Paul to Timothy

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on April 22, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Does anyone here receive letters anymore? It seems like most of our correspondence is done through emails, texts, and phone calls. When we go to check our mail, we usually don’t expect letters. We’re prepared to deal with junk mail, advertisements, bills, and perhaps a package. But occasionally we’ll still receive an important letter in the mail.

Last Tuesday was Tax Day, and whether you had filed your taxes in February or at the last minute, you know it’s an important thing to do. And whether you owed the IRS money or received a refund, you hope not to hear back from them. But sometimes we do receive a letter from the IRS, and that will surely get your attention. Last year, I received a letter from the IRS in May which said I owed money. I had received a small refund in April, but my tax preparer neglected to include a form that dealt with the tax credit I received to help pay for health care. I had received too large of an advanced credit and had to pay pack the difference to the government. You can be sure that letter got my attention.

Now, that’s a letter concerning tax obligations to the government. That’s an important thing. We usually pay attention to issues regarding money and possibly getting into trouble with the government. But what if we received an even more important letter?

What if we received a letter from God, telling us how “to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)?[1] Shouldn’t we pay more attention to that letter? If we are God’s people, shouldn’t we want to know how to behave in his house, the church? Shouldn’t we want to know how God expects his church to operate?

I think the answers to those questions should be, “Yes.” And today we’re going to start to look at such a letter, the book of 1 Timothy.

Today is going to be an introduction to the book. Since we’re going to spend about four months in this book and some related passages in the New Testament, I thought it would be good to help us understand its background. Today may feel more like a lecture than a sermon, though I hope what I say today will inspire us to worship God and to be confident that what we read in the Bible is truly God’s word.

There are three things that I want to address today. First, I want us to know who wrote this letter. Second, I want us to know to whom the letter was written. And then, third, I want us to get a glimpse of what this letter is about.

So, without further ado, let’s start by reading the first two verses of this book. Here is 1 Timothy 1:1–2:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,
To Timothy, my true child in the faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

These verses clearly state that the letter is from the apostle Paul. So, let’s discuss who Paul was.

A lot of us know something about Paul, but I don’t want to take that knowledge for granted. So, here’s a quick background. Paul was a Jewish man, born sometime around or shortly after Jesus was born. He was born in the city of Tarsus (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), one of the more significant cities in the Roman Empire and now part of Turkey. He had two names, one Hebrew and the other Latin, so he is sometimes referred to as Saul, and then mostly later as Paul. (His name didn’t change at the time of his conversion.) He was educated in Jerusalem under a rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Later, he became a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5), one of the prominent sects of Judaism. Pharisees weren’t the official religious leaders—those were the priests—but they were lay leaders who were experts in the Torah, the law of the Old Testament.

That was Paul’s position at the time when Jesus died and then rose from the grave. And as the Christian movement started to spread in Jerusalem, a man named Stephen was killed. The Jewish people thought that he was blaspheming, speaking against the temple, so they killed him. He was the first Christian martyr. And when that happened, we read this in Acts: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). When Stephen died, we read, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).

After Stephen’s death, Saul persecuted other Christians, arresting them and bringing them to prison (Acts 8:3). Paul apparently approved of the deaths of other Christians, casting a vote against them (Acts 26:10–11).

Saul was so against Christianity, surely thinking that this new religious movement was blasphemous, that he even traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to try to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they would surely die. We read this in Acts 9:1–5:

1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

From that time on, Paul’s life was changed. He would then become the greatest of Jesus’ special messengers, his apostles. He traveled throughout the Roman Empire, going to major cities to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited King that God promised would come. He declared that Jesus is Lord, the one who lived a perfect life and died on the cross in place of sinners and then rose from the grave.

Paul went from being a zealous persecutor of the church to a zealous church planter. He was so convinced that his message was true that he endured great hardships, including beatings and imprisonments. And he would later die in Rome. The church historian Eusebius says that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, who died in the year 68. It is even claimed that Paul and Peter died on the same day.[2] Paul probably wrote 1 Timothy a few years before his death, but after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, which is described in the book of Acts.

So, that is a brief biography of Paul, the man to whom thirteen letters in the New Testament are credited.

But some people don’t believe that Paul wrote all those letters, including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Now, I want you to know this not because I believe it. I believe that Paul wrote the letters that bear his name. But it’s common to hear doubts about Paul’s authorship in some prominent places. When you hear a story about the Bible on NPR or read about it in Time magazine, it’s often a story that casts doubt on the truth and authority of the Bible. If you go into a secular bookstore and make your way to the religion section, you might see books by a scholar named Bart Ehrman, who wrote a booked called Forged.[3] Ehrman claims that many of the books in the New Testament were not written by the people we think they were written by.

Now, this is quite a serious claim. Think about what would happen if you got a letter from the IRS claiming that you owed them money. You would want to know if the IRS actually wrote and mailed you that letter, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, it would be a scam. If the books of the Bible were not written by apostles or people who had access to eyewitness testimony, then how could we trust that what they said was true? How could we believe that such letters were God’s word?

Well, Ehrman doesn’t believe the Bible is from God. His whole project is to get people to doubt the claims of Christianity.

But there are some people who are Christians who believe that such books of the Bible like 2 Thessalonians, the so-called “Pastoral Letters” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and 2 Peter weren’t written by Paul and Peter. Sometimes other books (Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter) are often on that list. These Christian scholars believe that there was a known practice at the time of some people writing in the name of others. They say that students of a more famous person wrote in the name of their deceased teacher. They say that as long as the content was generally the thoughts of the one whose name is used, and if people understood this practice of writing in another’s name, then it wasn’t deceptive.

What are we to make of these claims? Can we trust that this letter of 1 Timothy was actually written by Paul?

Well, when we hear claims like this, we have to think about evidence. Whenever you hear a claim made about the Bible, such as that it contains contradictions or false statements, you have to ask for the evidence behind these claims. So, what is the evidence that Paul did or didn’t write this letter?

There are two types of evidence that scholars consider. One is called external evidence. That’s the kind of evidence that is outside the actual text of the book. External evidence concerns things like what the earliest writers outside the Bible said about this book. It also deals with what kind of manuscript evidence we have.

The fact is that we don’t have the original copies of any ancient documents. We don’t have video of people writing them. So, we lack the kind of “proof” that many modern people would like to have. But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence. We have copies of the original text and we have the writings of early Christian theologians who make references to the books of the Bible.

As far as 1 Timothy goes, we don’t have anyone in church history doubting that Paul wrote this book until the nineteenth century. Think about that. For almost eighteen hundred years, everyone assumed that Paul wrote this letter. For someone to change their mind about this issue and fly in the face of eighteen hundred years of church history, there should be some pretty strong evidence that Paul didn’t write this book. But there’s no evidence that anyone else wrote this letter, no early document that claims something like, “There’s this letter going around addressed to Timothy, but we all know Paul didn’t write it.” As early as the beginning of the second century, we have Christians quoting from 1 Timothy. Polycarp (69–155) wrote his own Letter to the Philippians at the beginning of the second century. And in one section he seems to quote from 1 Timothy and Ephesians:

“But the love of money is the root of all evils.”[4] Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out,”[5] let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness;[6] and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord.[7]

So, all the external evidence seems to point to the fact that Paul wrote this letter.

The other type of evidence that scholars consider is internal evidence. This refers to the actual text of the document. Some scholars notice that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus use different vocabulary than Paul’s other letters. In addition to different words, there are differences in grammar, syntax, and ways of making an argument (rhetoric). So, these scholars can’t believe that one man would right, say, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, and also 1 Timothy.

But there may be good reasons why Paul used a different writing style in the Pastoral Letters. One reason may be that he was addressing different concerns. The issues he was dealing with in 1 Timothy were different than the issues in Galatians. Also, Paul was writing to a specific individual (though in a public way, as we’ll see), not to a whole church. Additionally, Paul’s vocabulary might have been affected by learning the Latin language. “Paul could have learned Latin during his first imprisonment in Rome in order to extend his ministry westward” to Spain.[8] Finally, Paul might have used a different secretary to write the letter.

It was common for writers to use an amanuensis, or a secretary. If I asked you who wrote the book of Romans, you would probably say Paul. And you’re not wrong (Rom. 1:1–7). But take a look at Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Tertius was the man who actually put pen to paper (or stylus to papyrus, technically).[9] Paul probably dictated the content of the letter. It was possible for secretaries to have some input into the actual wording of the letter. This still happens today. Letters from various authorities are often written by their assistants. The content of the letter and the final format of the letter are approved by their bosses, but the one doing the writing was someone else. That might have been the case in Paul’s last letters, though no person is specifically mentioned. Some think Luke might have been the actual writer of the letters, while Paul was the author, the one dictating the basic content.

At any rate, the point is that there is no good reason to believe the author is anyone but Paul. If it wasn’t Paul, it was someone trying to deceive. Paul says that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” Paul wasn’t Timothy’s biological or even adoptive father, but his spiritual mentor. And if someone other than Paul were writing this, it would be false.

A scholar named Lewis Donelson wrote a book on the issue of falsely attributed letters in ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t think he’s a Christian and he believed that there are pseudonymous letters in the New Testament. But he said this, “No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.”[10] He later adds, “We are forced to admit that in Christian circles pseudonymity was considered a dishonorable device and, if discovered, the document was rejected and the author, if known, was excoriated.”[11]

So, if this letter wasn’t written by Paul, it’s a forgery, and it should be rejected. But since we don’t have good reasons to believe anyone other than Paul wrote it, we should go along with the vast majority of Christians and accept that it comes from the apostle himself.

And I take time to say all of this because we should be confident that the Bible is the word of God. It’s not something that some deceptive or misguided people concocted. It’s not a fabrication or a forgery. Yet we often hear that the Bible wasn’t written by the people who allegedly wrote it, or that it’s full of errors or contradictions. Don’t buy into those claims. Ask people who make those claims, “What is the evidence? Can you prove that to me?”

The letter was written by Paul to Timothy. And that brings us to the second issue, the letter’s initial audience. Who was Timothy? Timothy was Paul’s younger associate. We first meet Timothy in the Bible in Acts 16. He had a Gentile father and a Jewish-Christian mother. In Acts, we’re told that Timothy was already a disciple, a Christian, when Paul took him on his second missionary journey. It’s likely that he became a Christian because of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14). From the time of his second missionary journey onward, Timothy was either with Paul or represented Paul in places where Paul couldn’t be. Paul said of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (Phil. 2:20). In fact, six of Paul’s letter are said to be from Timothy as well as Paul, though they are obviously authored by Paul (see 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1).

So, Timothy was Paul’s coworker. We might say he was an apostolic delegate. And at this time, he was in the city of Ephesus, where Paul had preached years earlier. Paul had spent about two-and-a-half in that city (Acts 19), and even after he left, he met with the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20). Paul obviously had a lot invested in that city. It was a significant one in that part of the Roman Empire, in a province called Asia Minor, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey.

Timothy had the responsibility of making sure the church in Ephesus was in good order. But Paul didn’t write to Timothy only. At the very end of the letter, Paul writes, “Grace be with you” (1 Tim. 6:21). In the original Greek language, the “you” is in the plural. We might say “you all” in English. So, the letter isn’t written to just Timothy. It is written for the whole of the church in Ephesus. The whole church should know what Paul has written.

And that brings us to the final issue we’ll look at today. What is this letter about? Let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14–16:

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

First, notice that Paul gives the reason why he is writing. He hopes to visit Timothy in Ephesus soon, but he’s writing this letter so that if he can’t get there soon, Timothy will know how people ought to behave in the household of God. The church is the living God’s home. It is a pillar and buttress of truth. If we care about God and about the truth, we’re going to pay careful attention to how the church should operate, and how we should behave in God’s house. (God’s house isn’t this building, it’s a people!) That’s why studying this letter is so important.

Second, notice that Paul presents a short confession of faith. This is probably some kind of statement—whether it was a hymn or a creed—about Jesus that Paul was quoting. Jesus is the God who took on flesh, he is the God-man. His identity and his ministry were vindicated by the Holy Spirit, particularly when he rose from the grave after dying on the cross. Paul doesn’t give us a clear message of Jesus’ death here, but the reason why Jesus died was not because of his sin. He didn’t have any. He was the only perfect person, the only one who ever walked this earth and lived a perfect life. Yet he was treated like a criminal, dying on an instrument of torture and death, so that the penalty for our sin could be paid.

Yet Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection. He had been sealed in a tomb on the first day, the day of his death. But on the third day, he rose from the grave in a body that is immortal and indestructible. His resurrected body is the first installment of something that will come later, the new creation. This old creation has been tainted by sin, our rebellion against God. Everything that we think is wrong with this world, whether fighting between people, natural disasters, our own feelings of depression and anxiety, and even death itself, can be traced back to sin. Worst of all, our sense of being distant from God is the result of human rebellion against him. Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross remove that distance for all who trust in him. We can truly be reconciled to God. Yet we still live a hard life in the old creation. But when Jesus returns to Earth, he will renew it. It will be a day of judgment for those who reject Jesus, but it will be a day of glory for those who trust in him. The best part of Jesus’ return is the resurrection of his people. We who believe in Jesus will have resurrected bodies. And the universe will have its own resurrection. There will be no more famine and flooding, no more weeping and sadness, and no more death.

This confession of faith also says that Jesus was seen by angels, presumably after his resurrection. And he was seen by many human witnesses, too. They proclaimed Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a large role to play in that mission. Many Jews and Gentiles came to believe in Jesus. And Jesus was taken up into glory. He ascended to heaven, where he is right now with God the Father. He serves as the high priest of his people, pleading his sacrifice on their behalf, so that their sins are covered. He intercedes for us, praying for us, just as the Holy Spirit intercedes for those who don’t know how to pray.

This is the core of the Christian faith. That is why Paul says in the very first verse of this letter that Jesus is “our hope.”

Part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to Timothy is because there were false teachers in Ephesus, people who were teaching something contrary to the message that Paul taught. From the beginning, there were false teachers who invaded churches, just as there are false teachers today who pervert and corrupt the message of Christianity. Part of Paul’s concerns in this letter is to make sure that sound doctrine is taught. As we go through this letter, we’ll see that.

I suppose that is why Paul begins this letter by stating that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus.” An apostle is a special envoy or messenger. The apostles were the ones who were commissioned by Jesus to be his messengers, the ones who saw Jesus in the flesh, particularly after his resurrection. These false teachers weren’t apostles, certainly not by the command of God the Father and Christ Jesus, God the Son.

And Paul mentions that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” The false teachers were not brought up in the faith the way that Timothy was. Timothy was Paul’s true spiritual heir, his true representative. Not everyone who claims to speak for God is God’s messenger or mouthpiece. But Paul was, and so was Timothy.

Finally, this letter is also about the grace, mercy, and peace that come from God. Notice that these things come from both “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” This shows that Jesus is God. The very word “Lord” indicates that, but the fact that God the Father and Jesus are both the givers of grace, mercy, and peace indicates that they act as one.

The word “grace” refers to the fact that salvation is a gift from God. We are not in the right with God because we are good people, because we’ve earned his favor, or because we’ve followed all the rules. Christianity teaches that it is impossible for us to earn something from God and that it’s impossible for us to be perfect, which is what God’s perfect standards require. But God is generous. He gives us what we don’t deserve. God doesn’t forget our sin, though. He doesn’t just shrug it off or sweep it under the rug. No, God is a perfect judge, and judges don’t ignore the evidence in front of them. But God sent his Son, who came willingly to take on the punishment that our crimes deserve. All of this is a gift.

The word “mercy” can refer to acts of pity. If grace is a gift, something we don’t deserve, mercy is not giving us over to what we do deserve. But the Greek word translated as “mercy” was used to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is often translated as “steadfast love” in English.[12] The idea is that God is faithful to the covenant he has made with his people, and his love for his people endures even in spite of their sin.

And the word “peace” doesn’t refer to a feeling, but an objective reality. We can be at peace with God because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. This implies that before coming to Jesus, we’re at war with God. We start out life as God’s enemies, ignoring the King of the Universe, and even rebelling against him, acting as though we are little kings and queens. But once we come to Jesus, that war against God is over. We submit to his loving rule, and he does not treat us according to our rebellion.

Even in these three words, we get a sense of the core of Christianity. Yet Christianity doesn’t do away with all rules. God has designed our lives. He is, after all, the Creator of everything, including the church. He knows best how the church should operate. In order to be a church that accurately reflects the God of order, we need to conduct the church according to God’s rules.

To be the church of Christ, we must maintain this confession of faith. We must hang on to the truth that God has revealed to us.

In order to be a church of grace and mercy, we must know the gospel and act according to it.

That’s why this letter matters so much.

If you don’t know what Christianity is about, I invite you to come back. The rest of the sermons in this series won’t be like this one. But we’re going through this letter because it’s important for the church. And you really can’t separate a right relationship with God from a right relationship with a local church. If you want to know more about Jesus and the Bible, I would love to talk to you personally.

For the rest of us, there will be plenty for us to consider, for as we move through 1 Timothy, we’ll find that all of us will be challenged. God’s word has a way of doing that. But it leads us to truth, and when we follow God’s instructions, we find that his commands are not burdensome. Instead, we find grace, mercy, and peace in the household of the living God.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.
  3. Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011).
  4. 1 Tim. 6:10.
  5. 1 Tim. 6:7.
  6. Eph. 6:11.
  7. Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians” 4, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 34.
  8. William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), c.
  9. This is also why, at the end of some of his letters, Paul personally writes a greeting, to verify that the letter is actually his. See 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11.
  10. Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie 22 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986), 10.
  11. Ibid., 16.
  12. The Greek word is ἔλεος (eleos) and the Hebrew word is חסד (ḥesed).

 

The Tender Mercy of Our God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 17, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advanced (see also below).

Christmas can be an exciting time. It’s a time of celebration and joy. But it can also be a time of depression for many. Depression can be caused by many things. Perhaps it’s due to loneliness, or the sadness in remembering a loved one who has died. But perhaps that depression comes from broken promises.

So many people break promises. How many times have politicians broken their promises? Too many times to count, I’m sure. Do you know how you can tell a politician is making false promises? His lips are moving. Think of all the marriage vows you’ve ever heard recited. How many people have kept their promise to live as a lawfully wedded couple “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”? Think of all the times that parents or siblings or friends have broken promises, both small and large. Think of how many times we have broken our promises to others.

There are other broken promises, too. So much in life promises joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness. Advertisers make us feel like if only we get the newest gadget or some other product, then we’ll feel complete. Sometimes we come into the holiday season hoping to get a certain feeling. That happens with milestones in life, too. We think, “If only I get that job, I’ll feel accomplished,” or, “If only I could retire, then I’d be happy.” Those goals and dreams promise so much, but when they arrive we’re often disappointed. It’s as if we believed those things promised us something great, but then we find out it’s all a lie.

But there is someone who always keeps his promises, and that is God. God never lies. But God’s promises aren’t always fulfilled the way that we expect them to be. When God makes a promise, we often start to imagine how he’ll fulfill that promise, and our imagination is often wrong. Though God doesn’t always give us what we want, he always keeps his promises and he always gives us what we need.

We’ll see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll see how God kept his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth to give them a son in their old age. And we’ll see how their son, John, will prepare the way for the salvation that God promised in the Old Testament.

Before we look at today’s passage, I just want to remind us of what we’ve seen so far. Luke begins his Gospel by explaining that it is an historical account of what God has done. Luke used eyewitness testimony to write his history.

He begins his history with the story of a priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were old and unable to have children. Yet God promised Zechariah that they would have a son named John. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16).[1] John’s role, as we’ll find out, was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their anointed king, the Messiah.

Zechariah found this hard to believe, so he questioned what the angel said. In response, Gabriel said, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). And from that time, Zechariah could not talk.

Last week, we found out that the angel Gabriel made an even more amazing promise to Mary. Though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. That child would be called Jesus. He would be the son, or heir, of King David, but he would also be “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Mary believed this message and later she praised God with a hymn known as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55).

Today, we’ll see that Elizabeth gives birth to the promised child, John. When that happens, and when Zechariah responds in faith, he is able to speak and he, too, praises God.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 1:57–66:

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Elizabeth gives birth to the child that God had promised to her and Zechariah. As you might expect, this birth was received with great joy. (Joy is one of the major themes at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.) John’s parents had him circumcised on the eighth day, as Jewish law required (Gen. 17:10–12; 21:4; Lev. 12:3). Circumcision was a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. It taught them that they were consecrated to God, special, to be holy. It also taught them that the Messiah would come from their people. (I don’t want to be graphic, but there was a reason this sign was etched onto a procreative organ). And it taught them that they needed to have their old selves “cut off” or removed in order to be God’s people. Even in the Old Testament, there are times when circumcision refers metaphorically to a change of heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; cf. Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3).

The child wasn’t officially named yet, and the people who witnessed his circumcision wanted to call him “Zechariah,” since sons were often named after their fathers. But Elizabeth says, “No; he shall be called John.” The people don’t understand, because no one in the family had that name. So, they ask Zechariah. Apparently, he wasn’t just mute, but he was also deaf, because they had to make hand signals to communicate to him. Zechariah agrees with what Elizabeth said and what the angel Gabriel had told him. The child’s name is “John.” This may not seem like a big deal. But it represents Zechariah’s faith in the message he heard months earlier. We know that because when he affirms that the baby’s name is “John,” he is able to speak once again. The name “John” means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Zechariah knows and believes this message, and when he responds in faith to God, he is able to praise God.

The fact that Zechariah and Elizabeth name their child an unexpected name, and that when they do, Zechariah can once again speak, causes the people to fear God and wonder what this child was going to do. Luke tells us that they “laid [these things] up in their hearts.” He will later say this about Mary (2:19, 51). The only way that Luke could know what these people were thinking is if he talked to them, or to those who knew them. This shows that Luke had written his account based on eyewitness testimony.

This story is a bit unusual, but it’s very significant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were previously unable to have children. She was barren. Her barrenness reflected the spiritual state of Israel. They were barren, lacking spiritual life. Between the Old and New Testaments, it seems that prophecy had stopped. In the Old Testament, the prophets said, “Thus says the Lord . . .” But for centuries, it seemed as though God was silent. The Jews were waiting for a word from God. They were waiting for God to come and rescue them from their enemies. The birth of this child, John, is a sign that this period of barrenness and silence has come to an end.

It’s no accident that Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh has remembered.” God remembered his promises made hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, and now he was making good on those promises.

We see this clearly in Zechariah’s words of praise. Like Mary’s “Magnificat,” this is written in Luke in the form of a hymn.[2] We’re told that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said these words. We’re also told that Zechariah prophesied these words. This is a message from God, delivered for the sake of the people who wondered what God was doing by giving Zechariah and Elizabeth a son.

So, let’s read the whole passage, and then I’ll go back and dissect it a bit. Here are verses 67–80:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69  and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70  as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71  that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72  to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73  the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74  that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77  to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78  because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Not only are Zechariah’s words prompted by the Holy Spirit. Not only are they words of prophecy, telling the people what God was doing by giving the world these special babies, John and Jesus. But Zechariah’s words also represent the Jewish hope for their Messiah. This is important, because without this understanding, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of Christmas. You can’t appreciate the birth of Jesus without having some idea of context. Fortunately, Zechariah’s words give us that context, and they show that God keeps his promises.

Let’s look more carefully at his words. In verse 68, John begins this hymn with a blessing. In the Bible, God is often blessed for great things he has done for his people (Ps. 72:18–19). Zechariah’s words echo King David’s in 1 Kings 1:48. When David was about to die, he knew he would be succeeded by his son, Solomon, and he said these words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day.” Zechariah now blesses God for a greater Davidic King.

Zechariah blessed God because “he has visited and redeemed his people.” Notice that these words are in the past tense. Zechariah is so certain that God will do this work that he says it’s a done deal. It’s as if it’s already been accomplished. The language of “visitation” often refers to God delivering his people. It’s used in the book of Exodus when God “visited the people of Israel” (Exod. 4:31). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed them. That is, he freed them from slavery. God was now doing something similar.

In verse 69, Zechariah says that God “raised up a horn of salvation” for Israel. Horns were a symbol of strength. Think of animals that have horns and attack with them, like bulls, buffalo, or oxen. Their horns are their strength. In one of King David’s psalms, he calls God his “horn of salvation (Ps. 18:2). God is raising up a figure in the house of David who will have the strength to save his people.

The mention of the house of David is important because God had promised David that he would have an offspring, a “son,” who would inherit his kingdom and who would reign forever. God made this promise to David about a thousand years before Jesus was born. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13). This promise came to David through the prophet Nathan, who was one of many prophets who delivered God’s promises to his people. That’s what Zechariah acknowledges in verse 70. God spoke a consistent message through these prophets. That’s why we’re told that he spoke by the one mouth of his holy prophets. God had revealed these promises through different prophets across the centuries. One of the reasons I trust that the Bible is God’s word is that it tells a unified story. It gives us one message of God and his salvation of his people. This was written by dozens of people over the span of centuries. Yet all of them bear witness to the same truth.

In verse 71, Zechariah says that God’s promise was to save his people “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the Old Testament, the promises of David’s offspring, the anointed forever-king, the Messiah, often talk of salvation for God’s people and judgment for those who oppose God. In last week’s Advent reading, we were told of a special child, a son, who would be born. The government would rest upon his shoulders and he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7). This morning, we heard that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, which brought them joy (Isa. 9:2–3). Sandwiched between those two passages are these verses:

For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire (Isa. 9:4–5).

The Messiah would put an end to oppression. That was good news, because Israel often had enemies who oppressed them. Pharaoh enslaved them and was so threatened by them that he wanted to kill their male children. In later years, they had been in exile in Babylon, then under Persian rule, and under Greek rule. When Jesus was born, they were under Roman occupation. Israel waited for the Messiah to deliver them from all their enemies. And often, these enemies seemed to be foreign nations. God had delivered the Israelites in the exodus, about fourteen hundred years earlier. The Jews were waiting for God to deliver his people once again.

The expectation was that this would be done through a Davidic king. We don’t have time to look at this passage this morning, but if you read Isaiah 11, you can get that idea.[3] We also see a promise of a righteous king in Jeremiah 23:5–6:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

They were waiting for a righteous king would bring about justice and security. They needed a king to save them and to crush their enemies.[4]

But this hymn of Zechariah shows that Israel’s own enemy was its own sin. In verse 72, he mentions “the mercy promised to our fathers.” In verses 76–78, he says that John’s job would be to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sin, because of the tender mercy of our God.” Mercy can mean kindness or compassion. It also has the sense of sparing someone something they deserve. God promised to be merciful to Israel. He promised to remember his covenant. When the Israelites were in Egypt, God remembered his covenant with Abraham (Exod. 2:24).[5] Of course, it’s not that God forgot that covenant. God knows everything. But that language means he acted based on the covenant he made with Abraham.

A covenant is like a binding pact between two parties. But it’s not just a legal document. It’s more personal than that. It combines the law with personal obligation and relationship. It contains promises. It expects certain behavior in return. God promised Abraham he would bless him and his offspring, and he would bless the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1–3). But Abraham had to obey God by circumcising himself and his son, and all subsequent Israelite men had to be circumcised (Gen. 17:1–14). God made great promises to Abraham, but he expected obedience in return.

Later, after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai. He gave them his law and he said that if they kept it, they would be his “treasured possession,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). But the Israelites were never perfectly obedient, or even close. They continued to rebel against God, and they often worshiped other, false gods.

Years later, God made a covenant with David, promising him a King who would reign forever, as we saw earlier (2 Sam. 7). But in order for there to be a forever kingdom of people ruled by this forever king, there had to be a way for Israel’s sin to be removed. The mercy that the Israelites needed wasn’t mercy from foreign enemies. They needed deliverance from their sins. They needed forgiveness. They needed God to remove their sins.

God promised that. He promised a new covenant. Under the terms of this treaty, God would write his law on his people’s hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit. He would give all his people direct knowledge of himself, so they wouldn’t have to have priests mediate that knowledge. Instead, all of God’s people would be priests. He would forgive his people of their sins. And, most importantly, they would be his people, and he would be their God. (See Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:35–27.)

This is what the Israelites needed. It’s what all of humanity needs. We all need to be rescued. We all need to be saved from our enemies. But our true enemies are not political enemies, or foreign nations. That’s what people think about today. We think our enemies are “those people” on the other side of the political aisle. We think of enemies as people of different religions, or people from different countries. We may think our enemies are problems like health problems and a lack of money. But the real enemy is our sin. In a way, we are our own enemies. The Bible also says there are spiritual forces that are our enemies, too. Satan is an enemy, but so are our desires. The power of sin, which corrupts God’s creation, is what causes all those other enemies, such as wars, poverty, disease, and even death. So, what we really need is a Savior who can rescue us from sin.

Fortunately, God promises to save his people from sin. He promises forgiveness. But the only way a just God, who is a perfect judge, can take away the consequences of sin is if someone else would pay for these sins. Zechariah looked forward to a political rescue, and perhaps a spiritual rescue. But he didn’t realize that this Son of David, the one his boy John would point to, would have to die in order to achieve that salvation. That’s what Jesus would do. He would live the perfect life that no human being besides him has lived, yet he would die to take on the sins of everyone who turns to him in faith. All the covenants of the Bible are connected, and all of them are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus died to take the penalty of the old covenant, the one that focused on the law, and his death inaugurated the new covenant, the one marked by the activity of the Holy Spirit. On the night before he died, he took the cup of wine that was drunk in the Passover meal and he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).[6] Everyone who trusts that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus has done what the Bible says he has done receives the benefits of that new covenant. We can be forgiven for all the wrong things we have done.

Zechariah probably didn’t know this or couldn’t have imagined it, though in a famous passage in Isaiah 53, there is a servant of Israel who suffers for the sins of the people. But Zechariah knew, as he says in verse 78 and 79, that “the sunrise [of God] shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He knew that he and everyone else was in darkness, living under the long, looming shadow that death casts. It seems that death swallows up everything and that the world is a dark place. Nothing within the world can stop death. Nothing in the world lives up to the promises the world makes to us. We hear a lot about “peace” at Christmas, yet we often don’t feel peaceful. We see beautiful lights at Christmas, but those electric lights don’t penetrate the depths of our soul. They don’t remove our sadness or loneliness. They certainly don’t remove our sin. Neither do the gifts we give, or the food and drink we consume.

We need a light from outside, a light from outside this world, outside this universe. And Jesus is that light. He is the Lord, who is God, but he also became man. In perhaps the greatest miracle, Jesus was and is the God-man, uniting the two parties of God and humanity that had been separated by sin. He saves those who turn to him in faith. As another prophet, Malachi said, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2). Jesus is God’s light, the light of the world (John 8:12), who shines on our darkness, revealing our sin, but also bringing life and healing to those who will confess their sin and their need for a Savior.

Zechariah is a model of faith. At first, he doubted God’s message and he was made deaf and dumb for a while. But he eventually came around and trusted God and acted on that faith. And then he was able to speak and praise God. Notice that Zechariah says, in verses 74 and 75, that God delivered his people “from the hand of our enemies,” so that this people “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all [their] days.” Why does God save a people? Why does God save anyone from sin, from death, from condemnation? He does it so that they would serve him. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7; 12:31). And God rescues people from slavery to sin so that they would serve him. Jesus is not some “insurance policy” we use once we die to get into heaven. He’s not a golden ticket or a lottery ticket. He’s certainly not a genie. Jesus is not just a Savior, he is also a King. And those who trust him will serve him.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think of two ways that it applies to our lives. One, salvation and faith lead to service. We see this in Zechariah’s life. He trusted God and then praised God. His son, John, would serve God by calling Israelites to turn from their sin and to the Messiah, to receive forgiveness. Salvation should lead to changed hearts, hearts that love and praise God, hearts that are thankful, and hearts that are ready to serve. That was true for the Old Testament Israelites and it’s true for us.

It seems that Zechariah thought salvation was for the Israelites, and his hymn focuses on God’s promises to his Israelite forefathers. But Gentiles are included in the new covenant. In the Old Testament, male Israelites had to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant community. In the new covenant community, you have to have your heart “circumcised” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You have to be born again, and this is a gift of God. If you trust in God, you have received that gift. The apostle Paul said of Christians, “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). If you worship God by the power of the Holy Spirit and glory in Jesus, you are part of God’s people. If you put no confidence in your “flesh”—your strength and abilities—then it shows you are trusting only in Jesus to make you right with God.

If you have been reconciled to God through Jesus, are you living for Jesus? Do you serve Jesus by serving his church? Do you serve Jesus by obeying him in your whole life?

The second thing I want us to see is that God’s salvation is not always what we imagined it might be. Many Israelites seemed to think that when the Messiah came, he would bring about a political deliverance. He would destroy the enemies of God and God’s people and establish a visible, political kingdom. They didn’t realize that he would come in two stages. They didn’t realize that first the Messiah would come and live a life of righteousness and then die an atoning death for his people. They didn’t realize that he would rise from the grave, ascend into heaven, and come back in the future to put an end to all enemies and establish a new creation. But that’s what God did and will do through Jesus. Jesus came once to save us from sins. But he will come again in the future to judge. And, for those of us living in the in-between times, life is not always easy.

Some people may wonder think things like, “If Jesus is real, then why is there still evil in the world?” Or they may ask you, “If your Jesus is real, why is your life not better?” Of course, most people won’t say that to you, but they may think it.

Salvation is not the promise of a “good life” now. Yes, Jesus rescues us from the condemnation that comes with sin. But after we put our trust in Jesus, we still wrestle with our sin. We still must be on guard against the powers of darkness. We will still die. God never promises an easy life. In fact, he promises a hard life. Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them and that they would face tribulation (John 15:18–25; 16:33). But Jesus said he overcomes the world (John 16:33) and he promises his followers the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In other words, God gives us his presence, he gives us himself. And though life is sometimes hard, he gives us comforts and joys along the way. And the final promise is eternal life in a perfect world with him and all his people. In that new creation, there will be no more enemies, not even the enemy of death.

The reason why that promise hasn’t come true yet is because when Jesus returns to destroy all of God’s enemies, he will remove all evil from the world. He will judge everyone who has rejected him and he will cast them out of the world and into hell. God removes evil by removing evil from people who trust him or by removing evil people who reject him. But when Jesus comes to make all things new, to remove all the bad of the world, it will be too late to turn to him for salvation. So, why hasn’t Jesus come again? Because God has given us time to turn to Jesus. A life of following Jesus is not what we might always imagine. It might not be what we want. But it is most certainly what we need. Turn to him and serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all your days.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This hymn is known as the “Benedictus.” Like the “Magnificat,” that word comes from the Latin translation of the first Greek word. In this case, the word is “blessed.” (The Greek word is related to a verb from which we get our word “eulogy.” A eulogy is literally a series of “good words” said about the dead.)
  3. Clearly, Isaiah 11 refers to the Messiah. He is “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father (verse 1). He is anointed by the Holy Spirit (verse 2). And He will rule with righteousness (verses 3–5). He will usher in an age of peace (6–10). And he will bring about a second exodus (verses 11–16).
  4. The Jewish expectation at the time that Jesus was born was that a Davidic king would rescue Israel by defeating its enemies. See the non-biblical text, Psalms of Solomon 17:23–27, which was written in the second or first century B.C.:23 See, O Lord, and raise up their king for them,
    a son of David,
    for the proper time that you see, God,
    to rule over Israel your servant.
    24 And undergird him with strength to shatter unrighteous rulers.
    25–26 Cleanse Jerusalem from the nations that trample it in destruction,
    to expel sinners from the inheritance in wisdom, in righteousness,
    to rub out the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel,
    to crush all their support with an iron rod;
    27 to destroy lawless nations by the word of his mouth,
    for Gentiles to flee from his face at his threat,
    and to reprove sinners by the word of their heart.
  5. See also Mic. 7:18–20 for the hope that God would act on the covenant promises to Abraham.
  6. Read Jeremiah 33:14–26 and notice the language that connects the covenants made with Noah (a so-called “covenant with creation”), Abraham, Israel, and David.

 

The Tender Mercy of Our God (Luke 1:57-80)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:57-80. John the Baptist is born, and after he is named, his father Zechariah praises God. Find out how God always keeps his promises and, in his mercy, saves his people through the one John pointed to: Jesus.

Grace Alone

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 17, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the typescript prepared in advance.

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.[1]) 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.[2]

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.[3]

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 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— 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 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:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 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.[9] 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?”[10] 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.[11] 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.

Notes

  1. http://www.pbs.org/program/martin-luther-idea-changed-world.
  2. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 487.
  3. Ibid., 490.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. See the sermon I preached on August 27, 2017: https://wbcommunity.org/the-image-of-god.
  6. Carl Trueman, Grace Alone—Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 60.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Augustine, ConfessionsIX.xiii (34), trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 177.
  11. This concept is seen in God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6–8.