’re not told, “Submit to your husband if he’s a good husband and father,” or, “Love your wife when she treats you the way you want her to.” No, we’re told to do these things because it is right, because it is part of God’s design.
And we’re told to give to those in need not because they deserve it, but because God has been gracious to us. When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, he urged them to give to Christians in need. And what was the motivation he used? It was the example of Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus humbled himself by becoming a human being. And he gave his life to unworthy people so that they could be reconciled to God. He became poor so we could be rich. Therefore, we can and should give our riches to help the poor, not because they deserve it, but because God’s grace has transformed our lives.
Let us be humble, not proud. Let us be thankful, not entitled. And let us be gracious.
- http://www.pbs.org/program/martin-luther-idea-changed-world. ↑
- Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 487. ↑
- Ibid., 490. ↑
- See the sermon I preached on August 27, 2017: https://wbcommunity.org/the-image-of-god. ↑
- Carl Trueman, Grace Alone—Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 60. ↑
- This “two ways to reject God” concept comes from Timothy Keller, particularly his The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008). ↑
- See Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. Apparently, he is called the “prince of the power of the air” because the air was associated with the demonic in Jewish thought. See Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 131–132. ↑
- Acts 18:27 says that Paul “greatly helped those who through grace believed.” Paul says that faith is granted (he must mean by God) in Philippians 1:29. ↑
- Augustine, ConfessionsIX.xiii (34), trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 177. ↑
- This concept is seen in God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6–8. ↑
Guest preacher Ron Bridge presents a message on God’s grace. His primary text is Titus 3:1-8.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 4:8-20 on August 2, 2015. In this passage, Paul talks about his love for the church in Galatia. Other themes include our knowledge of God and our love for God.
Today, we’re celebrating a baptism. Baptism is a ceremony that has great significance. It signifies a change in a person. God has transferred the person who is being baptized out of the realm of darkness and into the kingdom of light. That person has gone from spiritual death to spiritual life. The old self has died and the new self is risen in Jesus Christ.
Baptism also signifies cleansing. The person being baptized has been washed of her sins, completely forgiven because Jesus paid the penalty for her sins and because his perfect life is credited to her.
Baptism is also a ceremony that demonstrates a commitment. I compare it to a wedding ceremony. That may seem strange at first, but they share a lot in common. They are public ceremonies held before witnesses, both God and the people who are gathered. They demonstrate a change in identity. They are outward signs of something that has already happened internally. The rite of baptism represents the internal faith that a Christian has, as well as the cleansing that person has already received. (I should be clear that the rite of baptism doesn’t impart faith or saving grace.) A wedding is a sign of a commitment that two people have already made to each other. They already love each other and have agreed to live their lives together. Now, before witnesses, they make promises. In a similar way, baptism is saying “I do” to Jesus in front of the witnesses of a local church. And I think this analogy isn’t a stretch because the Bible often likens the relationship between God and his people to a marriage. That’s why we call the church the “bride of Christ.”
As we think about baptism and the commitment it entails, we should consider what it means to be a Christian. We’ve already been doing that in recent weeks as we’ve been looking at 1 John, a letter written by one of Jesus’ initial followers, the apostle John. This week’s passage, 1 John 2:12–17, fits baptism well because it talks about the commitment that Christians make when following Jesus.
The passage is divided into two halves. The first half, verses 12–14, is a bit like a poem. John has written some tough words in the previous verses. He says that those who don’t obey God don’t know him, and that those who don’t specifically obey the commandment to love others don’t know Jesus. After such stern words, John wants to encourage his readers. This poem does that. Let’s read verses 12–14 to see how John addresses his readers.
12 I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
13 I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
14 I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
I’ll have to admit that in the past I have found these verses to be a bit perplexing. I didn’t really understand what John meant. But after studying the passage, I understand it a lot better. First of all, notice the structure. In verses 12 and 13, John addresses “little children,” “fathers,” and “young men.” At the very end of verse 13 in the ESV, we read of “children,” and then in verse 14, we read of “fathers” and “young men.” So, it seems that this little poem has an A-B-C, A-B-C structure. In other words, it has two halves, and each half addresses “children,” “fathers,” and “young men.”
Now, are these supposed to be three groups of people? It seems that when John writes to “little children” or “children,” he is addressing all Christians, because throughout the letter he uses this term to address all Christians (2:1, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). John says that the sins of the children of God have been forgiven “for his name’s sake.” This is a translation that seems to hang on to what we find in the King James Version. A better translation would be “through his name,” or “on account of his name.” The “his” is Jesus. His name represents his character, his identity, his person. His name literally means “God saves” or “God is salvation.” Because Jesus is God incarnate, who lived the perfect life that God requires of his people and died an atoning death, all who have a right relationship with him are forgiven of their sins. This is true of all Christians. It is also true that all Christians know the Father.
It would seem that John then addresses two groups of Christians. First, he addresses the “fathers.” This is probably a term used for older Christians. And then, he addresses “young men,” which probably refers to younger Christians. Both times, John says that the “fathers” know “him who is from the beginning.” That’s Jesus. The older Christians know Jesus. They don’t just know facts about him. They have a right relationship with him. They know who the real Jesus is, and they are united to him. Perhaps John is writing this because, as we’ll see next week, one of the problem that he addresses in this letter is false teachers. There were people in the churches he is writing to who didn’t know the real Jesus. But true Christians know, love, worship, and obey the true Jesus.
The younger Christians, the “young men,” “have overcome the evil one,” Satan. They are strong. The word of God abides in them. Putting that all together, we might they have the strength to overcome Satan because the word of God abides in them. The word of God is Jesus, but it’s also the message concerning Jesus. Jesus dwells in these believers by means of the Holy Spirit, and they have clung to the gospel message. This is the same thing that John writes in Revelation 12:11: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” The only way that anyone can overcome Satan is by knowing Jesus, having the Holy Spirit indwelling the believer, and clinging fast to God’s word.
To sum it up: “children” refer to all Christians; “fathers” refers to older Christians; and “young men” refers to younger Christians. Augustine, in one of his sermons on 1 John, sums it nicely: “In the sons, birth: in the fathers, antiquity: in the young men, strength.” All children of God are spiritually reborn. Older Christians have a more experienced knowledge of God. And younger Christians possess the strength of the young.
I don’t think we should get hung up on the fact that John uses male language of “fathers” and “young men.” When we read “brothers” in the letters of the Bible, it’s clear that women are also included. When masculine plural nouns are used in this way, they refer both to men and women. Truly, all Christians, whether young or old, male or female, know God and have overcome the evil one. Older Christians should have a greater knowledge of God that they can pass on to younger generations. Younger Christians can be strong in their zeal and what they can do for Jesus, but they must find their strength in Jesus and they must hold fast to Scripture.
John’s main point is that we know we are Christians if we do these things. John also uses this little poem to prepare for another strong commandment. Part of living in the light and obeying God is to give our ultimate allegiance to God. Let’s read verses 15–17 to see what John says.
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
At first, this commandment seems impossible. If we only read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” we might think that we can’t love other people, because, after all, they are in the world. And wouldn’t that contradict what John has already written? In verse 10, John writes, “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light.”
To understand what John means, we have to look carefully at how John defines “world.” Here’s one thing we need to keep in mind: Sometimes, “world” or “earth” simply refers to this planet and has a neutral meaning. And we know from other parts of the Bible that God made everything and it is his. Psalm 24:1 says,
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.
But “the world” can have another meaning. “Sometimes the world is seen as an organized system of human civilization and activity which is opposed to God and alienated from him.” First John 3:13 says, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.” James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Clearly, John has this negative sense of “the world” in mind.
Here’s a second thing we need to keep in mind: When interpreting one part of Scripture, we can’t pit it against other Scripture. If all Scripture is God-breathed, and is God’s word, we should expect harmony. From the rest of the Bible, we know that when God made the world, he initially made it good (Genesis 1). Though the power of sin is at work in the world, we can still enjoy God’s creation. Another apostle, Paul, tells his younger associate Timothy about people who forbid eating certain foods and even marrying. He says that this isn’t right. Paul’s reason? “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). Paul also says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). I don’t think John is teaching a different message than Paul. John doesn’t mean we can’t love other people or enjoy things that God has made.
So, here is the third thing to keep in mind: If we are going to understand what John means by “the world,” we need to pay careful attention to how he defines it. We find a definition in verse 16: “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” The real problem isn’t the things in the world. The problem is our desires and our pride. Almost anything in the world can be used in a positive way or a negative way. The things themselves are generally neutral. The real problem is our relationship to those things. When John warns us about loving the world, he means that we shouldn’t love the world more than we love God, or even as much as we love God. If our love for God’s creation leads us to covet and lust, and to take pride in our possessions, then we have a great problem. One commentator that I’ve been studying is Robert Yarbrough, who writes, “to set one’s heart on the world is effectively to expel God from the heart. To attempt to love God in multitasking fashion, dedicating a portion of one’s love worldward and then the remaining amount godward, is fruitless because it fails to acknowledge God as he truly is: sole, unique, sovereign, alone deserving one’s core allegiance.”
The problem, really, is our desires. We crave things that God doesn’t want us to have. Some theologians see a hint of Eve’s temptation here. She craved the forbidden fruit after Satan tempted her. She saw “that it was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Her pride caused her to want to “be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Whether John had Eve (and Adam) in mind, we all are like Eve: We crave what we don’t have, we see things we covet, and we tend to rely on our possessions. Instead of being content with what God has given us and relying on the Giver, we make the gift ultimate and we want more and more.
Because of our sinful condition, we tend to make even good gifts ultimate things in our lives. When we do that, we ignore the Giver. I quoted Augustine, one of the church’s most influential theologians, earlier. In one of his sermons on 1 John, he said that we tend to make the things of this world the objects of our worship. He said,
God does not forbid you to love these things, nevertheless, [God commands] not to set your affections upon them for blessedness, but to approve and praise them to this end, that you may love your Creator. In the same manner, my brothers, as if a bridegroom should make a ring for his bride, and she having received the ring, should love it more than she loves the bridegroom who made the ring for her: would not her soul be found guilty of adultery in the very gift of the bridegroom, however she did but love what the bridegroom gave her? By all means let her love what the bridegroom gave: yet should she say, “This ring is enough for me, I do not wish to see his face now:” what sort of woman would she be? Who would not detest such folly? who not pronounce her guilty of an adulterous mind?
Wouldn’t it be strange if a man proposed to his girlfriend and she took the engagement ring and said, “Thanks, but now that I have this ring, I don’t require your services anymore”? Wouldn’t it also be strange if she said, “You gave me this modest ring? Why didn’t you give me a bigger diamond? Don’t you know I want platinum and not gold?” Augustine says that we are like that woman. We take the good things that God has given us but we don’t want a relationship with God. Or we’re not content with what God has given us and we want more and more.
That’s the problem with our cravings. In fact, there are several problems with loving the world in this ultimate way, as opposed to loving God. One, when we covet and lust and desire more and more, we aren’t grateful. We don’t really love the Giver. Instead, we take the gift and ignore the One who gave it to us. We don’t thank him. We don’t want a relationship with him. And we certainly don’t want him to be our King. Our problem is that we don’t want God to be our authority. We don’t trust that he is a good King. Something or someone else fills that role of authority in our lives. Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters. We will end up hating one and loving the other, or being devoted to one and not the other (Matt. 6:24). We often think we can handle the role of King, and so we reject God. When we reject God, we think we’re free.
But this leads us to another problem with loving the world in the way that John write about. Two, the person who follows every urge isn’t free. That person is enslaved by his or her desires. And that person is never happy and never satisfied. He’s like someone who is thirsty but only has salt water to drink. The salt water never quenches his thirst. In fact, it increases his thirst.
That is because the goods of the world can’t satisfy us. They hold out that promise, of course, but it’s all a cheat. So many of us long for things that we will never get, like riches and power and fame and the world’s greatest entertainments. But even if we did get them, we would find that, though nice, they don’t live up to their billing. They would leave us wanting more. They would leave us asking, “Is that all there is?”
A third problem is that, as John puts is, “the world is passing away.” All the things we crave don’t last. The things we take pride in aren’t eternal. There are so many good things that we can misuse my making them ultimate things in our lives. We can do that with our marriages. Marriage is a good gift, but your spouse can never be your Lord and Savior. And our marriages have expiration dates. Some people make their children their idols. But our relationship with children may not last, and they certainly will disappoint us. Some people live for entertainment and pleasure, but those are the shortest-lasting things that exist. The same is true for sex. All of the things that we tend to desire the most don’t last. How foolish are we to put our trust in them? Especially when our lives are short and our deaths are inevitable?
Blaise Pascal once wrote, “You do not need a greatly elevated soul to realize that in this life there is no true and firm satisfaction, that all our pleasures are simply vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and lastly that death, which threatens us at every moment, must in a few years infallibly present us with the appalling necessity of being either annihilated or wretched for all eternity.” In other words, you don’t have to be particularly smart or astute to know that all our pleasures don’t satisfy, that they’re empty, that our pain is great, and that death threatens to put an end to us. If you’re an atheist, you assume that death means annihilation, the end, full stop. But if there’s a heaven and a hell, then there’s something infinitely worse, a wretched experience for all eternity. This should force us to wake up, to take a more serious look at what matters in life.
Elsewhere, Pascal has the following meditation:
When I consider the short span of my life absorbed into the preceding and subsequent eternity . . . , the small space which I fill and even can see, swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which knows nothing of me, I am terrified, and surprised to find myself here rather than there, for there is no reason why it should be here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?
If we think about our lives in the grand spaces of time and of the universe, we should be terrified. Who are we? We’re just specks of dust in a massive universe. What do we matter? Compared to eternity, our lives are but mists. Why should we live here and now? Why should we exist? Who put us here? The fact that our lives come and go in the vast spaces of eternity should cause us to ask questions. And, if we’re wise, we should want to grab on to something eternal.
In the same sermon I quoted earlier, Augustine says that the one eternal thing we can hold onto is Jesus. He says
The river of temporal things hurries one along: but like a tree sprung up beside the river is our Lord Jesus Christ. He assumed flesh, died, rose again, ascended into heaven. It was His will to plant Himself, in a manner, beside the river of the things of time. Are you rushing down the stream to the headlong deep? Hold fast the tree. Is love of the world whirling you on? Hold fast Christ. For you He became temporal, that you might become eternal; because He also in such sort became temporal, that He remained still eternal. Something was added to Him from time, not anything went from His eternity. But you were born temporal, and by sin were made temporal: you were made temporal by sin, He was made temporal by mercy in remitting sins.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like life is “rushing down the stream to the headlong deep.” Time moves quickly, and it only moves in one direction. We all have the experience of having time evade our grasp. We can’t hold on to the best moments and we can’t go back in time to fix the bad ones. And as we get older, time seems to move more swiftly. But Jesus is the eternal one who entered time to make us eternal. If we hold fast to him, though the world passes away, we will not.
John tells us that whoever does the will of God abides forever. We don’t get eternal life by doing the will of God, as if eternal life is something we could ever earn. That’s not the gospel. Eternal life is a gift received by those who trust in Jesus. In fact, we can say that Jesus is the only one who truly loved the Father more than he loved the world. He loved the Father more than the world for the sake of the world. He is the one who was able to resist the desires of this world. Augustine says that Satan tried to tempt Jesus with the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life. According to Augustine,
By these three was the Lord tempted of the devil. By the lust of the flesh He was tempted when it was said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, speak to these stones that they become bread,” when He hungered after His fast. . . . He was tempted also by the lust of the eyes concerning a miracle, when he said to Him, “Cast yourself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning you: and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest at any time you dash your foot against a stone.” . . . By “pride of life” how was the Lord tempted? When he carried Him up to a high place, and said to Him, “All these will I give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” By the loftiness of an earthly kingdom he wished to tempt the King of all worlds: but the Lord who made heaven and earth trod the devil under foot.
Jesus did what we can’t do, live the perfect life, for us.
Those who follow Jesus will follow in his footsteps. They don’t love the world in the way that John writes about. They love God first and foremost. They can love other people and the world, but not in a way that competes with their love for God. And, as John says earlier in his letter, those who have eternal life confess their sin, are cleansed, obey God, and love others. These are all signs of a Christian.
In fact, there’s a clear connection between verses 12–14 and verses 15–17. The ones whom John addresses in verses 12–14 are the ones who don’t love the world more than they love God. They are the ones who do the will of God. Their love for God and their obedience to God are daily realities. But those who love the world more than they love God, who love the gift but not the Giver, are the ones who do not overcome the evil one. They will not receive eternal life because they don’t walk in the light.
What does this mean for us? I see two important applications from this passage, one that is implied in verses 12–14 and one that is quite clear in verses 15–17.
In his little poem, John talks about older and younger Christians. In an ideal world, older Christians would be mature and would have a great knowledge of God. In the real world, I have seen older people who have been very immature in their faith, who have been selfish and demanded that things in church be done “their way,” and who haven’t had great theological knowledge. That shouldn’t be the case. Older Christians should have great wisdom, knowledge, and experience, and they should pass that on to younger Christians. John doesn’t say that here, but that is a very biblical concept. If you take your faith seriously and are living in light of eternity, and if you’re a “father” of the church, you should mentor someone younger. Older Christians, what are you doing now to pass on your knowledge and wisdom to younger generations? If you’re not doing anything along these lines, why not? Is the love of the world stopping you?
Younger Christians, you should also pay heed to what John says. You may have physical strength, but do you have spiritual strength? Are you overcoming the evil one by clinging to the word of God? Do you know the word of God? It is so important to know the Bible and to hold fast to the gospel message. In John’s day, people had left the churches because they had abandoned the faith that John and the other apostles taught. If you don’t know the word of God, you may be like those people whom John describes in verse 19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Real Christians abide in Christ by doing the simple things like reading the Bible and praying on a daily basis and being a part of the church. False Christians have a superficial knowledge of God’s word. They won’t overcome the evil one; instead, they will be overcome.
The second application for us comes from verses 15–17. We should love God more than anything else, and we should take our faith seriously. We should live in light of eternity. So many things in this world will pass away. So much of what we waste our time on will be gone and will be forgotten. Much of what seems important right now won’t even be a footnote in the pages of history. That’s true of stories in the news. It’s true of sports and entertainment. It’s true of our hobbies. And if our love for any of these things has displaced our love for God, we’re in trouble. At the least, it harms our relationship with God and keeps us from experiencing fully his presence, love, and blessings. It also keeps us from being effective Christians. At worst, our disordered desires and loves may be a sign that we aren’t really Christians.
This passage should cause all of us to reassess our lives. Do we love the world as much we love God? Do we love the world more than we love God? If so, then the things that God has created have become idols to us. We get more joy of them than we get joy from God. We trust them to fulfill us more than we trust God. We’re more committed to them than we’re committed to God. Some of us are more committed to our hobbies than we are to God. If your hobby keeps you from worshiping God, from committing to the local church, then you need to repent. We must continue to worship together each Lord’s Day, to serve in the church and be served. We shouldn’t be like the bride who takes the ring from the groom and then ignores him.
Some of us may covet what we don’t have. We may wish we had more of what others have, what the world offers. If that is the case, we should consider what God has given to us and be thankful. Enjoy what God has given you to enjoy, and let those gifts lead you to praise the Giver. Don’t be like the woman who, upon receiving the engagement ring, asks, “Is this the best ring you could give me?”
Some of us may take pride in our possessions, trusting them instead of trusting in God. We may be like the woman who says, “Look at my ring” instead of “look at my husband,” the one who takes pride in the gift instead of the Giver. Remember that your possessions will pass away. They won’t die to pay for your sins. They won’t forgive you if you don’t take care of them. But Jesus did die for your sins, and he has forgiven you and will forgive you. If you’ve been baptized, if you professed your “I do” to Jesus, then continue to trust in him. He is the only Savior, the eternal God who entered into history to save temporal man. And if you haven’t said “I do” to Jesus, I would urge you to do that today. Everything else will pass away and fade into the abyss.
- I got this insight from David Helm, on Nancy Guthrie’s podcast, “Help Me Teach Me the Bible.” ↑
- Some translations have verse 14 start with the second address to “children.” This represents the versification of the United Bible Society’s latest Greek New Testament. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” in St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 471. ↑
- David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 60. ↑
- Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 130. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. I modernized the language in this quote for ease of comprehension. ↑
- I got the salt water illustration from David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 63: “It is like drinking salt water. Far from bringing satisfaction, the unquenchable thirst is in fact increased, and that is no way for a child of God to live.” ↑
- Blaise Pascal, “Pensées,” §681, in Penseées and Other Writings, trans Honor Levi, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 160. ↑
- Ibid., §102, p. 26. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 473. Again, I modernized the language slightly in order to understand it better. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 474–475. Again, I modernized Augustine’s language. ↑
“How do you know?” That’s a simple but very important question. There are all kinds of “How do you know?” questions:
“How do you know which career to pick?”
“How do you know who you should marry?”
“How do you know your life matters?”
“How do you know someone loves you?”
“How do you know everything will be okay?”
“How do you know whom to trust?”
“How do you know what happens after death?”
“How do you know you’re a good person?”
“How do you know what God is like?”
“How do you know that you truly know God and have a right relationship with him?”
We started studying John’s first letter a few weeks ago, and one of things that John wants the readers of this letter to know is whether they truly know God or not. He wants them to be certain that they are God’s children, that they have right relationships with God and therefore have eternal life.
Throughout this letter, John gives us a series of tests. In chapter 1, he says that if we say we don’t have sin, we’re deceived, we don’t know God, and we’re calling God a liar. John’s point is that every human being who has walked this earth has a sin issue. We all have rebelled against God. Well, every human being except one, and that’s Jesus.
In the beginning of chapter 2, John says Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice. He says that we can know we know Jesus if we keep his commandments. If we say we’re Christians but don’t obey Jesus, we’re liars and the truth is not in us.
That’s a strong statement. It’s so strong that we should naturally ask, “Which commandments is John referring to? Which commandments must we obey to demonstrate that we’re followers of Jesus and children of God?” And that leads us to today’s passage, which is really a continuation of John’s thought.
Today, we’re looking at 1 John 2:7–11. I’ll read the whole passage first, and then go back and explain it.
7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
John begins this paragraph by saying that he is not writing a new commandment, but an old one that his readers have already heard. But it’s also a new commandment. What does John mean? How can the commandment be both old and new?
To understand what John is getting at, we must think of Jesus’ own words. In the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others. When he is asked which is the greatest commandment, he says
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).
Jesus sums up the Old Testament commands with these two: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. These are not new commandments, but old ones. They’re both found in the Old Testament. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:5; the second one comes from Leviticus 19:18. It seems clear that Jesus wants anyone who will follow him to observe these two commandments. They’re not new commandments. They are what God has always expected of his people. I’m sure that this is what John and the other apostles preached when they told people about Jesus.
So, if this commandment is old, how can it also be new? Well, Jesus himself said it was. In John’s Gospel, on the night before Jesus died, he washed his disciples’ feet. This was an act that symbolized what he was about to do for them; in dying on the cross, he was going to wash them of their sins. This is what happened after he washed their feet. Let’s read John 13:12–17:
12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet as an example. They should wash each other’s feet because he washed theirs. Of course, the meaning of the event has now changed. He’s not saying that we can wash each other of our sins. He means that we should serve one another. In that age, washing another’s feet was a practical act. When you wear sandals on dusty roads, your feet get dirty. In our day, we don’t need to wash one another’s feet, but there are certainly other practical deeds that we can do for each other to serve one another. The point is that Jesus expects his followers to serve one another, just as their master, Jesus, served them. And Jesus’ followers—his servants—will be blessed if they do what he says.
Several verses later, then, Jesus says he is giving them a new commandment. In John 13:34–35, he says,
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
The commandment is simple: love one another. How is that new? Doesn’t Leviticus 19:18 says to love your neighbor as yourself? Yes, it does. But look carefully at Jesus’ command: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The newness of the command is that Jesus himself has modeled it for them. God himself has become man and showed his people what love really looks like. The newness of the command is that Jesus has demonstrated and embodied this love.
Let’s look at one more passage in John’s Gospel. This is John 15:12–17:
12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
Again, Jesus commands his followers not just to love one another, but to love one another as Jesus has loved them. The greatest love is this: to lay down one’s life for his friends. We’ll talk more about this as we look at 1 John 3. The point that we need to remember now is that Jesus loved us, and that should be our motivation to love others. Jesus laid down his life for us. He had our best interests in mind. He did what we most needed.
That gives us a clue as to what real love is about. So many people talk about love these days, without knowing what it really means. Love is giving someone what is best. Love is more of an action than a feeling. Love is caring for another person. It is giving that person what he or she needs.
To know how to love, we need to know what a person’s greatest need is. Really, to love someone, we need to know what the purpose of life is. If the purpose of life is to “be happy,” then loving another person will mean doing whatever is necessary to make a person feel happy. If the purpose of life is to minimize pain, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to make a person not feel bad. But if the purpose of life is to know God and have a right relationship with him, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to help that person know God and to help that person have a right relationship with God.
That’s what Jesus does for us. He helps us know God by being the clearest revelation of God there has ever been. He is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). According to the book of Hebrews, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). And Jesus does what is necessary to put us into a right relationship with God. Our problem is that our sins have separated us from God. We aren’t born into this life with a nature that seeks after God. We make other people or other things—or, usually, ourselves—the most important things in our lives. But God should be the most important part of our lives. We don’t live like this, however. We turn from God and do what we want to do instead of what he wants us to do. This leads to all kinds of bad things for us. God’s commands are given for our good, but we think we know better and we do things that are harmful to us. To get back into a right relationship with God, we need someone to wash us of our sins. And Jesus does that for us. Everyone who trusts Jesus is cleansed of their sins and put back into a right relationship with God.
Before we think more about what that love looks like, let’s consider another reason why this command to love is new. Look again at verse 8 of 1 John 2: “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” The commandment is new because it’s true in “him,” Jesus. As I said earlier, this commandment to love is embodied by Jesus. But John says it’s also true “in you”—in Christians. How is possible that this kind of love is true in Christians? John gives us the answer: “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”
John means that the true light of the world, Jesus, has come. And when Jesus came, died for our sins, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit. This is a new era. It is the age of the new covenant, which was promised in the Old Testament (Jer. 31:31–34). God has written his law of love on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:33). God has cleansed his people of their sin, given his people new hearts, and put the Holy Spirit inside of them (Ezek. 36:25–27). People of faith in the Old Testament loved one another, but now we can love one another to a greater extent because of Jesus’ example and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who now lives in God’s people.
Who are God’s people? Well, one way to know who God’s people are is to think of the test that John gives us. Let’s read again verses 9–11:
9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes
On the positive side, whoever loves his (or her) brother (or sister) abides in the light. That is John’s way of saying that such a person truly knows God, who is light. In that person “there is no cause for stumbling.” That’s the translation of a Greek word (σκανδαλον), from which we get the word “scandal.” John means that a person who really loves others doesn’t put obstacles in their path to God.
On the negative side, however, those who say they know God but actually hate their brother or sister are still in darkness. That is, they don’t really know God. They are spiritually blind. “Hate” may seem like a very strong word. It’s perhaps a bit of hyperbole, a clear contrast to love. To fail to love someone the way that God wants us to love is to hate another person. This “hate” doesn’t have to be active. To fail to feed your child is to hate your child. You don’t have to actively do something bad, like physically abuse the child, in order to hate the child. All you have to do is withhold something good that the child needs. In the same way, when we withhold love from others, we hate them.
When we think of these verses, we need to remember what the Bible says about love. Real love is helping others know God and have a right relationship with him. If we don’t help other people know God, or if we end up teaching false things about God, we are hating another person. We are withholding an ultimate good from others. If we are stumbling blocks to other people, getting in the way of a true relationship with God, then we’re hating a person. In short, if we encourage people to sin, to not repent and put their faith in God, we are hating that person. We aren’t being truly loving.
Real love isn’t doing whatever makes some feel good. Real love isn’t necessarily minimizing another person’s pain, or making them feel “happy.” Real love is helping someone know God and have a right relationship with him. In fact, when we truly love someone, that person might not initially feel good at all. Real love can feel bad at first.
I say that because today, it is assumed that love involves making another person feel happy. How often do we hear parents say, “I just want my children to be happy”? Now, being happy isn’t wrong. But true, lasting happiness can only be found in God. The world’s version of happiness is like eating a candy bar. God’s happiness is a daily serving of the finest food. The world’s happiness may seem delicious, but it doesn’t last. It doesn’t nourish our souls. The happiness that comes from God is better for us and it never ends. So, loving parents should say, “I want my children to have the ultimate happiness of knowing God and having their lives transformed by him.” They should say, “I want my children to know Jesus and follow him.”
Love is never opposed to God’s commandments. In fact, to love someone truly is to love them according to God’s commandments. We see that in another passage in the New Testament, Romans 13:8–14:
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Notice that in this passage, Paul brings together love and law. He mentions some of the Ten Commandments (don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet—Commandments Seven, Six, Eight, and Ten) and says that they are summed up in the commandment to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18). True love is not wronging your neighbor according to God’s moral law. When we sin, we harm our relationship with God and we hurt others. But when love others, we observe God’s laws, and this is good for us and for them.
Paul also says, like John, that the era of darkness is passing away. He urges us to walk in the light. And that means not fighting, not being jealous, not being drunk, and not engaging in sexual immorality. It’s an era of love, but this is a love marked by discipline and self-control. It’s not a love that says, “Do whatever makes you happy.” It’s a love that says, “Do what God wants you to do, and then you’ll truly be happy.”
So, what does this mean for us? How should we live in light of this passage?
First, I want us to see what our motivation for loving others is. John tells us that true Christians love their brothers and sisters. He means that we should love other Christians. But we also know that Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28). We can think of many reasons why we should love other Christians. We should love them because Jesus died for them and redeemed them. God chose them and they are precious in his sight. They are part of the body of Christ, and we should love Christ’s entire body. They are part of the bride of Christ, and if we love Jesus, we’ll love his bride. But it seems that the motivation here is Jesus’ example of love. He loved us first, and we should love others in that same way. God loved us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:6–10), and we should therefore love our enemies.
That kind of motivation to love is very different than the world’s motivation to love. If you ask people who are not Christians why they should love others, you will get different responses. Some who belong to other religions may say, “God commanded us to love.” And while God does command us to love, it’s not just some arbitrary command. The true God commands us to love because he is love and he showed his love for us in his Son, Jesus.
Other people may say that we should love others in order to get something from them. This is a pragmatic, utilitarian sort of view. If everyone did nice things for one another, then life would go better for all of us. There are two problems with this view. One, it’s not the definition of love that the Bible gives us. Love isn’t necessarily “being nice” or “doing good” in a vague, undefined way. Love is helping other people know God, helping them have a right relationship with God, and also helping them experience something of God’s goodness. Too often, we think of love as simply doing something that others want. If we do to others what they want, perhaps they’ll do to us what we want. And that reveals the second problem with this approach to “love.” In the end, it’s selfish. It’s ultimately focused on the self and what we can get. But true love focuses on others, first on God and then on other people.
My point is that we should have the right motivation to love. God loved us in Christ, and therefore we should love others because we have been changed and moved by God’s love. If you want to know what this love is like, read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Recently, I had a friend visiting from out of town, another pastor. As we were talking about life, he said that when he reads that passage, he wonders if he’s ever loved someone else. It’s true that our love for others will always fall short of God’s love for us. But we should still aspire to this kind of love. When we understand how God has loved us, we will love others. God loves us even though we’re not very lovable. He loved us before we loved him. He loves us more than we love him. God’s love is patient and bears all things. God’s love for his children bears and endures their foolishness, their waywardness, and their lack of love. God’s love is forgiving.
The second thing I want to talk about is how we can love others. I want us to think about this in three categories: How we can help others know God; how we can help others experience something of God’s love and goodness; and how we can help others have a right relationship with God.
One, we can love others by helping others know God better. Christians are commanded to do this. The apostle Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). When we teach each other, when we share passages from the Bible, when we remind each other of who God is, we love each other. And that love should extend to non-Christians. Teaching them about God is an act of love. Evangelism isn’t primarily about making us feel good, or boosting numbers. It’s an act of love.
Two, we love others when we give them a glimpse of God’s love and goodness. Most of our acts of love could be placed in this category. Serving other people in practical ways gives others a glimpse of how Jesus serves us. Cooking a meal for others gives them a hint of how God has prepared a table for us, how God provides our daily bread, and how God is preparing an end-time feast for his people. Of course, whatever meal we make isn’t those things, but it’s a shadow of those things. It can help point people to the real thing. The same is true of any act of lovingkindness.
Sometimes those acts can be very practical. I recently read the story of a woman who was married and had young children. She and her family were in the process of packing to move from one state to another. At that time, she heard that her brother and his family died in a car crash. Her mother told her to come as soon as she could. This involved getting on a plane. She and her family were trying to prepare to leave to see her mother and to go to her brother’s funeral and they were struggling to get organized.
This woman said that many of her friends told her, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” They were good intentioned, but she and her family were so distraught that they couldn’t think straight. They didn’t know what to ask for. They were so overwhelmed by the chaos of their life and their grief that they couldn’t think straight.
But a man from church showed up at her door and said, “I’ve come to clean your shoes.” The woman was confused. She asked him to repeat what he said. He explained that when his father died, it took him hours to clean and shine the shoes of his many children. He knew this woman would have a similar need. So, he asked for all the shoes in the house, then he sat down on the kitchen floor, spread out newspaper, and cleaned and shined each shoe. This grieving wife, mother, and sister said that not only did this act of love help her pack her family to leave for the funeral, but it also helped her restore a sense of order to her mind. This man’s simple act of cleaning shoes helped her focus on other tasks that enabled her to pack. That is love. This man knew what this woman needed and he gave it to her, without seeking anything in return.
We should know each other well enough to know what each one of us needs. And when we act to give each other what we need, we’re giving each other a glimpse of God’s goodness and love. In fact, God often loves us through the acts of others. And God almost always provides for us through other people. So, when we do good for others, we’re doing the work of God.
The third way we can love others is by helping them have a right relationship with God. We can’t die for the sins of others. And there’s no need to do that, because Jesus’ death on the cross can and will pay for the sins of any who turn to him. But we can help each other stay on track in our relationships with God. When we encourage people to sin, we’re being stumbling blocks to each other. We’re getting in another person’s way of having a good relationship with God. But when we help correct each other, we’re actually loving one another. Think of Jesus’ love for his disciples. Jesus’ love wasn’t a sappy, nostalgic sort of love. Jesus’ love wasn’t always a “nice” love. Jesus loved his disciples so much that he corrected them. He rebuked them. When we challenge each other, it’s not unloving. When we see another person sin and we do nothing, we’re withholding something good from that person. When we see people running away from God and we’re silent, we don’t love that other person. In fact, according to John, we’re hating that person. Correcting a person in a patient, kind, and respectful way is actually an act of love.
If you are a Christian, you must love other Christians and even your enemies. You can’t truly love God without loving other people. That means we can’t be indifferent to each other’s needs. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this and I find it challenging.
We also can’t hate others. You can’t live in the light if you hate other people. Hatred has a way of blinding us. Hate keeps us from seeing the truth. If you have experienced the love of God in Jesus, love others, whether they are your brothers and sisters in Christ or whether they are your enemies.
If you are not a Christian, I would urge you to think about this love that God has shown us. God loves us so much that he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live, and he laid down his life for us as an atoning sacrifice. His death pays the penalty for our failure to love God and others. Everyone who trusts Jesus, everyone who truly loves Jesus, and everyone who follows him is forgiven of that failure to love. Everyone who is united to Jesus will experience God’s love forever. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit in their life is adopted as God’s child and will never be disowned. That is a love that you can experience today if you turn to Jesus in faith.
- Madge Harrah, “This Powerful Story Will Convince You to Stop Saying, ‘Let Me Know if You Need Anything,’” Reader’s Digest, December 1983, http://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/let-me-know-if-you-need-anything/amp. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 2 John, showing that Christians and the church need both truth and love. Truth requires and fosters love, and love motivates a desire to know the truth and live according to it.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 3 John, which talks about the importance of supporting gospel ministry, particularly missionaries. Why is supporting this ministry good and hindering it evil? Because the gospel is the best news, a priceless treasure.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:1-5. How do we overcome our problems? How are the problems of the world overcome? Through the One who overcomes the world, Jesus.
“God Is Love.” Those are some of the most famous words in the Bible. What is God’s love like? How do we know that God is love? How does that love change us? Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 4:7-21, which includes those famous words. He explains what God’s love is like, how we know it, how it drives out fear, and how we should respond to such love.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 3:4-18. John makes a distinction between Christians and non-Christians. He tells us that there are two types of children (of either God or the devil), two practices (love or hate), and two paths (to eternal life or death).
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:12-17. What does it mean for Christians not to love the world? It means not loving God’s gifts more than (or as much as) we love the Giver. The problem with the world isn’t the things in the world as much as it is our desires. Also, find out what John says about God’s children, those who abide in Christ.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 John 2:7-11. John tells us that one mark of a Christian is obeying the old and new commandment to love. The commandment is old because it is found in the Old Testament and it has always been, since God is love. The commandment is new because it has been demonstrated by Jesus’ love for us and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:1-6. Christians should obey Jesus because they love him and want to follow his example. But if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who offered himself up as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 10:25-37, which includes the famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” Jesus tells us to love God with everything and love our neighbor as ourselves. The problem is that we don’t do that. But Jesus is the true Good Samaritan who rescues us and enables us to love God and others.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Ruth 2. He focuses on three words that sum up what God is doing in this chapter: favor, providence, and kindness. He also shows how Christianity accounts for why we should be generous and kind to one another, and how a competing worldview (naturalism) does not.
Pastor Brian Watson looks at the “one another” commandments in the New Testament. Christians are called to love one another, live in harmony, serve one another, encourage one another, and even correct one other, among other things. Listen to learn what real love looks like.
Pastor Brian Watson presents a message on church discipline. Correcting each other, holding each other accountable, and even confronting each other is good for us as individuals, it’s good for the church, and it’s good for Jesus’ reputation. Passages examined include Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 1 Timothy 5:19-20.