They All Ate and Were Satisfied

This sermon was preached on January 27, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?

What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?

How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?

There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.

There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.

I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.

We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.

So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:

1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.[1]

So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.

Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.

So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.

So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.

As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.

Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.

But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.

Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.

Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.

Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).

Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.

The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.

Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.

I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.

I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:

26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.

How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.

This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.

But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.

And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?

God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.

And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.

Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.

The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.

Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December.[2] As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.

Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:

Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.[3]

Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?

If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.

Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.

Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/13/china-christians-religious-persecution-translation-bible.

  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222.

 

They All Ate and Were Satisfied (Luke 9:1-17)

Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible, and both Jesus and his followers faced (and still face) opposition. Yet the good news it that Jesus makes the impossible possible. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 9:1-17 on January 27, 2019.

Your Faith Has Made You Well

This sermon was preached on January 20, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What’s the hardest thing that we can face in this life? I don’t think it’s loss of money or income. We can always get another job or hope that more money comes in. Is it rejection from people we love? I don’t think so, though rejection from loved ones is devastating. Even if our family and friends disown us and unfriend us, we can always find new people to love and be loved by. I think one of the hardest things we face in this life is the decay of our own bodies—and also of the bodies we love.

Many of us know what it’s like to be seriously ill, or to have had—or to have right now—some serious injury or condition that keeps us from being completely healthy. When your body is weak or in pain, it’s hard not to think about it. Other difficulties in life are ones that we can forget for some periods of time. Even those who are mourning or hurting over a rejection can have times when they laugh or feel happy. But a body in pain stays in pain always. And sometimes illnesses or conditions keep some people from getting out, from engaging in life the way that others do. In those cases, health problems can isolate us and make us feel alone, unproductive, and unwanted.

Of course, this hits home when it’s happening to our bodies. But it also hurts us when our loved ones have these major health problems. And regardless of whether we’re healthy or not right now, or whether our spouses or kids or parents or friends are healthy or not right now, all of us will die. Before we die, we will lose many loved ones to death. And that reminds us of our own impending deaths.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: there’s an interesting book called A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by a French philosopher named Luc Ferry, who happens to be an atheist. He describes philosophy as basically an attempt to figure out how to live in a world in which we will all die. He says this of man (and of woman, too): “He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.”[1] What is it that all humans want? “To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.”[2] Ferry says that all religions and philosophies are an attempt to find salvation from the fear of death.

Now, this might not be a very cheerful way to begin a sermon. But the reality is that all of us will face health concerns and all of us will face death. Those are things that every human being deals with, and some of us are dealing with that right at this moment. And if that was all there was to the story—your body breaks down, everything and everyone you love will pass away, and you will die—there would be no hope. But there is hope. Christianity has something amazing to say about hope in the face of illness, decay, and death. Luc Ferry, that atheist I just mentioned, says, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity—provided, that is, that you are a believer.”[3] I suppose the reason he says that is because Christianity promises life after death to believers. It promises that death is not the final word. The problem for Ferry is that he doesn’t believe it. But he admits that French students in his generation weren’t exposed to Christianity and the Bible. He likely never bothered to read strong defenses of the truth of Christianity.

At this church, we try to think about why we should believe Christianity to be true. And the greatest reason to believe is Christ himself. And the best way to know Jesus Christ is to read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each one a biography of Jesus, focusing on his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave.

For most of the last thirteen months, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re look at Luke 8:40–56. We’ll see here that Jesus performs two miracles that show he has power over both illness and death.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:40–42a:

40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.[4]

Jesus has returned from the eastern shore of Sea of Galilee, the Gentile region known as the Decapolis. Specifically, he was in a place called the Gerasenes, where he exorcised a large amount of demons out of a man. On the way there, Jesus had calmed a storm. We looked at these two miracles last week.[5]

Here, back in Galilee, a man named Jairus comes to Jesus. Jairus was the ruler of synagogue. He would have been in charge of the services at the synagogue. He was something like a lay leader, the one who decided who could read Scripture at the synagogue. He wasn’t a Rabbi or a civil leader, but he provided order and he would have been a well-respected leader in the community.

This man falls at Jesus’ feet, which shows how desperate he is. His only daughter, about twelve years old, is dying. The Greek word that is translated as “only” is μονογενὴς (monogenes), the same word used of Jesus to describe him as God’s only Son or, in older translations, his “only begotten” Son. This man’s one, beloved daughter is dying, and he begs Jesus to help her. So, Jesus goes with Jairus to his house.

Now, let’s read the end of verse 42 though verse 48:

As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. 43 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

Jesus has been drawing crowds because of his teaching and miracles. People are crowding him, pressing upon him. It’s like he’s a celebrity.

Among the people pressing against him is a woman “who [has] had a discharge of blood for twelve years.” In other words, she’s bleeding both during and between menstrual periods. I guess there’s a technical name for this: menometrorrhagia.[6] It seems she had some type of hemorrhage that couldn’t heal. Luke tells us that she “spent all her living on physicians,” but “she could not be healed by anyone.” There’s some debate about whether “spent all her living on physicians” belongs to the original copy of the Gospel. There are some early manuscripts that don’t have these words, though most manuscripts do. Luke was a doctor, so if he wrote this, it’s quite stunning (Col. 4:14). Mark says the woman “had suffered much under many physicians” (Mark 5:26).

Now, some of you here might be able to relate to this woman. You might be thinking, “I know exactly what that’s like. I’ve seen many doctors who haven’t been able to help me.” We’ve all seen people who couldn’t be healed, regardless of how many specialists they had seen and how much money they have spent.

But this woman’s condition would have caused her greater problems than mere physical ones. This had been going on for twelve years, and I’m sure her condition was inconvenient and possibly embarrassing. But what made it worse was that in her Jewish context, this condition made her unclean. This is a hard concept for us to grasp, because it’s so foreign to the way that we think. In the book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions for how the Israelites should worship and live as God’s people. There are many instructions on how to be clean. The things in the book of Leviticus that make a person unclean are not necessarily sinful, but they are the result of sin in the world. One of the things that makes a person unclean is blood, which, when it’s outside the body, is usually related to death. Various conditions, diseases, and death itself are the result of sin in the world. And sin is our rebellion against God.

When God made human beings, he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means that we were made to worship God, to reflect his greatness, to rule over the world by coming under his rule, to love him and obey him because he’s a perfect Father. But the first human beings didn’t want to live for God; instead, they wanted to be like God, to be gods who lived for themselves. They didn’t trust that God is good. They didn’t do things God’s way. So, God removed them from Paradise and put his creation under a curse, which is a partial punishment for this rebellion. This is our story, too, for we often don’t want to live for God and do life on his terms. This is why we have health problems, diseases, and death.

The book of Leviticus specifically talks about a woman bleeding beyond the time of her menstruation. This is Leviticus 15:25–31:

25 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. 27 And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 And the priest shall use one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.

31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

This woman couldn’t be touched or touch others. She couldn’t worship at the temple and probably not at the local synagogue. She was isolated, and probably frustrated, embarrassed, and apparently broke from spending money on doctors who couldn’t help. When Mark’s Gospel says she suffered at the hands of doctors, it probably means that these doctors made things worse, not better.

This woman touches Jesus in the hopes that he can make her well. Like Jairus, she knew that Jesus was her only hope. She had probably heard that Jesus had healed many other people. In Luke 6, we’re told that people came to Jesus to hear his teaching and to be healed of their diseases. We’re told, And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).

Perhaps this woman touched Jesus in this way so that her condition wouldn’t be found out by everyone. She wanted to be healed quietly, secretly. So, she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ garment.

But Jesus realizes someone has touched him. What this woman has done is not a secret to him. He senses that someone has accessed his power. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of battery with a limited energy source. What it means is that divine power was flowing through him and he was aware of it.

The disciples can’t believe that Jesus could discern that a specific person touched him and that power went from him to this person. There’s a massive crowd—how can Jesus know that one specific person touched him? But Jesus is the God-man, and he has the ability to know things that mere mortals wouldn’t know.

Jesus surely knew who it was who touched him. I say that because we’re told that the woman realized that she wasn’t hidden, that she couldn’t hide from Jesus. Jesus probably asked, “Who was it that touched me?” in order to draw this woman into making a public profession.

Like Jairus, this woman falls down, trembling, but probably for different reasons. She trembles in the presence of Jesus, the Lord who healed her. Even though she was probably afraid of speaking in public—she had been isolated for a long time—she decided to confess what Jesus had done for her.

Then, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She might very well have been older than Jesus, but he calls her, “Daughter.” She is part of his family. What made her well? Ultimately, it’s Jesus and his power, the power of God at work in and through him. But the instrument that she used to access this power was her faith. She trusted that Jesus could heal her. The doctors couldn’t. Only Jesus could fix this problem.

Does this mean that Jesus will fix all our health problems? If we trust him, yes, he will—ultimately. But not in this lifetime. He may heal some of us, usually through secondary causes—through doctors and nurses, through diet and medicine and surgery. Jesus cannot heal all illnesses without rooting out all sin in the world. Sin is the cause of illness. But if Jesus removed all sin, he would have to end human history as we know it. He would have to remove all sinners—or at least their sin. But God hasn’t done that yet because he is giving people a chance to turn to Jesus now, before that great judgment day when all of us will no longer be hidden, but will be exposed for all that we are, all that we’ve done, all that we’ve thought and desired. Our secrets will be laid bare. And only Jesus can cover up our sins.

Jesus didn’t perform miracles to eliminate all evil. He performed miracles to show his identity. He is the great physician who will heal all who come to him. He has not promised to do this now, in this life. But he will do it in the end.

Today’s story started with Jairus and his dying daughter. Then, we were interrupted by the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Now, let’s go back to Jairus and his daughter. What happened to her?

Let’s read verses 49–56:

49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” 50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.

After Jesus has dealt with the bleeding woman, a messenger comes, saying that the girl is dead, don’t bother Jesus anymore, there’s nothing that can be done. This messenger lacks hope. This messenger lacks faith.

Jesus says, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” This might have sounded like a bad joke. Apparently, Jesus said this before he took the parents and three of his disciples inside the house. Those who were weeping and mourning outside laughed at Jesus. They laughed because he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” “Yeah, right, Jesus. That’s a good one!”

But Jesus was serious. The girl was dead, but only temporarily. She was about to be “woken up.” (By the way, Jairus’ name, in Aramaic, would have been Jair, which means, “God will awaken.”) Jesus touched the dead girl—this would have made him unclean (touching a corpse made someone unclean; Num. 19:11). And at his command, the girl rises. Her spirit comes back to her. The “spirit” is generally thought to be the person’s immaterial self that continues after death, though “spirit” (Greek: πνεῦμα) can also mean “breath.” She truly was dead and is now alive. Jesus even tells people to give her something to eat—she’s really alive, in a physical body that needs sustenance.

The people are amazed, and rightfully so, but Jesus tells them not to tell others. He knows that people want someone who can bring dead people back to life. But people don’t want all of Jesus’ teaching. He doesn’t want followers who are attracted to him for the wrong reasons.

So, what do we learn from this?

First, Jesus has the power to heal. He can do what we cannot do. Of course, we have much better medicine and technology than people had two thousand years ago. But there are still many conditions that we cannot fix, or fix completely. And we will never solve the problem of death. Death is the shadow that hangs over all humanity. Only Jesus can fix that problem.

Second, we should know that Jesus has not promised to fix death right now. Even this girl, whom Jesus brought back to life, would die again. And God has certainly not promised his people that they won’t have a physical death. We will die, unless Jesus should return before the end of our lives.

Jesus’ bringing the girl back to life was a sign that he has power over death, that he can bring people to spiritual life, and that there will be a resurrection of the dead. All who trust in Jesus can never die spiritually, but they will live forever.

Jesus famously brought his friend Lazarus back to life. In talking to Lazarus’s sister, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). He is the resurrection. He is life (John 14:6). He will bring life to all who trust him. We have that life now, even though our bodies may wear out and die. But he will give us new bodies, bodies that are indestructible, that will never grow old and never die. Death does not have the last word for those who follow Jesus.

But that indestructible life will only come when Jesus returns. Christianity takes a long view of life, an eternal view. And that’s so important to keep in mind. If there is no afterlife, Christianity is false and useless. But if Christianity is true, then it means we will live eternally, either with God or separated from him and all that is good and right. God promises his people not a quick fix, but an eternal fix.

Third, think of the ways that Jesus steps into our different problems. Jairus says his twelve-year-old daughter was dying. Twelve years in that case seems so short. We have a sense that people should live much longer.

The woman was bleeding for twelve years. Twelve years must have seemed like an eternity for her.

I’m sure there’s no coincidence that the woman suffered as long as this girl was alive. God has a way of orchestrating events like this, juxtaposing things so they cast light on each other. Whether our suffering seems long, or lives are taken short, Jesus cares. And Jesus can heal.

Fourth, Jesus is for everyone. Jesus heals the outcast woman. He heals the beloved daughter of the well-respected Jairus. All who come to Jesus in faith are healed, regardless of their age, gender, skin color, ethnicity, religious background, how much sin they’ve committed, or how much money they have. The key thing is faith.

What does faith look like? It looks like trusting in Jesus, even when the odds seem impossible. It means believing that only he can fix our problems. Yes, if you’re sick, go see a doctor, but a doctor can’t give you eternal life. He or she can’t make you right with God. No amount of science, technology, money, or other human accomplishments can do that. Faith means humbling yourself, falling at Jesus’ feet, and realizing that he is God, that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. Faith means coming to Jesus for the right reasons, accepting not just his healing, but also his teaching, his leadership, his path for us.

This life is hard. Illness, disease, physical problems are hard. Death threatens to swallow everything we love up. But death is not the last word, not for Jesus, and not for his people. Do not fear; only believe.

Notes

  1. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, transs. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3.
  2. Ibid., 4.
  3. Ibid., 261.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. This sermon, preached on January 13, 2019, can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.
  6. http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=10&pid=10&gid=000100

 

Your Faith Has Made You Well (Luke 8:40-56)

Jesus performs two miracles in Luke 8:40-56. He heals a woman of a condition that plagued her for twelve years and he brought a girl back to life. Find out why this matters and what it means for us. Brian Watson preached this message on January 20, 2019.

My Lord and My God! (John 20)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message based on John 20. The resurrection of Jesus gives us hope, because all who trust in him, all who embrace him as Savior, Lord, and God, will have a resurrected life, too. The only way to eternal life and peace is Jesus.

My Lord and My God!

This sermon was preached on April 1, 2018 (Resurrection Sunday, a.k.a. Easter) by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad that it’s April. Only in the past few days has it started to feel like spring. It was a long winter, and we still have about three, small, stubborn mounds of snow at the edge of the parking lot. But the rest of the snow has melted, and the temperature is getting a bit warmer. And before too long things will start to get greener.

I love it when spring arrives, because it gives us a feeling of hope. We see signs of life after a long period of dead leaves and bare branches. The seasons of nature remind us of the seasons of life, and we can see signs of both new life and death all around us. Five weeks ago, we got a new dog, a puppy who was about twelve weeks old at the time. She’s already grown quite a bit, and she can be very playful. On the other hand, we look at our older dog, who at twelve years old is slowing down and sometimes walks with a limp.

But our lives—or the lives of our pets—aren’t like the seasons. The seasons come and go in cycles. Our lives aren’t cyclical; they only move in one direction. While we all were young at one point (if we’re not young now), we know that we’re getting older, and that eventually our bodies will decay and die. Even this past week, I saw evidence of that. Last Sunday night, I found out that the wife of a family friend died. She was probably only in her mid-thirties. She had a rare disease that caused her body to create way too many of one protein and not enough of the corresponding protein. And though she had some experimental treatments with stem cells, she couldn’t be healed. I only met her on two occasions, but I was very sad to hear about her death. She left behind a husband and two young children.

Someone else I know this week died. He was in his late sixties and had multiple health problems, including a major stroke several years ago. I saw him the day before he died. He was having trouble breathing and he wasn’t very responsive, in part because he was on morphine and was tired. He couldn’t talk. But with a bit of effort he could open his eyes and nod his head. Viewed from one perspective, it was sad to see him in the shape he was in. He was in his bed, leaning to one side, a tube bringing oxygen to his gaping mouth. He had lost quite a bit of weight, his breathing was labored, and his skin was very pale and unhealthy looking.

But viewed from another perspective, his situation wasn’t sad. And neither was his death. That’s because trusted that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God. He trusted that Jesus’ perfect, righteous life was credited to his account and that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all his sins. He trusted that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, the first day being the day when Jesus was killed by crucifixion. He believed that Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of who Jesus is and what his death accomplished. He believed that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).[1] And because he believed that, and because he embraced Jesus as his Savior, Lord, and God, I knew that this was not the end of his story. I looked at him and said, “One day, you’ll get a resurrected body, a perfect body that won’t have all these problems, a body that will never die.”

The great claim of Christianity is that there is eternal life for those who are united to Jesus. Those who trust Jesus will die. But as Jesus once said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Those who belong to Jesus will one day be raised from the dead and their bodies will be transformed, or glorified, so that they will be immortal. This will happen when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. And the reason we trust that this will happen is because almost two thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is the first installment of a new creation, a world that is made perfect, a world in which there is no more evil, disease, war, or death.

This sounds almost too good to be true. Everything in life seems to head towards a fall and the long death of winter. Can there really be an ultimate spring and an endless summer? Can there really be eternal life after death?

Well, that is the claim of Christianity. And I believe it is true. The reason I believe that Christianity is true is because it makes the most sense of life, because it provides us great hope, and because there is evidence that supports its claims.

Today, I want us to see three things about Jesus and his resurrection. One, no one would have fabricated this story. Two, I want us to see why Jesus lived, died, and rose again. And, three, I want us to see what a right response to Jesus looks like. We’ll do that by taking a look at what the Gospel of John says about Jesus’ resurrection.

We’re going to read John 20 today. We’ll start by reading verses 1–13:

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

It’s Sunday, and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb of Jesus. In the other Gospels, we’re told that Mary was with some other women, and that they went to the tomb to put spices on Jesus’ body. This was a form of embalming a body; the spices would help cover the smell of the decomposing body. Because Jesus was hastily buried, they didn’t have the opportunity to do this before he was put in the tomb.

It’s quite clear that Mary wasn’t expecting Jesus to be resurrected from the grave. She thinks some people have taken Jesus’ body from the tomb. She says this to Peter and John (“the other disciple”) and to the angels. And it seems like the disciples weren’t really expecting this. In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told, “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:10–11). Mark says that the women were afraid after they saw the empty tomb (Mark 16:8). Matthew says that even after they saw the risen Jesus, some of the disciples doubted (Matt. 28:17).

The point is that no one seemed to believe that Jesus would rise from the dead. People in Jesus’ day knew dead people stayed dead. British theologian N. T. Wright says that Gentiles weren’t expecting this sort of thing.[2] He also says that Jewish people “never imagined that ‘resurrection’ would happen to one person in the middle of time; they believed it would happen to all people at the end of time [Dan. 12:2; John 11:23-24]. The Easter stories are very strange, but they are not projections of what people ‘always hoped would happen.’”[3] The apostles weren’t expecting that a man would come back from the grave in an indestructible body in the middle of history.

If no one was expecting Jesus’ resurrection, we shouldn’t think that people simply made this story up. There is simply no evidence that a group of people fabricated this story. The details of the story would be too unbelievable to make up. After all, if a Jewish person were to make this story up, they wouldn’t have women being the first witnesses of the empty tomb. In the first century in Palestine, a woman’s testimony was almost useless. In that male-dominated society, a woman’s testimony would be heard in court only in rare cases.[4] Now, that’s not a biblical or Christian view of women, but that was what people believed in that day. If you were making up a story, you wouldn’t have women as the first witnesses. You would likely have rich men or priests see the empty tomb first.

Also, the apostles would have nothing to gain by making up this story. Christianity put them at odds with the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that controlled the whole area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This area included good portions of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. Christians occasionally died because of their faith. The earliest Christians were Jews, and the Roman Empire tolerated the Jewish religion. But it did not tolerate Christianity for almost three hundred years. Who would make up a story that would lead to their own death?

There are many other reasons to believe that the resurrection is true. You can read about them in the article that was included with your bulletin.[5] If you read that article, you’ll see that it points you to some online resources if you want to learn more.

The second thing I want us to see is why Jesus’ death and resurrection matter. Let’s read verses 14–23:

14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

It was early in the morning and still dark when Mary went to the tomb. And she was now weeping. So, it’s understandable that she wouldn’t recognize Jesus. She assumes this man who is now talking to her is a gardener. That’s a reasonable guess, since Jesus was crucified and buried in a garden (John 19:41). When Mary hears her own name called by Jesus, she recognizes who is talking to her. Perhaps that’s an echo of what Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel. He called himself the good shepherd who leads and lays down his life for his people, his sheep. He said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3).

But perhaps Mary wasn’t so mistaken. Maybe Jesus is a bit of a gardener. Bear with me for a moment. The big story of the Bible says that God created human beings in his image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26), to reflect his glory, to serve him and to obey him. Essentially, we were made to know and love God, to live all of life under God’s authority, and to let others know about God, too. At the beginning of the Bible, God made the first two human beings and he put them in a garden. I think this is a literal event that also has symbolic meaning. The first human beings were supposed to keep the garden (Gen. 2:15) and they were supposed to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). And if you think about it, you start to get this image: Outside the garden is wilderness, a wild, undeveloped area. And as God’s image bearers worshiped and obeyed God and as they were fruitful and multiplied, having children who also worshiped God, they would be able to expand the garden until it filled the whole earth so that it became a paradise, full of the glory of God.

Now, that sounds like a beautiful thing. But there’s a problem. The first human beings didn’t trust God and obey him. They doubted his goodness. They wanted to be like God. In effect, they tried to remove God from his throne. As a result, God kicked them out of the garden, into the wilderness. And as a partial punishment for sin, God put his creation under a curse. Now, life would be hard; people would die. God did this to limit the rebellion of human beings. God loves his creation and doesn’t want evil—particularly the evil of rebellious human beings—to ruin it.

Now, if you’re reading the Bible thoughtfully and you read the first three chapters of the Bible, you may wonder, “How can we get back to the garden? How can we get back into God’s presence? How can we have a right relationship with him? How can go to a place where we will never die?”

As you read the Old Testament, you see how all human beings are rebellious. And, frankly, you don’t have to read the Bible to see that. Just look around. Look at how rebellious even little children can be. We can’t make our lives into a garden. We can’t remove all the weeds from our lives, let alone the whole world. People have tried, and they have failed, again and again.

The only solution comes from God. God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the world. He did that in part so that Jesus could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. Jesus is the only person who perfectly loved, obeyed, worshiped, and served God. He is the ultimate image bearer of God, the true image and likeness of God. He is the perfect human being, the only one who has any right to live in the garden of God.

But how can Jesus bring people like us into the garden? We are made unclean by our sin, our disobedience to God, our rebellion against him, our ignoring him. God is a perfect judge who must make sure that the guilty receive the appropriate sentence for their crimes. God cannot allow rebels to live in his garden, so the appropriate sentence is death. Really, when we choose to turn away from God, we turn away from the source of life, and we find a world of death. No one forces us to do this. We choose this willingly, because we don’t love God.

The only way that Jesus can bring us into the garden is to take that sentence of death on himself. That’s what he did on the cross. He died to pay the penalty for our sin. He endured God’s punishment against sinners on the cross. “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

And when Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first fruits of a new garden. Quite literally, the resurrected Jesus came out of the garden tomb as an immortal being, the second Adam planted in a garden. And he later ascended to heaven, where he is now with God the Father, praying and pleading for his people, serving as their great high priest. But someday he will come again, to judge everyone who has ever lived. Those who have turned to Jesus in faith, trusting that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, will live in a garden paradise forever (Rev. 22:1–5 echoes the garden imagery of Gen. 2).

Jesus told his disciples, “Peace be with you.” The only way to have real peace in this life, the only way to have peace with God, is to know Jesus. Jesus said to the Father, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). That doesn’t mean that knowing facts about God gives us eternal life. No, it means we must know God because we have a relationship with him. That is what brings us peace. We don’t earn a relationship with God. We don’t make ourselves acceptable to God. No, we must simply receive salvation as a gift.

Now, I want us to see what a right relationship with God looks like. Let’s read verses 24–31:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

When Jesus appeared to the other disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. Thomas gets a bad rap. He’s known as “doubting Thomas. For him, seeing is believing. But earlier in John’s Gospel, Thomas said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16). So, Thomas was a person who followed Jesus and trusted him. Still, he couldn’t believe that Jesus had risen.

Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas. Instead, he appears to him and to the rest of the disciples on the following Sunday. And Jesus invites Thomas to see him and to touch him.

When Thomas see Jesus, he cannot help but say, “My Lord and my God!” One of John’s goals in writing his Gospel is to make it clear that Jesus is God. He begins his Gospel that way (John 1:1) and here at the end he records Thomas’ confession of faith.

People who truly believe in Jesus know that he is Lord and God. I think we generally understand what the word “God” means, but it’s hard for us to understand what “Lord” means. When we hear that word, we may think of the House of Lords in London. The word sounds antiquated. But John’s initial readers would have known what was being said. During this time, the superpower of the world was the Roman Empire, and its leader was the emperor, also known as Caesar. And Caesar was known as Lord. According to one dictionary, Lord means “one having power and authority over others.”[6] Caesar was the most powerful man in the world.

He wasn’t just known as Lord, but he was also known as “the son of God” and a “savior.” There is an inscription of a decree made in 9 BC by an official in the eastern part of the Roman Empire that says the birthday of Augustus—the emperor reigning over the Roman Empire at the time Jesus was born—should be celebrated. This official wanted the calendar to be reset to the emperor’s birthday, in 63 BC.[7] The inscription claims that Augustus was a “savior”[8] and “our god.”[9] Coins in the Roman Empire had titles of the emperor on them: divi filius (“son of God”) and pontifex maximus (“greatest priest”). In the Roman Empire, the Caesar was worshiped as a god.

So, when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” he’s saying that Jesus is the true God, the true Lord, the true King, the world’s true ruler and ultimate authority. Thomas swears his allegiance to Jesus, not to Caesar.

The earliest Christians were willing to die rather than compromise that allegiance to Jesus. They would rather die than bow before the emperor and worship him. One of John’s students was a man named Polycarp (69–155), who became the bishop of Smyrna, which is now known as Izmir, a city in Turkey. He became a martyr, a Christian who died for his faith. At the time of his execution, some people tried to convince him to worship the emperor and therefore be saved from death. They said, “Why, what harm is there in saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense” (and other words to this effect) “and thereby saving yourself?”[10] But Polycarp refused. Then, “the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’”[11] When Polycarp was told he would be burned by fire, he said, “You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.”[12]

True Christians recognize that Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord and God. I don’t think we have proper categories to understand what “Lord” really means. The most powerful man on earth is probably the president of our country, yet no matter who is in the White House, it seems like at least half the country hates him and doesn’t recognize his authority. And the president’s authority is limited, of course. But Jesus is Lord over everything. And when we come to him as Savior, he becomes Lord over all of our lives, not just our Sunday mornings or whenever we feel like being religious.

I think the reason many people don’t embrace Jesus is that issue of authority. We simply don’t want someone else to be Lord over our lives. That is why people reject Christianity. It’s not because Christianity is irrational or illogical. It’s not because there is no evidence to support the claims of Christianity. We have eyewitness testimony from several different witnesses, and the basic claims of Christianity are supported by philosophy and science. I think people often ignore that evidence because they don’t want a Lord.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, an atheist, wrote these words several years ago: “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”[13] He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”[14]

We don’t want there to be a Lord God because we don’t want someone telling us what we can and can’t do, particularly in important areas of our lives like sex, marriage, money, how we use our time, and how we treat people who are different from us. I think people know that the Christian life isn’t an easy one, and they don’t want to take what they think is the hard road. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[15]

Yet if we reject Jesus because we reject his authority, we also reject his blessings. He said that those who believe—even when they haven’t seen him in the flesh—are blessed. John says he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe and have eternal life in Jesus. If you know Jesus, you know God and have eternal life. But if there’s no Lord Jesus in and over your life, there’s no eternal life for you. So many people say, “Rest in peace,” after someone has died. I’m here to tell you the truth: the only way to rest in peace is to have a right relationship with Jesus, the kind of relationship that Thomas and Mary Magdalene had. We will all have that moment when our bodies will fail. We all will die, whether in a sudden accident or slowly on a bed, tubes connected to our bodies, morphine in our veins. What happens next? Will you have eternal peace? You will if Jesus is your Lord and God.

We will all come under some authority. Something will rule over us, whether it’s something that we treasure the most or even our own desires. Entertainment, pleasure, money, politics, and almost anything else can function as our lord and god. But Jesus is the only God who would sacrifice his life for you. He’s the only Lord who can die for your sins and make you right with God. No one else, and nothing else will do that for you. I urge you to put your trust in him. And if you don’t know Jesus, please talk to me. I would love to help you know him and follow him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “Nobody in the pagan world of Jesus’ day and thereafter actually claimed that somebody had been truly dead and had then come to be truly, and bodily, alive once more.” N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 76.
  3. N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 192.
  4. Flavius Josephus the Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities 4.8.15, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
  5. Brian Watson, “Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ.
  6. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003).
  7. John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 133.
  8. M. Eugene Boring, “Gospel, Message,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 2:630.
  9. Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones, 2:458, quoted in Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, 133.
  10. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 8, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 233.
  11. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 9, in ibid., 235.
  12. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 11, in ibid.
  13. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130.
  14. Ibid., 131.
  15. G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World? (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1912), 48.

 

Who Can Forgive Sins But God Alone?

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 18, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below)

Cleanliness is next to godliness. That’s apparently what the preacher John Wesley said in a 1778 sermon.

There’s some truth to that, though it’s easy to misunderstand. But we all know that cleanliness is important, and if things aren’t clean, there will eventually be trouble.

At the very end of last year, just after Christmas, the weather was extremely cold. And during that cold spell, our car started making some terribly loud noises when we started it. It was a low, loud groan, that kind of sounded like an angry cow. This went on for a few days, and one day when I had to drive somewhere early in the morning, it had a hard time steering, as if the power steering had gone out. So, I tried calling some mechanics and the local Honda dealership to see if I could get the car looked at. Because of the holidays, they had limited time slots, so they were booked solid. The best I could do was make an appointment for after the New Year.

So, I went online trying to figure out what might be wrong, to see how urgent this condition was. I saw some articles that suggest there might be a problem with the power steering. So, I followed the advice of one blog and took a turkey baster to suck up the old, dirty power steering fluid, and I replaced it with new fluid. It seemed to work pretty well. But then in February, I took the car to the dealership to get an oil change and to have them look at this situation. They told me there was a leak in the power steering fluid pump (the angry cow), and that I need to have that fixed, as well as get some other things done on the car. I’m not a car guy, but I like to get things taken care of on the car sooner rather than later, so that there aren’t bigger problems down the line. So, I had some preventive maintenance done.

I imagine that part of the reason why the powering steering pump wasn’t working well during the cold was because I was overdue for a power steering fluid flush and change. When the power steering fluid gets dirty, and when any water vapor gets in the lines, there can be problems during cold weather. So, dirty fluid led to problems. The same would be true if I never changed the oil. If you try to go 20,000 miles with dirty oil, your car is going to suffer.

The same can be true of our bodies. If our blood isn’t clean, or if our digestive tract isn’t clean, we can have problems. If you eat a terrible diet and never exercise, you’re going to have problems. It’s quite possible your arteries will get clogged with plaque, which could lead to serious and even fatal problems.

Now, while it’s important to take care of your vehicle, having a car that has clean fluids and runs well won’t get you closer to God. And though it’s important to take care of your body, being healthy doesn’t make you a godlier person. But there’s a different kind of health, one that is more important, and that is the health of your soul. And if we want to have an abundant life, a healthy life, a life that fulfills the purposes for which we are made, we have to be made clean. If we want to see God and live forever with him in paradise, we need to be spiritually clean.

The only one who can clean up our souls, who can provide forgiveness of sins, is Jesus. The only way to have true, lasting health—in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our souls—is through Jesus. Today, we’ll see that Jesus has the power and authority to clean people and forgive them. We’ll see this in Luke 5:12–26.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for over three months. Luke is one of the four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. He begins his story of Jesus with the events leading up to—and including—Jesus’ birth. And after describing a brief episode of Jesus as a boy, Luke focuses on Jesus’ public ministry of teaching and performing miracles. We’ll see that continue today.

First, let’s read verses 12–16:

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.[1]

Jesus is in one of the cities in Galilee, perhaps in Capernaum, where he was before. While there, he encounters a man who has leprosy. When we read about leprosy in the Bible, we may be confused, because it’s different from what is called leprosy today. What we know as leprosy today is also known as Hansen’s disease, which is named after the person who identified the microorganism that causes that skin disease. In the Bible, the term “leprosy” can describe a variety of skin conditions.

What’s most important to know is that this man’s skin disease has made him unclean. And that was his biggest problem. He doesn’t say, “Lord, if you will, you can heal me.” No, he says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”

Now, to understand this issue, we have to know something about what the Bible says about diseases and being clean. And to understand this, we have to understand something about the nature of sin. Last week, I said that sin was a rebellion against God, a turning away from our Creator and turning to value the creation instead. We were made to know, love, and worship God but we have turned away from him. We don’t seek a relationship with him—at least not a right relationship with him. We don’t love him the way we ought to. We don’t worship him all the time. We don’t do what he wants us to do. In other words, we don’t live according to his design. And because of that turning away from God, we have a broken world. When we turn away from the God who ordered and arranged the world, we find disorder and chaos. When we turn away from the God who is love, we find hate and war. When we turn away from the giver of life, we find death. Part of the penalty of sin is a world full of disease and ultimately death.

So, the ultimate reason there are diseases like leprosy in the world is because of sin. That doesn’t mean there’s a direct connection between a person’s sin and an illness they have. It’s not that all people who have diseases have done some particularly awful sin. Some very healthy people are great sinners, and some very godly people have a lot of ailments. So, there’s no one-to-one connection between the amount of sin in a person’s life and their bodily health. But the reason anyone has a disease is because of the presence of sin in the world. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. There’s only person who never did, and that’s Jesus.

Now, in the Old Testament, we find that God calls a people, the Israelites, to himself. He rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and then he gave them his law, which taught them how to live. And when you read through that law, particularly the book of Leviticus, you find a lot of information about skin diseases (Leviticus 13 and 14), in particular. And sometimes it’s all a bit baffling to us. But the idea is that in order to be part of God’s people, you had to be clean. Now, on one level, this makes perfect sense. The Israelites didn’t have modern medicine and diseases are contagious. In order to protect the health of the people, those who had diseases had to be removed. They often were placed outside the camp until they became clean, or healthy. So, the idea of keeping the unclean people on the edge of the community made perfect sense.

But the law also addresses issues in a symbolic way. The idea that you get when you read the book of Leviticus is that in order for the Israelites to approach God in worship they needed to be pure. They needed to be cleansed of their sin. Anything that made the Israelites impure made them unfit to be in the presence of God. And since diseases are ultimately the result of sin, those who were diseased couldn’t be part of the community. They were ostracized. That was a visual picture of the contagious nature of sin. Sin needed to be removed from God’s people. Sin corrupts. Sin has a way of being contagious, spreading throughout one body and on to others.

Because this man had leprosy, he would have been shunned by others. He would have been considered untouchable, for to touch someone with leprosy would make that person unclean. A leper was treated like someone who was less than human. Just listen to these words, found in Leviticus 13:45–46:

45 The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

So, this leper that Jesus meets has a skin condition that causes him to be “alone” and “outside the camp.” I’m sure he wants to be healed, but what he really needs is to be made clean.

What’s amazing is that Jesus heals the man by touching him. He didn’t have to touch the man. Jesus has the power to heal just by saying a word. But he intentionally touches the man, showing him that he is indeed a human being worthy of love and care.

When Jesus heals and therefore cleanses the man, he tells him not to tell others, but to go to the priest and to bring an animal sacrifice. In the Old Testament law, priests were the ones who examined people to see if they were healed. And if the person was healed, then that person had to offer animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices made that person clean (see Lev. 14:1–32).

The idea that animal sacrifices could make someone clean is strange to us, but the idea is simple, and it goes back to that root problem of sin. Because we have sinned against a holy, perfect God who made us for himself, we deserve death. In part, that’s because our sin corrupts God’s good creation. God wants to cleanse the evil from his creation. And evil deserves punishment. But God is also merciful and gracious, so he provided a way for unclean sinners to be made clean. Instead of us dying for our own sin, a substitute death could take place. In the Old Testament law, the substitutes were animals. An animal’s life could be taken instead of a human’s life. And, like the rest of the law, this had a teaching element. It taught that sin is a serious crime that deserves the most serious punishment. But it also taught that the God could allow the punishment to be taken by another.

This healing shows that Jesus has the power to heal unclean people. No Old Testament priest or prophet could heal a leper with just a touch. But Jesus also is righteous, obeying the demands of the Old Testament law.

And when people start to hear of his healing powers, they gather around him. In Mark’s account of this story, “Jesus could not longer openly enter a town” because of these crowds. Therefore, he “was out in desolate places” (Mark 1:45). Here, we’re told that Jesus went to those desolate places to pray.

When Jesus came to earth over two thousand years ago, his job was not to heal every disease. The miraculous healings he performed were not a new form of healthcare for all of Israel. No, they were signs that were meant to point to his identity as the one who would heal people of the root cause of illness, which is sin. But people are people, and if there’s a way to be healed, they want that. So, they crowded around Jesus. But Jesus needed time to be alone. He needed time to rest, and time to pray. Jesus is the Son of God, which means he is divine and has perfect union with God the Father. But as a man, Jesus also needed to spend time praying to his Father, talking to him. So, he withdrew to spend time in prayer. Jesus often prayed before important moments in his life.[2]

Perhaps Jesus prayed at that time because he was getting ready for the conflicts that he would have with various Jewish religious leaders. We see the first of such conflicts in the next paragraph, Luke 5:17–26:

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

Jesus’ teaching and miracles attracted a crowd. They also attracted the attention of some Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees were one of four major groups of Judaism at that time.[3] They were lay leaders who took a particular interest in how to be faithful to the Old Testament law. To do that, they developed a system of applying those laws to many situations not explicitly described in Scripture. The teachers of the law, otherwise known as scribes, were those who could make judgments as to whether the law was being followed. Luke tells us that these religious leaders were coming from all over to see Jesus.

At this time, Jesus is teaching in a building, and it is crowded with people. When Mark reports this event, he said that Jesus “was preaching the word to them” (Mark 2:2). And while Jesus is preaching, a group of men carry another man on a stretcher. This man was paralyzed, and his friends bring him to Jesus to be healed. The problem is that they can’t get through the crowd to get to Jesus. So, they find another way. In those days, houses were simple structures. They had a flat roof that was accessible by an outside staircase. In hot weather, people could sleep on the roof. So, they bring the man up the stairs, and then dig through the roof so that they can lower their friend to Jesus. These are some motivated people! They must have been a bit desperate, but they knew that Jesus alone could heal their friend.

When these men get their friend to Jesus, Jesus can sense their faith. They trust that Jesus can heal their friend. But he does something unexpected. Instead of healing their friend, he simply says, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” That would be like going to your doctor, hoping to get medicine, and him reading some Scripture to you instead. You might say, “That’s nice, but I really was hoping you’d fix my body!”

We may not understand what’s happening here, but these Jewish leaders did. They thought to themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Why would these ask those questions? Think about this: who can forgive an offense? The person who has been offended. But we have no evidence that this paralyzed man had done anything to offend Jesus directly. We’re not told that he lied about Jesus, called him names, stole something from him, or anything like that. So, how can Jesus dare to forgive this man? It would be strange if you got into a fight with someone in your family and I came along and said, “You are forgiven.” I had nothing to do with that conflict. How could I forgive you?

Well, the answer is that Jesus isn’t just a man. Jesus is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God. The true, living God is triune. He is one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God doesn’t have a body. He is spirit. His immaterial. And yet, over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a human being, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in a virgin’s womb. He was born as any baby would be, he grew as any child would, and he lived as a common—though sinless—Jewish man. But he is still God. And God has the power to forgive all sins.

So, when Jesus says this man’s sins are forgiven, he is telling the truth. But these Jewish leaders don’t believe that Jesus is God. So, they question him. And Jesus knows the secret questions they have, so he answers them with another question: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” In one sense, saying either thing is equally easy. They’re just words. But the difference is that if Jesus just says, “Your sins are forgiven you,” there’s no clear evidence that anything has occurred. There’s no physical event that happens when you are forgiven. So, Jesus can say this man is forgiven, and no one could prove him wrong.

But it’s different if you say to a paralyzed man, “You’re healed. Get up and walk.” In that case, others could see whether that happened or not. That’s why Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” The man does just that. He gets up and goes, glorifying God. That miracle proves that Jesus has the authority and power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins. The people were amazed and they glorified God. But, as we’ll see, the Pharisees weren’t impressed. They can’t deny Jesus’ power, but they don’t trust him. So, they will later slander him and say that his power is demonic (Luke 11:14–15; John 10:19–20).

So, what do we learn from this passage? How does it affect our lives?

I think there are at least two major things we can learn from this passage. One is that while physical health is important, and we all want physical healing when we’re sick, there’s something more important. Ultimately, our spiritual health is the most important thing.

People can be very healthy in this life and be very far from God. You can devote all your time to diet and exercise, to preventative medicine, and have a long life. You may be fortunate to die at an old age, without having a heart attack or a stroke or cancer. Perhaps you’ll be one of those rare people who die peacefully in your sleep. But if you have that and you’re far from God, your physical health may last only for eighty, ninety, or even one hundred years.

But if diseases and handicaps afflict your body now, and your sins are forgiven because you trust in Jesus, your bad physical health will only remain for decades, whether those decades are few or many. You will die, just as all of us will die. And at that point, your spirit will be in heaven with Jesus. But that’s not the end of the story. All of God’s people will be resurrected. That means that their souls will be rejoined to their bodies. But those bodies will be transformed—we call this “glorified” in theology—so that they are perfect. Those bodies will be immortal. They will never die, let alone have any diseases.

So, if you focus only on physical health now, you won’t get it in the end. You’ll ultimately experience condemnation, a dreadful, eternal existence apart from God and anything good. But if you focus on spiritual health now, you’ll get physical health thrown in, and that physical health will last forever. That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t focus on taking care of their bodies. We should. But there are more important issues.

Several years ago, I had surgery to heal a herniated disc in my back. I was a bit apprehensive about having surgery, particularly after one of my doctors explained all that could go wrong on the operating table. And he said, “There are worse things than dying.” I think he meant that I could be paralyzed or have some other outcome that would be worse than simply dying during surgery. But it’s true. There are worse things than facing physical death. The Bible describes final condemnation as a second death. All who reject Jesus will face a spiritual death, which is far worse than we can imagine.

Now, if you’re here today and you don’t know where you stand with Jesus, you may not understand why sin is such a problem. If that’s the case, I would urge you to listen to last week’s message, which you can find on our website or on our podcast channel.[4] In short, sin is a rebellion against God. The only reason anything exists is because God created it. God created this universe for his glory. He created this planet for his glory. He created life on this planet for that purpose. And he created human beings to know him, love him, worship him, represent what he is like, and rule the world by coming under his authoritative word. But we reject God. We may not think of our attitude toward God as rebellion or rejection, but if we’re not living our lives for God, thinking about him, his design for our lives, and his will, then we’re ignoring God. If we don’t truly love God simply for who he is, we’re rejecting him. And if we’re not following his design for our lives, thinking we know better than God, we’re rebels. That’s a serious problem, one that corrupts us just the way an infectious disease might destroy a healthy body.

If you don’t know Jesus truly, if you’re not relying on him to heal your soul, I urge you to put your trust in him.

If you do know Jesus, take the issue of cleansing from sin very seriously. We should prioritize healing of sins. We should be praying for the salvation of the lost more than we pray for someone’s physical condition. There are worse things than dying.

And we should take seriously the contagion of sin. I’ll talk about this after the service, but I’ll say this now: Sin that goes unchecked has a way of spreading. And just as a body can be damaged by a disease, the body of Christ, the church, can be damaged by sins. Yes, we’re all sinners, so we will fail, often in small ways. But there are larger sins, sins that are particularly egregious, that we must root out of the church. Any division, any slander, any fighting against one another, any rebellion against God-ordained authority, sexual sins, false doctrine—these things have to go. We don’t deal seriously with sin in order to beat up on other people, or to act “holier than Thou,” or to be judgmental. We take sin seriously because it’s bad for us. We should want spiritual health, both individually and within this church.

The second thing we should take away from this passage is that Jesus has the authority and power to heal. And he has the compassion to do so. Obviously, Jesus performs miraculous healings. Some of us may be skeptical about the possibility of miracles. If that is the case, you should know that science cannot disprove that miracles take place. In order to do that, scientists would have to observe and measure every single event that has ever taken place in history. If you stop and think about that, such observation would be impossible. And many credible witnesses throughout history have reported seeing miracles take place.

The Gospels are reliable historical documents, and they all agree that Jesus has the power to perform miracles. He can do so because he is the God-man.

He also has the power to forgive sins. Again, he can do that because he is God. But on what basis does Jesus forgive sins? In other words, how does Jesus forgive sins? Does he simply sweep them under the carpet and forget about them? Does he relativize them and say, “Oh, don’t worry, you’re not so bad. Sure, you made a mistake, but who doesn’t?” No. Jesus doesn’t take sin lightly. In fact, he goes so far as to say that no one is good but God (Luke 18:19) and that the world is evil (John 7:7). So, how can Jesus forgive sins if he doesn’t take them lightly or just set them aside?

The reason Jesus can forgive sins is because he would die to pay the penalty for them. Each Gospel depicts Jesus’ death. He didn’t die of natural causes. No, he was tortured and crucified, executed in a horribly painful manner. And he wasn’t executed because he had done anything wrong. Yes, people like the Pharisees hated him and wanted to get rid of him. But, ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to crush sin instead of crushing all sinners. When Jesus died, he didn’t just experience a physical death. He experienced a spiritual death, alienation from his Father. He endured hell on earth, suffering that goes far beyond mere physical pain. He did this so that he could take on the condemnation that sinners deserve. But his death only pays for the sins of those who put their trust in him, who come to him in faith knowing that he alone can heal, who come to him in love and humility knowing that he is King and God.

Jesus has the authority and power to heal. But he also has the love and compassion to do so. He touched a leper, an outcast. This would be like someone in the 1980s touching a person dying of AIDS. In those days, we didn’t know a lot of about HIV and AIDS, and there was a great fear. People who had that disease were rejected and feared. But Jesus isn’t afraid. He comes to people who have a far worse condition than AIDS—he comes to people who have the malignant, rapidly-spreading, defiling and contagious disease of sin—and he heals them. Let us come to Jesus for healing, so that he can forgive us of sin, cleanse us of sin, and transform us so that we become healthy.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Jesus prayed before the Holy Spirit descended on him, shortly before he was tempted in the wilderness (Luke 3:21). He prayed all night before he called his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12). He prayed before Peter’s confession and his first prediction about his death (Luke 9:18). He prayed at the time of his transfiguration (Luke 9:28–29). His prayer led to his disciples asking him how to pray (Luke 11:1). He prayed on the Mount of Olives before his arrest (Luke 22:39–44). And he prayed on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46).
  3. The others were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.
  4. https://wbcommunity.org/let-down-your-nets.

 

Who Can Forgive Sins But God Alone? (Luke 5:12-26)

How can we truly be healthy human beings? The only way to be made whole is to receive the healing, cleansing, and forgiveness that Jesus can give. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 5:12-26.

Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

This sermon was preached on December 21, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).
Additional thoughts related to the virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18–25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.[1]

You know the story: in a quiet, unassuming, small town, an amazing event happens: a visitor from far away arrives in the form of a baby. He was sent by his father from a distant place on a mission. And though the world did not take notice of this baby, his human parents raised him, and he grew in strength and wisdom. One day, though, the world would know the identity of this incredible man. He would confront evil and protect the weak. He would stand for truth, justice, . . . and the American way. That’s right, I’m talking about Superman.

It’s interesting how many parallels there are between Superman and Jesus. Superman was sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth from the planet Krypton, just as God the Father sent Jesus, his Son. Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which is very close to what in Hebrew means “voice of God,” while Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1). Kal-El, or Clark Kent, grows up in a small town in Kansas. Superman grew up in a small town in Galilee. The last Superman movie, Man of Steel, has many other allusions to the Jesus story, such as Superman being 33 when he starts his ministry—I mean, mission.[2] It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. I think there’s something in the human heart that realizes that things aren’t right. The world is not right. We’re not right. We need someone to help us. It’s no wonder superhero stories have been created. Superheroes are like us, but they’re much more. They’re more powerful, more heroic, more noble. We long for a hero like Superman who will come and make things right.

And we long for deliverance from the predicament that we’re in. A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, Interstellar. I don’t want to spoil the movie in case you plan on watching it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future. Something bad is happening to the Earth: a blight is preventing crops from growing and the food supply is growing short. So a plan is hatched: a select group of astronauts and scientists will try to find another planet where humans can live. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say this: the makers of the movie put their hope in science and humans. In this movie, there is no God; there are no superheroes. There are only humans, humans who have science, humans who are brave and risk everything for family, humans who evolve in ways that are impossible for any species to evolve. And it is this evolution that transcends the dimensions of time and space, helping humanity survive. We are our own saviors.

Granted, superheroes and sci-fi movies are fiction. But this hope for deliverance from the human condition and even death is found in the real world. Some people think that if only we get the right medicine or the right technology, or perhaps the right political leaders or public policies, we will make real progress. Consider the example of Ray Kurzweil. I first heard his name because he invented a high-end synthesizer, a musical keyboard. But he has also invented the flatbed scanner, among other things. He’s been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He believes that immortality is possible, that by 2028, we will be able to add one year to our lives per year, effectively keeping death at arm’s length forever.[3] He also believes that by 2045, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, so that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and computers. We’ll have little robots—nanobots—in our bodies, fighting infections, and in our brains, connecting our minds to cloud computing. And some people think the concept of God is far-fetched!

All of this shows that we know we need help, and we all put our hope in something, whether it’s a hero, or science, or God. I would say that this hope is religious, whether the object of faith is humanity, science, or a divine being. The makers of Interstellar and Ray Kurzweil cross the line from science to scientism, more of a philosophical position. We all put our trust in something. However, the human experience has been remarkably consistent for thousands of years: We live, we love, we fight, we die. In order to transcend our situation, we need something brand new—a brand new start, a brand new creation.

That is what the virgin birth of Jesus is all about. The Christian claim is a bold one: the human condition is in such bad shape that nothing short of God becoming man to rescue us will work. So, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to become man. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature, so he could identify with us in every way. Yet, unlike us, he remained morally perfect, never disobeying God. He lived life the way that we should. And here’s the crazy thing: the only perfect person died on the cross, to bear the penalty for our disobedience. He did this so that everyone who is united to him by faith will be spared the penalty for sin: eternal death in hell. That’s the Christian claim.

Recently, I read this wonderful quote from a theologian, Don Carson:

If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.[4]

And that is exactly what we see in the passage that was just read. In Matthew 1:18, we see that the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—causes Mary, a virgin, to become pregnant. Joseph, who was in the process of becoming her husband, assumed that she had an affair with another man. He was ready to divorce Mary. But an angel told him that what had happened: this was no normal pregnancy, but a supernatural one. What was the purpose of this miraculous conception? That Jesus would save his people from sin. That’s what his name means. In Hebrew, his name would be Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or, “The Lord saves.” Matthew also tells us (in verses 22-23) that this pregnancy fulfills something that was predicted roughly seven hundred years earlier (in Isaiah 7:14), that a virgin would conceive, and the child would be called “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In other words, Jesus is God in the flesh.

The other biblical account of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke 1. In that passage, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Son of God (v. 32, also v. 35). Then Gabriel continues, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32-33). Jesus is God the Father’s Son, which means he perfectly represents and obeys God. And he is the heir of David’s throne. That means he is the promised King who will reign over his people forever. This was something God promised to David a thousand years earlier.

So Jesus is a new type of man, a man completely unlike any other. Because he is God, he can be perfect in every way, and he is eternal and consistent: there never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when Jesus didn’t or will not exist. And he will remain perfect and faithful in every way, for God does not change. But because he’s man, he can be our substitute. In a sense, he’s the one who comes in to the world and cleans up the mess that we’ve made. He fills in for us. Imagine you’ve committed a horrible crime and are going to go to jail for the rest of our life. Then picture the most successful person you can imagine—whoever that is for you— taking on that sentence for you, going to jail so you can remain free. But not only that, he gives you all his success: his money, his fame, his social standing, his family—everything. That’s what Jesus does for his people, those who have a relationship with him marked by trust, love, and obedience.

We see in this episode with Mary that God takes the initiative. Just as God takes the initiative in creating the universe, he does the same in saving his people. Mary wasn’t looking for this special role that God gave her. No one was expecting that God would become a man to save his people. But God did it all. This is how he works.

Now, there is quite a bit of confusion about the virgin birth and there are many objections. Let me deal with the confusion first. Let’s clear up a couple of obvious things first. The Gospel writers—Matthew and Luke—knew that this was not how people normally became pregnant. They knew this was a miracle. Luke was a doctor. He may not have known, with great specificity, how women became pregnant, but he knew that a human father was needed. The other obvious thing in this passage is that, as opposed various legends concerning mythical gods, God did not have sex with Mary. We don’t know exactly, scientifically speaking, Mary became pregnant. The Bible doesn’t speak in scientific language, because it was written roughly two thousand to thirty-five hundred years ago. But it’s clear that any sexual intercourse was not involved.

There are other confusions, however. The Catholic Church has taught at least two errors regarding Mary that are related to the conception of Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was sinless. Catholic theologians thought that because she was the “Mother of God,” she would need to be without sin, for how else could Jesus be sinless? So they taught that she was sinless and that her own conception was “immaculate.” But this is not a teaching found in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church. It only became official Catholic doctrine fairly recently, in 1854.[5] The clear teaching of the Bible is that every human being—everyone outside of Jesus—has sinned (Rom. 3:23). What makes Jesus so unique is that he alone is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Even Mary realized that she needed a Savior, as she says in her famous song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

Put quite simply, the Bible does not teach that Mary was sinless. Rather, it teaches that all humans are sinful and in need of a Savior. If Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t need salvation and she wouldn’t call God her Savior.

The Catholic Church also teaches that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[6] Yet this claim is also unbiblical. First, Matthew 1:25 says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” That means they had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. That’s important because the Bible does not teach that sex, within the context of marriage, is sinful. Sex is a good gift to be enjoyed. Second, the Bible refers to Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 6:3; 13:55; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). The Catholic Church tries to say that the term “brothers” can mean something besides literal, biological brothers.[7] That’s really a stretch, and against the clear meaning of the text. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 says Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son, not “only” son.

Nothing in the Bible elevates Mary to a status above the rest of humanity. She is special because God chose her for a special, unique role. And she is a great example of faith and submission to God’s will. But if we elevate Mary to a higher status, we take away from Jesus’ unique standing as the only sinless human being.

Those are the confusions. Next, let’s consider the objections. Some people say that the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth in Matthew and Luke can’t be trusted. They say there are contradictions or inconsistencies between these accounts. I have written about some of these issues, and you can find those articles on our website. (If you missed last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go back and listen to that message, too.) The two accounts are not contradictory. Rather, they’re complementary: together, they give us a fuller picture of what happened at Jesus’ birth.[8]

Some people think that because the rest of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ conception and birth, these accounts must have been made up. Well, the only two birth narratives of Jesus are in Matthew and Luke, and nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts these accounts. Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all, and John starts off with something greater: Jesus is the preexistent “Word” of God who is God (John 1:1). So, this is a very weak objection.

Another objection, one that is far more common, is the claim that the story of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is becoming more popular, particularly on the Internet, but it’s been around for a while. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823 about Jesus’ birth:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.[9]

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom who was born out of her father Jupiter’s head. So, Jefferson considered the virgin birth of Jesus just as mythical. By the way, Jefferson, when he was president, created his own version of the Gospels. He stripped away all the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, so there were no miracles and no resurrection. That’s the kind of Jesus he wanted: a moral reformer, not God.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote this: “I do not think the evidence for the Virgin Birth is such as would convince any impartial inquirer if it were presented outside the circle of theological beliefs he was accustomed to. There are innumerable such stories in pagan mythology, but no one dreams of taking them seriously.”[10] More recently, the argument that the story of Jesus’ birth is based on myths was advanced in a 2007 “documentary” that has been popular on Netflix, called Zeitgeist: The Movie. This film has includes a lot of false information.[11] Just to give you an idea of what I mean: one part of the film states that 9/11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by the U.S. government. But this is the kind of stuff that circulates in the world.

It’s true that there are many stories of gods and goddesses who were conceived in odd ways. But these stories don’t really parallel the story of Jesus being conceived by a virgin through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These other stories are very different. Consider Mithra, a Persian god. (The Greek name is Mithras.) He was supposedly born out of a rock. That’s hardly like the story of Jesus. If you actually look at the stories of gods and their births, you see that usually, a god (often Zeus) impregnates a woman who had been, up to that point, a virgin. But this is not the story of Jesus. I already said that the Bible does not depict God as having sex with Mary. That’s what Zeus does, but it’s not what God does.[12]

These stories are also clearly myths, not rooted in history the way the Gospels are. This part of one of those stories, found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.[13]

This is clearly not an historical account. Mary Jo Sharp observes, “In Hesiod’s story, there are no clues as to whether these events took place in a physical location that could be found on a map, or somewhere otherworldly. There aren’t any recognizable landmarks or historical names that might be cross-referenced with historical records of the time period.”[14] But Matthew and Luke do provide physical locations, as well as the names of political rulers and events, so that we have some knowledge of where and when Jesus was born.

So, the argument that the Jesus story is based on myths is false. There are no true parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception in Mary’s womb. And the Gospels are historical documents, corroborated by other historians and archaeology.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this story is simply that it’s so miraculous. Anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist, or that miracles are impossible, simply can’t believe this story, regardless of the evidence. But what if there’s good reason to believe that God exists, and that he can do amazing things? Then what?

There are several arguments for the existence of God. One of them is called the cosmological argument. You can read all about it online at the church website: wbcommunity.org. Go to the “Media” tab and then click on “Articles” and you can read it there. The cosmological argument is about the universe, the cosmos. The basic argument is this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first point is simple. You and I came into existence at one point, and we had causes: our parents. And they had causes: their parents. And so on. In other words, nothing comes from nothing. If something had a beginning, another person or thing caused that something to come into being.

The second point has been proven by science. The universe, at one point in time, came into existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists assumed that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning. But a few discoveries quickly challenged that assumption. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. This theory was mostly concerned with gravity. Einstein was actually trying to prove that the universe was static, not expanding or contracting, but his equations actually showed that the universe was expanding. He didn’t like that finding, because it suggested that at some point, the universe had a beginning, so he fudged the numbers. (A few years later, a Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and a Belgian astronomer, George Lemaitre, both recognized that Einstein had made a mistake.)

Meanwhile, another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was using the most powerful telescope of his day, and he noticed that galaxies were receding farther away. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. All of this suggested that the universe was expanding. From this knowledge, scientists were able to create a model of the expansion of the universe. They suggested that at one point, long ago, the universe was extremely dense, and that a cosmic explosion resulted in the universe that is expanding today. In fact, at one point in time, all the mass, energy, and space of the universe came into existence.

Some physicists suggested that if this cosmic explosion actually happened, we would find some cosmic radiation on the edge of the universe. In 1965, a couple of physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this cosmic background radiation. They later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[15]

This is what Robert Jastrow, an astronomer and an agnostic, writes about this theory of the origin of the world:

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[16]

So, the universe came into existence at some point. Therefore, it had a cause. Yet some scientists believe the universe created itself. But that’s not a scientific position. It’s a faith position. Personally, I think it takes a lot more faith to believe the universe created itself than to believe that God created.

The only cause that could create a universe like ours is God: an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who is eternal.[17] God never came into existence. He has always been. That’s part of what makes him so unique. And if God can create a universe out of nothing—no matter or energy or anything else—why can’t he create a baby out of a virgin’s womb? The creation of the universe out of nothing, and the creation of a baby out of a virgin are unique acts, done for special purposes: to create the world, and to save the world.

I think the connection between the creation of the universe and the creation of baby Jesus is very important. In Matthew and Luke, there is a strong suggestion that when Jesus came into the world, he was a new creation. In the Genesis account of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth. The Holy Spirit “hovered” over Mary, coming upon her to create a baby. And when the baby grew up, he was baptized, to identify with sinful humans even though he never sinned. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, too, and God called him good, just as he called the universe he made good.[18]

The reason why Jesus became a baby was because that initial creation became spoiled through sin. Sin is disobedience, lawlessness. It’s a rejection of God. But it’s not just breaking individual laws and commands. Sin is a power. It’s a force. It’s what twists our desires and perverts our thoughts. And part of God’s punishment for sin is death and disease and everything else that’s wrong with the world.

So when Jesus became a baby, it was the start of a new creation. God was starting something brand new. Salvation couldn’t come from us. Fixing the world couldn’t happen just by improving our education, or our government, or our technology, or anything else. The solution had to come from God. He had to create something brand new. He had to create a man completely unlike any other man—or woman—who had ever been born. That’s who Jesus is—the new man, the perfect man.

When he entered into the universe, the creator entered into his own creation. That’s like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays so that he could die in place of, say, Hamlet. It’s an amazing thought. That shows the extent that God will go to rescue his people.

There’s much more to say about all of this. If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, keep coming. Keep listening to these sermons and reading some of the resources I’ve put on our website.

But I want you to think about this: If God can create the universe out of nothing, and if he can create a baby out of a virgin’s womb, he can do anything. There is nothing he can’t fix, and there’s no one he can’t save. That’s why the Bible uses the language of creation when it talks about salvation. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The God who can make the universe out of nothing can take spiritually dead people—which is how all of us start out—and make them into new creations. He can do that with anyone.

No matter what issue you are facing today, it is not too big for God. No problem is too big for him to solve. That doesn’t mean that he will solve everything in this life. Unless Jesus returns, we will all die. But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible ends with a recreation of the universe. The new creation won’t have death, disease, decay, pain, hunger, thirst, or any other bad thing. It will just be God and his people in a perfect world.

This universe is broken. Sometimes, it feels cracked, distorted, without hope and without sense. But God didn’t give up on his creation. God came down to us. He came into filth of this world, in the midst of animals. He lowered himself in order to lift us up. With such a God, there is always hope. That’s what Christmas is about: the promised hope of rescue came to earth in the form of a special baby.

If you don’t know God, call on him today. Ask him to make you into something new, a new creation. Ask him to transform your life. Ask him to give you faith so you can trust him.

If you’re already a Christian, what are some of the impossible issues you’re facing today? Bring them to God. Ask him to solve your problems. Ask him for strength. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him to create something new in your life.

Consider what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  2. Jordan Hoffman, “‘Man of Steel’ No Longer Man of Shtetl?” Times of Israel, June 13, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/man-of-steel-no-longer-man-of-shtetl/ (accessed December 20, 2014). For other parallels between Superman and Jesus, see Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 Ways,” Gospel Focus 289, https://gospelfocus289.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
  3. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Will Google’s Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html (accessed December 19, 2014).
  4. D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), 109.
  5. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. In part, it says, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491-93 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 123–124.
  6. This doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §499-500, 126. Even stranger, they claim that the birth of Jesus was supernatural. So Ludwig Ott, a Catholic theologian, claims, “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to her hymen, and consequently without pain” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch [Rockford, IL: Tan, 1960], 205, quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 133 n. 52).
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church §500, 126.
  8. Regarding the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, many biblical scholars have noted the Semitic character of Luke 1:5-2:52. Luke was a Gentile who wrote elegant Greek. After beginning his Gospel account, the language reflects a Hebraic background. Many scholars think that this reflects Luke’s sources. According to I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 46), “the narratives [of Luke 1-2] betray a Semitic background to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Lk.-Acts. The whole atmosphere of the story is Palestinian. The language too is strongly Semitic.” Regarding the poems, or songs, he writes, “the case for postulating Hebrew originals for the canticles is very strong” (47). He concludes, “It appears most probable that Luke had sources at his disposal, and that these came from Palestinian Jewish Christian circles which had links with the family of Jesus” (48-49). Therefore, it would appear that Luke used early, original, eyewitness sources in constructing his history of Jesus’ birth.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html (accessed December 18, 2014).
  10. Bertrand Russell, “ Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 200.
  11. For a thorough refutation of the claims of Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). By presenting false information about Horus, an Egyptian god, and other mythological gods such as Mithra(s), the movie tries to show that Jesus is but a myth. Here’s an example of the poor reasoning of the film: other gods were son gods. They were associated with the son. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Now, that sun/son wordplay works nicely in English, but in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the term for sun is helios and the term for son is huios. These don’t sound the same. Jesus is referred to as light in the Bible (most prominently in John 8:12), but his being Son has nothing to do with the sun. His sonship represents the perfect relationship he has with the Father: he perfectly represents God, and obeys him. The fact that Jesus is light metaphorically refers to the way he exposes and drives away darkness. It has to do with the revelation of truth and righteousness. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are not identical either.
  12. Mary Jo Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013) 193-94: “Here are the so-called virgin births of five of the gods who are frequently compared to Christ: Mithras is born out of a rock on the banks of a river under a sacred fig tree. Adonis is born out of a myrrh tree. Dionysius is produced from an incestuous relationship between the god Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Osiris is the product of an affair between an earth god and a sky goddess. And while Osiris and Isis are fetuses within the womb of the sky goddess, they have intercourse and produce Horus.”
  13. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (accessed December 17, 2014).
  14. Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed,” 188.
  15. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978; quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 106-107.
  17. It should be noted that many atheistic scientists and philosophers deny that God exists. They try to find other ways of explaining the universe. The Oxford-educated atheistic philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett writes, “What does need its origin explained is the concrete Universe itself. . . . It . . . does perform a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [New York: Viking, 2006], 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 151.) This claim is not scientific, and it expresses a faith position, one that excludes the existence of God.
  18. There are also connections between Jesus and Adam, who was formed out of dust through the “breath of life” (most likely the Holy Spirit). See Genesis 2:7. It is no accident that Jesus is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 10, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

 

Our lives can change in a moment. A single phone call, email, or text message could give us news that would alter our lives forever. A chance encounter with someone could do the same thing.

Have you ever noticed that many movies begin with an average person who gets caught up in some kind of intrigue? Perhaps the person witnesses a murder and then becomes a target for the bad guys. Or maybe the person meets a superhero or an alien. That’s what happened when Elliott met E.T., or when Jonathan and Martha Kent found the infant Kal-El, otherwise known as Superman.

Today, we’re going to look at a story of a very average young woman, perhaps a teenage girl, who is visited by an extraordinary being. She is given news that not only changes her life, but also changes the whole world. Of course, I’m talking about the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Last week, we began reading the Gospel of Luke together. We saw that Luke begins his history by saying that while others had compiled narratives regarding Jesus, he saw fit to write an “orderly account” of what God had done. He says that his account is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1–4).

Luke begins his story with an old priest and his wife, who was barren. While Zechariah is serving in the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife will have a child named John, who will turn people to God. John the Baptist will tell people to get ready for the coming King of Israel, the Messiah.

This week, we learn that Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, also receives news from the angel Gabriel. But her news is even more unbelievable. In Elizabeth’s case, her pregnancy was a miracle because she was past child-bearing age and had previously been unable to have children. But Elizabeth still conceived in the usual way. However, Mary’s pregnancy is more miraculous, because she had never “known” a man before.

Let’s find out what happens to Mary and how she reacts. We’ll do that by reading Luke 1:26–33:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[1]

In last week’s passage, we found out that Mary’s relative, Elizbeth, had become pregnant and had hidden her pregnancy for five months. It is now the sixth month of her pregnancy. The same angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary, who lived in a small city called Nazareth, which was at least 65 miles north of Jerusalem, where Gabriel had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Put it this way: if Jerusalem was Boston, Nazareth was Oakham. What, you’ve never heard of Oakham? I had never heard of it until yesterday, when I looked on a map and found that it’s about 65 miles west of Boston. The point is that Nazareth was Nowheresville.

And Mary wasn’t anyone particularly special. She was a virgin, probably still a teenager, and betrothed to a man named Joseph, who just happened to be of the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Being betrothed to someone was similar to being engaged, but much more serious. When a man was betrothed to a woman, he would pay the father of the woman a bride price, there would be witnesses, and the man would be known as the woman’s husband. Yet the marriage ceremony and the consummation of the marriage would come about a year later. In order to break off a betrothal, there needed to be a divorce. The point is that Mary was betrothed to Joseph but they were not married and had not consummated their relationship.

One day, this ordinary young woman was visited by an extraordinary being, an archangel. I say that Mary is “ordinary” because there is no indication in this passage or in the whole Bible that she is anything other than a normal person. This is one place where Roman Catholics and Protestants part ways. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary had an “Immaculate Conception” that made her free from all sin. Strangely, this didn’t become official Catholic doctrine until 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of
Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.[2]

The Catholic Church also teaches, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”[3] However, there isn’t even a hint of this in the Bible. Instead, Gabriel says that Mary is “favored” or “graced.” She has been a recipient of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean she was sinless. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). All, except for Jesus. What makes Jesus so special is that he alone didn’t sin.

I said this last week, but it bears repeating: God made a good world that became corrupted by sin when the first human beings turned away from him. When that happened, sin entered into the world. Sin is more than just bad choices. Sin is a power that has deep roots within each one of us. It distorts our desires. We were made to know, love, and worship God. But our sinful nature causes us to love everything but God. Instead of making God the center of lives, we make something else—something inferior—our objects of worship. We find our comfort, safety, pleasure security, meaning, and hope in something other than God. That is why God sent a Savior, his Son, to rescue us. There is no indication in the Bible that Mary was any different than you and me in that regard. She needed a Savior just as much as we do.

But Mary “found favor,” or grace, with God. The same is said of Noah (Gen. 6:8), and we have no reason to believe Noah was sinless. But Mary, like Noah, was chosen for a special purpose. Gabriel says she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. We’re not absolutely sure, but the name Jesus may mean “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”[4] At any rate, Gabriel says he will be great and will be called “son of the Most High.” In other words, this child Jesus is the Son of God.

Gabriel also says that Jesus will inherit the throne of David, the premiere King of Israel, who lived about a thousand years earlier. God told David that he would have a son who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13). The prophets promised that this offspring of David would be the perfect king, reigning with “peace . . . justice and . . . righteousness.” But not only that, he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7).

For those of us who are familiar with the Bible, we get so used to this message that we tend to forget how truly awesome it is. Imagine that you live in Nowheresville and you’re a Miss Nobody, and you’re told that your child will be the Son of God and a king who reigns forever. Forever is a long time. How can a mere human being reign forever? How can a mere human being also be called the Son of God? How could anyone believe such news?

Mary didn’t seem to doubt that this could be true. She might not have fully realized that this child would also be God, that, somehow, the eternal Son of God could be joined to a human nature. But she had a question. She wondered how she could have a child when she was just a virgin. So, Gabriel tells her. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary literally says, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?” She knows that in order to have children, a woman has to “know” a man sexually. Since she hasn’t known a man to this point, she’s wondering how she can have this special child. Will this child come from Joseph?

Gabriel gives her the answer. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Son. I hate to say this, but in our sex-obsessed culture, I must: There is no hint here of the Holy Spirit having sex with Mary, though there are myths in the ancient world of gods having those kinds of relationships with women. There is no hint of such strange things in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is immaterial, having no body. However, the idea of the power of God “overshadowing” is present in Scripture. That Greek verb is used in the translation of the Old Testament when the glory cloud “settled” on the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35). The idea also reminds us of the beginning of the Bible. The Bible famously begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then there is the second verse: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Mary’s womb, we might say, was “void,” until the Spirit of God “hovered” over it and caused life to emerge. Jesus is a new creation. The first creation was spoiled by sin, but Jesus will be unspoiled by sin. He will be holy, not because Mary was first unstained by sin. No, the reason why Jesus is holy is because he has a supernatural conception. This breaks the power of sin that has been passed on from generation to generation. This is the true miraculous conception. Without having sex, Mary became pregnant because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

People find this hard to believe. Are we really supposed to believe that a virgin could become pregnant? I gave a more thorough defense of the virgin birth three years ago in a sermon called “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin.” You can find that on our website under the sermon series, “Who Is Jesus?”[5] I would encourage you to listen to that sermon or read it to find out more. But if you’re wondering why something like this should be believed, let me ask you, how did the universe get here? The best mainstream science suggests that the universe began at one point in time. All matter, energy, space, and even time itself have a beginning. How did this come about? Many atheists try to dodge the question of the origin of the universe by suggesting that this universe is part of an endless cycle of universes being born and dying, but that just pushes the question further back. If that were true—and we have no evidence that it is—who or what sustains that cycle? Others posit the so-called “multiverse theory,” that our universe just happens to be one of countless parallel universes. But who created them? At least Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett was honest enough to make the claim that the universe “perform[s] a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.”[6]

So, which claim is more reasonable, that the impersonal, material universe created itself, or that a personal, all-powerful, eternal, immaterial God created a material universe out of nothing? And if God can create a whole universe out of nothing, what is creating a baby out of a virgin?

Let’s just say we believe the universe did create itself out of nothing, or that it’s always been around in some form or another, and that’s just the way it is. What about the origin of life? We now know that even simple life forms are incredibly complex. The simple single-celled organism, with its DNA and molecular machines, is spectacularly complex. What accounts for this?

In the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein interviews two atheists. One is Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and a former professor at Florida State University. Stein (perhaps best known as the teacher who keeps saying “Bueller? Bueller?” in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) asks Ruse how life emerged from an inorganic world. Ruse says one popular theory is that life emerged “on the backs of crystals.”[7] Richard Dawkins, another atheist and an evolutionary biologist, believes that life on earth could have been “seeded” by a “higher intelligence” from somewhere else in the universe. In other words, aliens could have planted life here.[8] Seriously. He doesn’t say how alien life started, so this again pushes the question back further. What is more believable? That a highly intelligent, all-powerful God designed life, that life emerged by chance “on the backs of crystals,” or that aliens—whom we have never seen and whose existence requires its own explanation—planted life on earth?

Yes, it may be hard to believe that a virgin could conceive, but I think it’s harder to believe that this universe could come from nothing or that life, with all its rich complexity, could emerge from some unintelligent, unguided process, or through the actions of ALF or E.T. If God can create a universe out of nothing and life where there was none, he can cause a virgin to become pregnant.

Perhaps the virgin birth isn’t the biggest miracle. Just yesterday I happened to read some of Martin Luther’s words on Mary. According to Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux said that there were three miracles in this passage. Luther writes, “Saint Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.” Then, Luther adds, “The last is not the least of the three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be the mother of God.”[9]

What’s amazing about Mary is that not that she was sinless or remained a virgin for her whole life. Neither of these things are true. What is amazing is that she believes. After she hears this news, she says the famous words that would inspire the Beatles: “let it be.” She says, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is a model of faith, a model of submitting to God’s plans for her life.

After the angel speaks to her, Mary goes to her relative, Elizabeth. Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant; perhaps Mary wanted to see that this was true. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived somewhere south of Jerusalem, some 80–100 miles away from Nazareth. This was no small trip for someone who would have to walk. Let’s read verses 39–45:

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Elizabeth is pregnant, with John the Baptist in her womb. And when Elizabeth greets Mary, John leaps. John’s role is to point to Jesus, and he even does this before he is born. The Bible consistently shows that the unborn are human beings.

Elizabeth, like John, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she says that Mary is blessed. Elizabeth also says that Mary’s child is blessed, and she wonders why “the mother of my Lord should come to” her. Elizabeth calls Mary’s baby “my Lord.” What a strange thing to say of an unborn baby! By my count, the word “Lord” is used twenty-seven times in the first two chapters of Luke. In the other twenty-six times, the word clearly refers to God. I think this is a hint that Elizabeth somehow knew this unborn child was not just the Messiah, an anointed king, but also God. Elizabeth also says that Mary is blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is blessed to be chosen as the mother of Jesus, and she is blessed that she believed.

I have to add the following as evidence that Mary is not a sinless superwoman. Later in the Gospel of Luke, a woman in a crowd says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). Now, this would be the perfect time for Jesus to say, “Yes, my mother is blessed because she is full of grace, immaculately conceived, without sin, and still a virgin!” But does he say that, or anything like it? No. He says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep” (Luke 11:28). Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus is told his mother and brothers are waiting to see him (Luke 8:19–20). Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

The point is that Mary believed God’s word and responded in faith, and that is what makes her blessed. And those who respond today to God’s word are blessed. We would do well to follow Mary’s lead.

Mary’s responds to Elizabeth’s blessing with a song, often called the Magnificat, after the Latin translation of the first word in Greek, “magnifies.” Mary probably didn’t break out into singing, but somewhere along the line her words were put into a poem. This happens often in the Bible. Truth can be expressed in verbatim reporting, but the essence of truth can often be captured in artistic form, in a poem, a song, a painting.

Let’s read verses 46–56:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

We can break Mary’s song down into three parts. First, she praises God for what he has done for her. She says she “rejoices in God my Savior,” which shows that she, too, needed salvation. She realizes that she is of “humble estate.” God has a way of choosing the unlikely, the nobodies, to do his will. He who is mighty has done great things for Mary, just as he has done great things for all who put their trust in him.

Second, Mary praised God more broadly for how he turns the tables. He scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their positions of power. Yet he exalts the humble and fills the hungry with good things.

Third, Mary praises God for helping Israel. God keeps his promises. He had promised Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that he would bless the world through his offspring. Mary realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham. Jesus is the only one who kept the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the true King, the Son of David who will reign forever.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we need to ask ourselves what it teaches us and how we can live in light of it.

First, this passage teaches us that salvation cannot be achieved except through supernatural intervention. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from a miracle. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from God coming to us. I realize that some people mock the idea of miracles. Some people think God doesn’t answer prayers. Some people think there is no God at all. But if there is no God who can intervene in our lives, there is no hope. There is no life after death. There is no hope that the world will be restored so that the curse of death is reversed. There is no hope that the brokenness of this world, including the brokenness in our bodies, minds, and hearts, can be healed and made whole.

Salvation from a world of death, from our own sin, and from God’s just and right judgment of that sin can only be found in Jesus. When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, he was the beginning of a new creation. As the Son of God, he has always existed, but when he became Jesus, he added a human nature and became the God-man. He is the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

This message humbles us, because it says we can’t save ourselves. The only way to be made right with God is for God to come to us. Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.[10]

The second thing this passage teaches us is that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Those who exalt themselves, who try to make themselves look great, will fall. Think of those atheists who reject the evidence that points to a Creator. They end up looking foolish, talking about crystals and aliens. But those who humble themselves and accept God’s offer of salvation will be made great. Jesus is the perfect example of that. Though he was and is God, he humbled himself to become a lowly human being, born to a very humble woman. He was raised a carpenter’s son in Nowheresville and lived a humble life. And he died a humiliating death when he was crucified. He was viewed as the scum of the earth. But after he died, he rose from the grave and is now exalted in heaven. Even though the world doesn’t see it, Jesus is King. He reigns forever. Will you humble yourself and come under his reign? Does Jesus rule over your life?

God still causes the proud to stumble. God still cares about the humble and the weak. Many people who have been power and powerless have found great hope in this message. They trust that one day they will be exalted because they have believed.

The third thing this teaches is the nature of faith. Mary is a wonderful example. We shouldn’t make too much of Mary. The story really isn’t about her. But she is a model of faith. She hears God’s message and she believes it. She says, “Do what you will. I am your humble servant. Let it be your will, not mine.” That is what true faith looks like. Faith trusts. Faith submits. Faith acts. If we have the faith of Mary, we are just as blessed as Mary. Mary realized that God had come to hijack her life, to take it over, and she agreed. Do we have that attitude? If we do, we are blessed. Jonathan Edwards, the famous Massachusetts pastor and theologian, once said, “’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the heart than in the womb. ’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the arms of faith and love than in the arms or at the breast as the virgin Mary had.”[11] You can have Jesus living in you through faith.

The fourth thing this passage teaches is that God doesn’t always act in flashy ways. Think about the differences between how God spoke to Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was an old man, a man of status. Mary was a young woman. Zechariah was a priest. Mary had no position. Zechariah was in the big city of Jerusalem. Mary was in the small town of Nazareth. Zechariah’s son, John, was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. But Jesus, Mary’s son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be righteous, obeying the law. Yet Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. By the standards of Jewish people, Zechariah had greater standing, and there was nowhere that God was more present than in the temple in Jerusalem. But God is not limited. He doesn’t act only in big cities and in impressive cathedrals.

When God comes to us, it might be in small ways. It might start by hearing a sermon, or reading a passage in the Bible. It might start through a prayer. We might not feel anything. But God works through humble people and God often begins something big by starting with something small. Salvation is a miracle. Faith is a miracle. Faith often starts with a small realization that this message about God is true. Faith starts with small acts of trust. And if you want that miracle of salvation, ask God for it. No matter who you are, not matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven of your sins against God. Jesus came to seek and save lost rebels against God like you and me. He died to pay for the sins of the worst criminals, if they would turn to him in faith. Do you want to start anew, to be a new creation? Ask God for it. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 124.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §493, p. 124.
  4. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 129–130.
  5. “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin,” December 21, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  6. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 151.
  7. You can view this exchange at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  9. Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary,” in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 26.
  10. Tim Keller, “The Gifts of Christmas,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 42.
  11. Jonathan Edwards, “To Be More Blessed Than Mary,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 59.

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things (Luke 1:26-56)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:26-56, which includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will have a child named Jesus who is “Son of the Most High.” Mary was just an ordinary woman whom God chose for a special purpose. Her acceptance of this role is a great example of faith. Also considered are reason why we should believe that the virgin conception/birth is true.

And so We Came to Rome (Acts 28)

Pastor Brian Watson finished preaching through the book of Acts with a message based on Acts 28. He talked about Paul’s arrival in Rome and how Paul, though in chains, was free to preach the gospel. Learn about true freedom in this sermon.