Fear Him!

This sermon was preached on April 7, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Let me start with a question: What is your biggest fear? What are you most afraid of? Take a moment to think about it. Chapman University conducts an annual survey of American fears. Here are some of the results in 2018’s survey:

73.6 percent were afraid of corrupt government officials.

61.6 percent and 60.7 percent were afraid of pollution of bodies of water and pollution of drinking water, respectively.

57 percent were afraid of not having enough money for the future.

56.5 percent were afraid of “people I love becoming seriously ill.”

56.4 percent of people were afraid of “people I love dying.”

As you go down the list, you see other items that aren’t surprising: about half of people are afraid of terrorism and wars, a significant number of people are afraid of accidents, and people are increasingly concerned about privacy issues related to personal data and identity theft. Surprisingly, only 27.9 percent said they were afraid of dying and 23.7 percent said they were afraid of hell. Even more surprisingly, only 8.4 percent said they were afraid of zombies, 8.3 percent said they were afraid of ghosts, and 7.1 percent said they were afraid of clowns.[1]

I think most people are afraid of embarrassment, pain, and loss. A lot of people are afraid of public speaking—26.2 percent in that survey—because they’re afraid they’ll be embarrassed. People are often afraid of what others will think about them. People are afraid of physical and emotional pain, which could come from accidents, terrorist attacks, abuse, and deaths. And people are afraid of loss—loss of money, loss of sensitive personal data, loss of a job, loss of a relationship, loss of loved ones, and loss of life. Those fears are all understandable, and some of us in this room have had some big fears realized in our lives.

What someone fears tells you a lot about what a person values. So, what do you fear the most? And what does that say about you?

I bring this issue of fear up because in the passage that we’re studying today, Luke 12:1–12, Jesus tells us who we should not fear, and who we should. And since Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and the Son of God, I think we should pay attention to what he has to say about fear.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a while now, and we’re in the period of Jesus’ life when he’s teaching and when he’s starting to have more and more conflict with the Jewish religious leaders of his day, in particular the Pharisees. Last week, in Luke 11:37–54, we saw that Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the religious legal scholars because of their hypocrisy. This week, we see Jesus warn his disciples not to become like the Pharisees, and to think very carefully about how they will live. And he says that who we fear will dictate how we live.

Let’s begin by reading the first three verses of Luke 12:

1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.[2]

Last week, at the very end of Luke 11, we read that the Pharisees and the scribes were plotting to trap Jesus, to trip him up and cause him to say something that would condemn him. Of course, they couldn’t succeed in doing that, because Jesus spoke perfectly. He answered all their insincere questions in ways that shut them down.

But as they were scheming, Jesus kept drawing crowds. Luke tells us that thousands of people gathered around Jesus, so much that they were “trampling one another.” And I’m sure it was his recent criticism of the Pharisees plus the large crowds that led him to warn his disciples about becoming like the Pharisees. He tells them to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” In the Jewish context, “leaven” was a bit of fermented dough which could taint a whole lump of dough. A little bit of leaven, like yeast, can affect a large lump of dough.

It’s interesting that the apostle Paul also uses the phrase, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” a couple of times in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 5, he warns the church about allowing sin to continue in the church (1 Cor. 5:6–8). In Galatians 5:9, Paul warns Christians not to try to earn a right standing with God by obedience to the old covenant law, the law that God gave Israel at Mount Sinai (Gal. 5:9). In the Didache, an early Christian document from the end of the first century (or beginning of the second century), it says, “Throw out, therefore, the bad leaven, which has become stale and sour, and reach for the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted with him, so that none of you become rotten, for by your odor you will be examined.”[3] Then it makes it clear that the old leaven in mind is Judaism, specifically adherence to the old covenant. While the meaning of the phrase is different in each context, the saying shows that certain ways of doing things are not compatible with Christianity. Hypocrisy, outrageous and damaging sin, and the old covenant are not compatible with the way of Jesus.

In this case, Jesus is warning against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Jesus’ twelve disciples might be tempted, in order to please a large crowd, to act one way in public while they lived a different way in private. They might have been tempted to lead double lives, and Jesus warns them about that. Nothing that is covered up will not be revealed. Whatever is in the dark will come to the light. That’s true of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. It’s true of Christians who are hypocrites. And it’s also true of Jesus’ identity and the truth of the Christian message. All that is true will be revealed in the end, when Jesus returns to this world and there is a day of judgment, a day of reckoning. What is inside a person will be laid bare, exposed before God. There will be no fooling God, for he knows everything about us. And the truth about Jesus will be undeniable, because we will stand before him in his glory. And it’s Jesus that we should most concerned about, not what the crowds think and what the crowds approve.

Let’s now read verses 4–7:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Again, Jesus must have the Pharisees and crowds in mind when he tells his disciples not to fear people, but to fear God instead. The Pharisees would prove hostile to Jesus, and Jesus knew that those who hated him will hate his followers. The Roman Empire was largely hostile to Christianity, too. In time, many of the original disciples would die for their faith. Others, like Stephen (Acts 7), James (Jesus’ brother), and Paul would die for their faith. Later in this Gospel of Luke, Jesus will tell the twelve that before the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, they would be persecuted (Luke 21:12). So, that people had the power to kill the bodies of the disciples is not some empty rhetoric. This was something that would happen to many, though not all of them.

Even though that threat of persecution was real, Jesus tells his followers not to fear people. The worst that people can do is kill you. Instead, fear God, who has the ability to cast you into hell. This is the only time that Luke uses that word, hell, which is literally Gehenna (Greek: γέεννα). It’s a reference to where people are punished after that great day of judgment. The name comes from a physical location, a valley south of Jerusalem called “the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” It’s a place where wicked Israelites had sacrificed their children to a false god, an idol named Molech (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31–32; 19:4–6; 32:34–35). These were burnt sacrifices: the children were burned. So, the image of Gehenna is a place associated with wickedness and burning, but it came to be used of people who would be condemned by God, cut off from him and everything that is good forever. The book of Revelation calls it the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10–15). But the torment of hell is far greater than fire, and sometimes it’s called “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12). In either case, whether the image is fire or darkness, hell is an awful fate, something far worse than we can imagine, and it’s a fate reserved for those who reject have sinned against God—which is all of us—and who don’t embrace Jesus.

Essentially, Jesus is telling his followers not to worry about the masses of people who don’t have real power. Worry about God, who has our eternal destiny in his hands. And if you belong to God, you are valuable. God knows and cares about small things like sparrows, which apparently were things that the poorest people would buy to eat, and even the number of hairs on your head. He knows these things and he cares about such little details. And if he cares about such little things, how much more will he care for his children. If you trust in Jesus, believing that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, the worst fate you can experience is rejection by others, torture, and death. But you will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world, a renewed and restored creation in which there is nothing bad—no hunger or pain, no diseases or wars, and no death. But if you live to please the masses instead of God, you will have an unending experience of decay, torment, isolation. You’ll be permanently trapped in darkness, something like solitary confinement—but far worse, and without a moment of relief.

Jesus says that everyone who has ever lived will fall into two camps: they will embrace him or deny him. Let’s look at verses 8–12:

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

Those who acknowledge Jesus will be acknowledged by God. Those who deny Jesus will be denied by God. When Jesus says “acknowledge,” he doesn’t mean that those who know Jesus lived will go to heaven when they die. The devil knows Jesus is alive. Knowing facts about Jesus is not what he has in mind. Acknowledging Jesus means knowing who he is and responding appropriately. We talk of faith or belief. If you believe that Jesus is Lord and God, you will trust that he is a good King, and you will come under his rule. If you believe that Jesus is the Savior, you will trust that he is the only one who can make you right with God, who can take care of your sins so that they are wiped away and who can credit you with his righteousness so that God will regard you as having done what is right and good. If you trust Jesus, you will not only obey him and believe in his work on your behalf, but you’ll love him.

Jesus even forgives those who have spoken against him. Look at verse 10 again: “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” If we take this verse out of context, we might be confused and even very afraid. But we have the rest of the New Testament to help us make sense out of what Jesus was saying. We can even think about specific cases. Think about one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. But after he became aware of what he had done, he had great sorrow, and he repented. He turned back to Jesus. He was forgiven. Think of Paul. Paul was a Pharisee who first had persecuted Christians. He surely spoke against Jesus many times. But when he saw the truth about Jesus, he was changed. He was forgiven. Those who had spoken against Jesus and turn back to him are forgiven. And that turning back to him must occur in this life.

On the other hand, those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus says this, he says in the context of people believing that his miracles were performed by the power of Satan. So, it appears that speaking against the Holy Spirit means ascribing his power to the devil. But the Holy Spirit does other things besides empowering people to perform miracles. The Holy Spirit later empowers the disciples to preach the good news about Jesus. We see that in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit leads some of those apostles, and others like Luke, to write the books of the New Testament. Denying the Holy Spirit means denying the gospel, denying God’s word. And not just denying once. Paul denied the gospel message for a while. But he repented and put his faith in Jesus. Jesus must have in mind those who continue to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, even to their deaths. If you continually deny God’s activity, which comes through the work of the Holy Spirit, throughout your life, there is not hope for you. And as we’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel, to deny God all you have to do is be apathetic about Jesus. Denying God may not look like hostility. It may look like a shrug and indifference.

Perhaps Jesus has something more specific in mind in the context of this passage. He might mean that the disciples might be tempted to change what they believe in the context of persecution. When the masses turn against them, and the powers that be are threatening their lives, they may be tempted to deny Jesus, to change their tune. That’s why Jesus says, in verses 11 and 12, not to be anxious about what will happen when the stand before Jewish and Roman authorities. In that day, the Holy Spirit will teach them what they are to say.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, shortly before his death, Jesus teaches the disciples that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed. The Roman Empire did this in the year 70, about forty years later. And Jesus tells his disciples this, in Luke 21:12–19:

12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

Jesus says that they will be persecuted. He doesn’t sugar coat things for his followers. He says that some of the twelve would die for their faith, and yet, not a hair of their head would perish. Of course, he didn’t mean that literally. He just said some of them would die. But that’s the worst that could happen to them. And, in light of eternal bliss, what is a bit of momentary pain? It’s nothing. It’s better to have momentary pain and eternal joy than to deny Jesus and have eternal torment. And in that context, Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Don’t think about what you’ll say. The Holy Spirit will be with you, and he’ll take care of you.”

Some Christians have used this to say that when we share our faith with others, we shouldn’t think in advance what we’ll say. But that’s not what context of this passage. When we tell people the gospel, we should prepare. We should study. We should know what we believe. We should learn how to communicate it well. We should learn how non-Christians think, what their questions are, and what their objections to Christianity are. Jesus is not excusing laziness and anti-intellectualism. Just last night, I was reading a portion of a new book on apologetics, which is a rational presentation or defense of the Christian faith. At the beginning of the book, there’s a reference to recent surveys which suggest that young people are leaving the church because the church is often anti-intellectual.[4] Jesus is not saying, “Don’t think. Don’t prepare in advance what you’ll say in any given situation.” If that were so, all my sermons would be extemporaneous, and they would be pretty lousy.

But Jesus is talking about the context of persecution, when your life is being threatened. He’s talking about a situation in which an authority, who has the power to throw you in prison or kill you, is pressing you to deny Jesus. And Jesus says, “Don’t worry.”

Maybe you’ve never thought about what you would do in that situation. I have. I have thought about it because I’ve studied enough history to know that people have been martyred. People have been pressured to give up their faith. We will likely see this more and more in this country. We won’t see Christians get the death penalty. More likely, we’ll see Christians being refused employment, losing their jobs because of their faith. A relatively small number of Christians will die each year for the faith. But many more will be beaten, imprisoned, robbed, fired, or cut off from family.

If your life was on the line, would you deny Jesus or continue to believe in him? Settle it in your minds, right now. But don’t worry about what you would say in that moment. Just focus on Jesus, and the right words will come.

When I think about this issue, I think about a recent movie by Martin Scorsese, called Silence. Scorsese is a Catholic, and I don’t know what he truly believes. But the film is thought-provoking and it’s worth seeing. It’s based on a novel which is rooted in history. In this story, some Jesuit priests travel from Portugal to Japan in the seventeenth century to check up on another Jesuit priest, a missionary who has disappeared. In Japan, the priests witness Japanese Christians being tortured and killed for their faith. The Japanese government pressured Christians to renounce their faith by stepping on images of Jesus called fumi-e. If I remember the film correctly, Christians were also forced to spit on the cross. If they didn’t perform these physical acts of renunciation, they would die. The film doesn’t present great theology, but it raises a lot of interesting questions, and it gets you to think about what you would do if you were in that situation. Settle it in your mind to believe in Jesus to the end, never to renounce him. But don’t worry about what you will say.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think a bit more about fearing God.

One thing we must realize is that there will always be a temptation to change what we believe in the face of public pressure. There will always be a large amount of people who believe things that aren’t biblical. And this creates tension for Christians. Do we yield to the masses, or do we continue to believe what Jesus taught? Do we give in to public pressure, or do we remain faithful?

This is a question the apostles had to deal with. It’s one that the apostle Paul knew well. And he often had to confront false beliefs. About four years ago, I preached through the book of Galatians. You can find all of those sermons online at our website, by going to wbcommunity.org/galatians. In that letter, Paul was confronting false beliefs taught by others, who were teaching that in order for Gentiles to become Christians, they first had to obey all of the law of the old covenant. Specifically, men had to be circumcised. And Paul said that that message was not the gospel. The gospel is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and this is a gift from God. It’s not based on our doing, but on God’s doing. Yet these false teachers were persuasive, and Christians were starting to change their beliefs. And that’s why Paul writes these words (in Galatians 1:6–10):

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Paul is saying that there is only one gospel message. There is only one message about Jesus, about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus, and it’s the message that has been preached since Jesus died and rose from the grave. There is only one gospel. And he says that even if he changes his message, and even if an angel comes to them and tells them a different message, not to believe that person. He says that false messenger will be condemned. And then he says he is not trying to please men, but to please God. If he was trying to please others, he would change his message based on public opinion. But if he was trying to please God, he would hold fast to the truth.

Paul could have used the language of fearing God. He could have said, “Do I fear man or God? If I feared man, I wouldn’t be a servant of Christ. I would say what people want to hear. But if I fear God, I must tell the truth that God revealed to me.”

The fact is that public opinion does not decide the truth. Everyone could believe something was true and they could still be wrong. There was a time when everyone thought the sun orbited around the Earth, instead of the other way around. They were wrong. The truth doesn’t change based on what others think. So, 99 percent of people could believe that something is true, and they could still believe a lie. The truth never changes. It doesn’t care about what we think or how we feel. The truth is what is real, and we don’t get to decide what is real. We may be tempted to question the truth of the Bible because others don’t believe what we believe. We’ll be tempted to alter the Bible’s message because it is offensive to some. But if what the Bible teaches is true, then to deny its message is to deny the Holy Spirit. And if we persist in that, we will be cut off from God.

So, I urge you to cling to the truth. Do that because you love Jesus. Do that because you fear God.

Some people don’t like that phrase, “fear God.” What does that even mean? Does it mean being frightened by God, being afraid of him? I think, in part, that is the case. If we understand exactly who God is, and if we understand our sin, we may be frightened. God is perfect. He is wholly other. He is above and beyond his creation. God doesn’t have a body, but it’s helpful to think that God is bigger than the universe. He has more power than all the energy in the universe. Have you ever seen the power of nature unleashed? Have you been in an earthquake? Have you witnessed a hurricane or a tornado, or even a powerful thunderstorm? Even if you’ve only seen those things in videos, you get some sense of God’s power. God is not to be trifled with.

And if you realize that you have often failed to live for God, not seeking to live life on his terms, not seeking to do what pleases him, but often ignoring him, avoiding him, and certainly not loving him, then you start to get a sense of the offense of your sin. If you really know God, you’ll start to see the ugliness of your sin. And if you know God and your sin, there should be a bit of fear in you—not a paralyzing fear, but a healthy fear. Sadly, this fear is lacking. In the survey I referred to earlier, only 14.2 percent of people said that they feared God.

But God invites us to become his friends. It’s interesting to see that Jesus calls his disciples friends (in verse 4) in the context of fearing God. We must have a healthy sense of awe in the presence of God, but we can also be Jesus’ friend. We can be his friend if we trust him. Jesus came to bring us to God. Jesus came to destroy the work of the devil (1 John 3:8) and to remove our fear of death. He did that by becoming like us. Jesus is the Son of God who has always existed, yet who, over two thousand years ago, also became a man. And he experienced temptation and suffering. He knows what it’s like to obey God, to fear him in a healthy way. And though Jesus never sinned—and he’s the only human who has never sinned and who never had the power of sin at work in him—he died by crucifixion. He died on the cross, an instrument of suffering and shame, reserved for enemies of the state, not because he was guilty, but because we are. His perfect righteousness is credited to those who trust him. And his death wiped away the record of sin of those who embrace him. If you trust Jesus, you don’t have to fear the crowds. And you don’t have to fear death. This is what the author of Hebrews tells us:

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14–15).

Fear of public opinion and death is a kind of slavery. And Jesus came to break those chains. If we trust him, there is nothing to fear but God. And that fear of God is a healthy fear, a sense of awe and wonder and love. Jesus was able to endure the cross because he had a healthy fear of his Father. If we trust Jesus and have that healthy fear, we can endure whatever suffering we may face. And if we do that, God will acknowledge us. He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21, 23).

If you fear God, turn to Jesus and trust him, and you will live forever. If you fear humans, you will be enslaved forever. The choice is yours.

Notes

  1. Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5, “The Complete List of Fears, 2018,” https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/_files/fear-2018/Complete-Fears-2018-ranked.pdf, accessed on April 6, 2019.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 157.
  4. Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 13. This observation is made by J. P. Moreland in his foreword to the book.

 

Woe to You! (Luke 11:37-54)

Jesus warns the religious leaders of his day about their hypocrisy, their failure to understand God’s word, and their lack of grace. This is a warning to us, too. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 11:37-54 on March 31, 2019.

The Kingdom of God Has Come upon You

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

As you can see, I now wear glasses. At the end of last year, it became clear to me how I wasn’t seeing things clearly. I had a hard time reading any text that was about ten or fifteen feet away. Kathy and I were away one weekend, and we visited a church that projects the lyrics of songs on screens, and I had a hard time reading the words. At first, I thought, “Why did they choose such a small font?” But then Kathy said she had no problem reading the words. Then I noticed while I was in a classroom that I had a hard time reading the names of my fellow students, which were printed in fairly large print, on cards where they were seated. So, I finally got an eye exam and I got glasses.

What I didn’t realize was that I was missing out on a lot of other details in the distance, like the branches of trees. I could see the trees, of course, but I couldn’t make out all the branches within the trees. The trees were a bit blurry. The past few weeks I’ve driven in and out of Boston, and I now can see all the definition of all the buildings in the city.

I used to have better eyesight, but over time, particularly the last couple of years, it has become worse. So, I was slowly able to recognize how my vision had become worse. But some people start out with bad eyesight. When I told a friend I had glasses, he said he is nearsighted, and he refused to get glasses for years. He thought that everyone had a hard time seeing things in the distance. If you start out with bad eyesight, you wouldn’t know what you’re missing until you get glasses or contacts. Then, you can see things as they really are.

In a similar way, we don’t start out life seeing reality clearly. I’m not talking about literal vision. I’m talking about perception. We don’t perceive all that there is to life. We certainly don’t understand life very well. What we need is a set of glasses, metaphorically speaking, that will enable us to see reality. And the Bible is that set of glasses. The Bible is God’s written word, which tells us what he is like, what the world is, who we are, what’s gone wrong with the world and us, and how things can be fixed. If we don’t see the world through the lens of the Bible, we won’t reality clearly. Of course, we’ll see important things; we’re not completely blind. But there are things that are real, and things that are really important, that we won’t see at all unless we view the world through a biblical worldview.

So, today, I want us to slip on a pair of biblical glasses to see four realities. We’re continuing in the Gospel of Luke, which we have been studying for some time now. And we’re going to read Luke 11:14–36 today. As we do that, we’re going to see four things. One, supernatural good and evil are real. There really is a God and there really is a devil and his demons. Two, we’ll see that Jesus is real and we’ll see something about his identity. Three, there is no spiritual neutrality. Four, there is no neutral response to Jesus, and we’ll see what it looks like to respond to him positively.

So, keep those four things in mind as I read today’s passage. The passage may seem like it’s drawing together some disjointed sayings. That’s probably because our Bible translations have the passage broken up into smaller sections. You can ignore those subheadings that the Bible editors put there. Those subheadings aren’t part of the original text, and while sometimes they can help, sometimes they just get in the way.

Let’s now read Luke 11:14–36:

14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.

33 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. 35 Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36 If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”[1]

The first reality we see through the lens of the Bible is that there is a supernatural good, God, and there is supernatural (or preternatural) evil, Satan, who is called Beelzebul here. That name, Beelzebul, refers back to Baal-Zebub, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 1. He is called “the god of Ekron,” one of the Philistine cities (2 Kgs. 1:2–3, 6, 16). The name means “Lord of the flies.” You may not understand any of that if you’re not familiar with the Bible, but if you’re familiar with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you might recognize “Beelzebub.”[2] Beelzebul might mean “Lord of the dwelling place (or temple).” But what matters is it’s a reference to Satan, the devil.

And in this passage, we read about demons, or unclean spirits. Jesus casts a demon out of a man. The demon had caused the man to be mute, unable to speak. Jesus also tells a cautionary tale about unclean spirits. All of this might seem quite strange, because we don’t see demons, just as we don’t see God or the devil. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. We certainly see the effects of God and Satan.

This discussion about good and evil leads us to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which is the second reality the Bible allows us to see. The question of Jesus’ identity keeps coming up in Luke’s Gospel. The four Gospels of the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are biographies of Jesus. But they’re not really like modern biographies, which generally tell about every age of a person’s life. These biographies focus mostly on two or three years of Jesus’ life, and they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about one particular week of Jesus’ life, the week that ended with his death. Luke clearly wants his readers to know who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do during that period of time.

So, the question of Jesus’ identity is brought up once again. We see that Jesus is able to heal the man who was demon-oppressed. But some people, probably Jewish religious leaders, accused Jesus of doing the work of Satan. Jesus points out that this accusation makes no sense. Why would Satan drive out his own demons? Jesus says that every kingdom divided against itself falls—that’s true whether the kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Israel, or the kingdom of the devil. Jesus points out how illogical they are being.

Then, Jesus asks, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” He’s referring to other Jewish exorcists. He’s probably referring to his own disciples, who were given the authority to cast out demons (Luke 9:1; 10:17). They will judge Israel (Matt. 19:28). His point is that if all the other Jewish exorcists are casting out demons by the power of God, then so is he. Or, to put it the other way around, if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of Satan, then so are the other Jewish exorcists. You can’t have it both ways.

But Jesus says that he isn’t casting out demons by the power of Satan. Instead, what he’s doing is proof that the kingdom of God has come. He is driving out demons “by the finger of God.” That’s an interesting phrase. In Matthew’s Gospel, in a parallel passage, Jesus says he casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). So, the “finger of God” is an anthropomorphic way of referring to the Holy Spirit. But Luke uses the “finger of God” to refer back to something in Israel’s history. In the days of Moses, God delivered the Israelites out of slavery through miracles. Moses would perform some action with his staff, and miracles would happen. What’s interesting is that the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, had magicians who could also do miraculous works. They weren’t doing these things by the power of the Holy Spirit, but by some demonic force. (That, by the way, shows that everything that appears miraculous is not from God. That’s why we have to be careful about paying too much attention to miracles.) But there were times when Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t do what Moses did. And at one of those points, the magicians say, “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19). We’re also told that the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10).

What that means is that Jesus is doing the work of God. He is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles, signs that show that he is from God. And, just as the Holy Spirit wrote the Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit is revealing who Jesus is. He’s a man, but he’s not just a man. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that he is the Son of God. He is divine, eternal. As God, he has always existed. Over two thousand years ago, he added a human nature to himself, becoming a baby in a virgin’s womb. That miracle, too, was brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the “strong man” who can bind Satan, attacking him, overpowering him, stripping him of his armor, and dividing his spoils. Jesus came to drive back the devil, to wrest the world away from Satan’s hold, to put an end to evil. John, an apostle, said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

I’ll say more about how Jesus does that, and a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do, a bit later. But first I want to point out something interesting. It’s no surprise that the Bible says that Jesus could work wonders. We would expect that. Most of what we know about Jesus is found in the Bible, and the Bible presents Jesus as the God-man, the Savior, the Lord, and a miracle worker. But we do have some other information about Jesus outside of the Bible. The Roman sources about Jesus affirmed that he lived and was crucified by Pontius Pilate.[3] There are a couple of references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of writings by Jewish rabbis. The Talmud was put together a few hundred years after Jesus. It’s not the Bible, so we can’t view it as completely true and authoritative. But it does refer to Jesus as a worker of wonders. These statements were written by people who didn’t believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews. So, one claims that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray” (Sanhedrin 107b). Another says, “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy” (Sanhedrin 43a).[4] Those rabbis were wrong to say that Jesus led Israel astray. But what’s interesting is that everyone seems to acknowledge that Jesus worked miracles and that he was an exorcist. The only dispute is whether he came from God or Satan. The claim that he came from Satan simply doesn’t make sense. The way that Jesus lived and the things he taught could never come from the prince of demons.

Before we move on to the third reality we’ll see this morning, we should note two more things about Jesus’ identity. First, he claims to be greater than Jonah, one of Israel’s prophets. If you don’t know anything about Jonah other than a whale (or, as the Bible puts it, a great fish), then join us next Sunday at 9:15. We’re currently studying the book of Jonah. And Jesus claims to be greater than Solomon, one of Israel’s more famous kings, and a man known for his great wisdom. Second, Jesus implies that he is related to being enlightened. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the one who came to reveal our true condition, to lead us out of darkness, and into life. I’ll say more about these things in a moment.

The third reality we see is that there is no spiritual neutrality. That’s his point in the little parable found in verses 24–26. Jesus describes a situation in which an unclean spirit is cast out of a person. If that person doesn’t have the Holy Spirit filling the vacuum, the demon will return with seven more. I don’t think he’s saying that this is exactly how all exorcisms work. The point is that it’s not enough to simply cast out evil. One must be filled with the good. It’s not enough to avoid doing “bad things,” whatever you think those bad things are. If you aren’t turning to Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, you open yourself up to spiritual attacks from the enemy. And you will be guided by one spirit or another. Some people say they’re spiritual but not religious. I have no doubt about that. Everyone is spiritual; the only question is whether that spirit is the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. We will either be with God or against him. We will be on one side of the dividing line or another.

In a similar way, Jesus says that we will either be filled with darkness or light. We have to look to a light that is outside of us. And that implies that all of us start out filled with darkness. If we look to the light, our whole body will be full of light. But we can only do this if we have healthy eyes, eyes that can see the truth clearly. If we don’t have eyes to see, we will be full of darkness. Jesus urges us to come to the light, to look to it and trust it. What Jesus doesn’t say here is that he himself is the light. But he implies that he is the one that we have to look at, the one we must respond to.

And that brings me to the fourth reality we see here. Just as there is no neutral position spiritually speaking, there is no neutral response to him. He explicitly says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You are either with Jesus or against him. If you’re with him, you’re doing the work of gathering people into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[5] Jesus came to call people into that kingdom, and to show that he himself is King. And Jesus uses his followers to gather people, the way a farmer gathers a harvest (Luke 10:2). If you’re not working to know Jesus and to make him known, you’re working against him. You’re allowing people to be scattered, apart from God, and therefore apart from true life and hope. The key point is that you are either under the King’s rule, doing his work, or you’re not. There’s simply no fence-sitting when it comes to Jesus.

To be against Jesus, you don’t have to be hostile to Christianity. You don’t have to be an atheist. If you’re apathetic, not really interested in following Jesus, you’re against him. So many people are simply apathetic to Jesus. I see this every Easter. On Easter, which is four weeks away, we’ll probably have twice as many people here. And that’s good. I encourage you to invite people to come here, to join us in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for more people to hear about Jesus. But so many who come will be apathetic. They may enjoy the service to some extent, but they won’t pursue a relationship with Jesus. They won’t read the Bible, pray, and worship with other Christians. They likely won’t obey other commandments of Jesus, ones that are demanding. It’s heartbreaking, really.

What does a right response to Jesus look like? Jesus gives us a couple of examples. First, he refers to Jonah. There were people who wanted to see a sign from Jesus, as though Jesus hadn’t performed enough miracles already. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew that some people will never have enough proof to believe. They will demand proof after proof after proof and never put their trust in him. They want to be in control. So, Jesus says that no other sign will be given to them other than the sign of Jonah. In this case, he probably is referring to Jonah’s preaching. Jonah was sent to one of Israel’s enemies, Assyria, specifically to the city of Nineveh, in order to tell them God’s judgment would come upon them for their evil deeds. When Jonah relayed that message to the people of Nineveh, they repented. They responded positively to Jonah’s message. In a similar way, the Queen of the south, or the Queen of Sheba, came from a great distance to see Solomon. She heard his wisdom and was amazed. She had a positive response to Solomon. Jesus says these people will rise up on the day of judgment, and they will judge the unbelieving Jewish people standing in front of Jesus.

This would have been an amazing thing for these Jewish religious leaders to hear. These Gentiles had faith, and they would judge Jewish people, the supposed “chosen people of God.” God did choose the Israelites as his people. They were rescued by God, delivered out of slavery. They received his law and many of his blessings. But that doesn’t mean that all of them believed and had a right relationship with God. No one is born with a right relationship with God. We must respond to him positively. And we do that by responding positively to Jesus.

What do people who respond positively to Jesus do? Look at verses 27 and 28. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching, a woman interrupts Jesus by yelling, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” In other words, “Jesus, your mother is blessed to have you as a child.” She’s acknowledging that Jesus is great. But Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Mary is blessed.” And if ever there were a time when Jesus would say something about Mary being sinless, which is what Catholics believe, he would have said it here. But he doesn’t say that. What he says is, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” What does it look like to trust Jesus? You believe that he speaks the words of God, and you do what he tells you to do.

Now, this does not mean that we earn a right standing with God. The Bible’s message is that we cannot do that, because our obedience is always imperfect, mixed not only with moments of disobedience, but also bad motives. We can only receive a right relationship with God by trusting in Jesus, trusting that he alone has fulfilled all of God’s righteous demands and that he died on the cross by bearing the penalty for our sin. But if we truly trust Jesus in that way, we’ll obey him. Those who receive God’s blessings also come under his rule. You can’t be a Christian and ignore what Jesus says. In that case, you’re not looking to the light. Instead, you’re remaining in darkness.

Jesus came to save his people, and to destroy the works of the devil. But he hasn’t fully destroyed those works yet. Satan is still active, and we obviously experience evil all around us and even within us. Jesus will come again, sometime in the future, and he will completely defeat Satan. The strong man will not only bind the devil, but he will destroy him. But Jesus came the first time to remove Satan’s grip on us. And he did that not by acting as a strong man. Instead, he let himself be bound. Though he was perfectly righteous, completely sinless, people didn’t believe him. They hated him. They didn’t like what he said, and they were threatened by what he was doing. So, they bound him and killed him under false charges. But this was ultimately God’s plan. Jesus allowed this to happen, because he knew that that he had to suffer the punishment that we deserve. Jesus died on the cross, and when he did that, he endured not just physical pain and death, but spiritual pain and death. He endured God’s wrath. The light of the world was submerged into the greatest darkness in order to bring us into the light. And Jesus then rose from the grave to show that he satisfied God’s demands, that he has power of sin and death, and that all who come to him will be raised from the dead when he comes again in glory.

So, what do we do with this information? We’ve slipped on our biblical glasses and seen some things that we couldn’t otherwise see. So what?

We should consider these four realities. God is real. And so is Satan. Furthermore, so is Jesus. And there is no neutral spiritual ground. We will either be with Jesus or against him. So, which side are we on?

I realize that many people find the idea of no neutrality off-putting, to say the least. Some people think that whole “we’re either with Jesus or against him” business to be very narrow-minded. They would probably say, “That’s far too black and white. The real world is full of grays.” I do believe that reality is often quite complex, and there are many situations where things are not so black and white. But just because there’s a lot of gray doesn’t mean there is no black and white. Many truths are precise and even narrow. Two plus two is four, not three or five or any number. All species of living things are either human beings or not. There are times when we can very neatly say that people are in this group or that. For example, you’re either an American citizen, or you’re not.

As I was thinking about this, I thought of the following image. We all know about the Titanic. I’m sure a lot of us saw the movie of the same name that came out in the late ’90s. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler: A large ship hits an iceberg, the ship is destroyed, and a lot of people die. There were some lifeboats, and people who got on those lifeboats lived. But those who didn’t died. Even those who had lifejackets didn’t survive, because they were in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic. So, you were either on a boat or you were dead. There was no neutral ground, no third place.

And that is a good way of imagining what the Bible tells us. God made a good world, which we might liken to a luxury liner. Things were fine on board. But then a disaster happened. The ship struck the iceberg of sin. Like an iceberg, sin might not seem so dangerous on the surface. But sin is deep and dangerous. It is a failure to love, trust, worship, and obey God the way that we should. And when the first human beings sinned, the luxury liner that God created was ruined. It’s been sinking ever since. And everyone who has ever lived is either plunging to their death or they’re getting on the lifeboat. That lifeboat is God himself, and now that Jesus has been revealed, it is Jesus. He is the only place to find refuge.

If someone rescued you from frigid waters, in which you would surely die, and put you on their boat, you would listen to them. If a captain of a ship found you drowning and he pulled you on to his ship, you probably would be grateful and while you’re on his ship, you would abide by his rules. The same is true of Jesus. If we have truly come to know him, if we’ve been pulled onto his ship, not by our own efforts, but by his, then we will be thankful, and we will listen to our captain and do what he says.

But there are many others who aren’t on that lifeboat yet. They’re on the ship that’s sinking and think everything is fine. They think, “Oh, the ship has some trouble, but we’ll find a way to patch it up someday.” Some people are in the water, thinking that they can save themselves because they’re strong swimmers. Those who think there’s nothing to be saved from will be lost. Those who think they can save themselves will be lost. But those who fix their eyes on the light, who trust that Jesus is their only hope, find salvation, and their lives are changed forever.

If you haven’t looked to the light, if you haven’t gotten on board the only lifeboat there is, then I urge you to do so now. If you’re already on board, listen to your captain. Abide by his rules. Don’t just be hearers of the word, but also be doers. And if you’re on board, look around. There are many people who are drowning. They are scattered in dangerous waters. Will you gather them? Will you try to rescue them? Do you realize they are truly lost? A nice person who doesn’t know Jesus is a drowning person who cannot save herself. Not one of us can save ourselves through our own efforts. The only hope is Jesus.

To use a different metaphor, God’s kingdom has come, and Jesus is the gate, the door, to that kingdom. He’s the only way in. Let us make sure we are in that kingdom and that we obey the King. And let us bring others along with us, urging them to find shelter in a kingdom of love, light, and life.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. That’s a reference to the song by the band Queen. The line from the song, “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me,” doesn’t quite back sense, unless we think of “devil” as a demon.
  3. For more information on sources about Jesus, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  4. Quoted in Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 214.
  5. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

 

The Kingdom of God Has Come upon You (Luke 11:14-36)

The Bible is a like a set of glasses that allows us to see realities we couldn’t otherwise see. Luke 11:14-36 shows us four realities: Good and evil are real, Jesus is real, there is no spiritual neutrality, and there is no neutral response to Jesus. Find out what Jesus came to do and how to respond to him rightly. Brian Watson preached this message on March 24, 2019.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever wanted what someone else has? Of course, you have. At some point in our lives, all of us have probably wanted someone else’s money, house, car, or job, or perhaps their popularity or celebrity. But I’m not thinking of those kinds of things. I’m thinking more about abilities or personalities. Have you ever seen someone do something so well that you thought, “I wish I could do that”? Have you ever met someone who has a certain personality trait and you thought, “I wish I was more like that”? Perhaps the ability is something practical like the ability to cook well, or to fix a car. Perhaps the character trait is something like kindness, or perhaps you wish you were funnier or more intelligent.

A lot of times, when we want something that someone else has, it’s a sin. It’s envy. Or, we might call it coveting. But there are times when we see someone able to do something, and we think, “I want to learn how to that.” That’s not coveting; it’s emulating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on our motivation. It’s not wrong to see someone who is able to cook a great meal or fix their own car and think, “I would like to learn how to do what they do.” It’s not bad to see someone who acts calmly under pressure, or who treats everyone with grace and kindness and think, “I want to learn to be more like them.”

So, let’s say you know someone who has an ability or a characteristic that you desire to have. What would you do? Perhaps you would try to copy them. But, if you really know that person well, you might simply ask, “Could you teach me how to do that?” Or, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you always act this way, and I really admire that. What’s your secret?”

I imagine that Jesus’ followers had a similar experience. They were around Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, and they saw how unique he was. He was an incredible teacher. He possessed great power—he could miraculously heal and feed people. He was able to handle stress and pressure without breaking. He never got his feathers ruffled. He was able to answer difficult questions in the most brilliant ways. He was the most spiritually mature person they ever met. He had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was selfless yet self-assured, tender yet tough, humble yet confident. There simply was no one like him.

And Jesus’ disciples must have realized that Jesus often prayed. It’s something that Luke in his Gospel brings up again and again. Jesus prayed when he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him (Luke 3:21–22). He prayed alone and then people sought after him. The result was that he taught in many synagogues (Luke 4:42–44). Jesus prayed before healing a paralyzed man (Luke 5:16ff.). He prayed before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He was praying right before Peter confessed that he is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:18–20). Jesus went with three of his disciples to pray when he was transfigured, appearing in all his glory (Luke 9:28–29). He urged his disciples to pray that more people would do the work of God and then he prayed to God with joy when his disciples returned successfully from their mission (Luke 10:2, 21–22).

So, prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life, and he often prayed at critical times. I’m sure his disciples noticed that when Jesus prayed, big things happened. Perhaps they connected his power and his abilities to his prayer life. It’s only natural for them to observe Jesus and say, “Hey, how do you do that? What’s your secret?”

And that’s what we see today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus. We’re now in chapter 11 of Luke. We’ll see what Jesus has to say about prayer.

First, let’s read verses 1–4:

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”[1]

Once again, Jesus was praying, and when he was done, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his own disciples. We don’t have any record of John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray, but we know he had disciples, and he must have taught them something about that. At any rate, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer.

What follows is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not an accurate description of the prayer, because it sounds like it’s the prayer that Jesus often prayed. But Jesus wouldn’t need to pray that God would forgive his sins—he never sinned. A better title might be “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because it’s meant to be used by the disciples. But since the old title is so common, I’ll use that.

If you’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that what appears in Luke is a bit shorter than the traditional version you’re used to. It’s shorter than the version found in Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presented it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he’s teaching it privately to his disciples. Jesus must have taught the same things in slightly different ways over the course of his ministry. And the differences show us that the prayer is meant to be used as a framework, a skeleton that we fill out with the body of our own words, our own particular petitions. I don’t think Jesus intended for this prayer to be repeated word for word, without thinking, as if it’s some kind of mantra.

Before we look at some of the things Jesus teaches his followers to pray for, I want to note a couple features of the prayer. The first is that it’s a communal prayer. It’s not an individual prayer. The prayer mentions “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” This teaches us that we should pray together. Of course, we can and should pray alone. But praying together is important. We do that as a church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. If you’re coming to those meetings, I would encourage you to do so.

The prayer begins “Father . . .” That’s another important feature of the prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to address God as Father. That’s one of the stunning things about Jesus’ teachings. There were times in the Old Testament when Israelites were referred to as God’s children or son (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). And there were times in the Old Testament when God was referred to as Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8). But those times were relatively few. According to David Garland, “The term ‘Father’ for God appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, while it appears 255 times in the New Testament.”[2] That’s significant given the fact that the Old Testament is about four times as long as the New Testament. What that means is that Jesus taught his followers to know God intimately as their Father. We can come to God as his beloved children and know him as a loving Father. God is not some distant, terrifying being—at least not to those who put their faith in his Son, Jesus.

But because God is Father and can be known intimately doesn’t mean he’s not the transcendent Creator. So, Jesus teaches his followers to ask that God’s name be “hallowed,” or sanctified. God’s name is his identity, and it refers to his reputation. God himself can’t be made more holy, righteous, powerful, or perfect. God cannot improve. He already is perfect. But the prayer asks that God would make himself known for who he is. It asks that people would see that he is holy, that he is great. When we ask that God would be glorified, we’re asking that we and other people would see how great God is.

There’s a point in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, when God tells the sinful nation of Israel, which has gone into exile because of their idolatry, that he will act to vindicate his reputation. This is what Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

Because of the way Israel acted, they brought God’s shame upon his reputation. They acted as if he was less valuable than their false gods. If they had seen how great God was, they would have lived differently. And they would have let the nations around them know how great their God was. When we live as if God is the greatest being there is, then we make his name “hallowed.”

In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. God has always been King, so there’s a sense in which his kingdom has always been present. To use, once again, a definition that we recently learned, God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[3] But since Jesus would have us pray for God’s kingdom to come, it means that it has not come in its fullest yet. Israel often lived as if God were not their King. And today there are many people who live as if God is not King. When Jesus came the first time, he came to establish God’s kingdom. He is the King of kings, and all who turn to him enter into God’s kingdom. They are his people and he is their God. To pray that God’s kingdom would come is to pray that everyone on Earth would bow the knee and worship God and live as if he were their ruler. God is a loving Father, but he’s also a King who must be obeyed. One day, when Jesus returns, the whole world will become God’s kingdom. On that day, it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their daily needs. We are to pray for our “daily bread.” In the ancient world, having enough food to eat each day was no small thing, and it was no guarantee. They couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy that week’s food. Bread needed to be baked on a regular basis. But the prayer isn’t just for bread. It’s a request that God give us what we need each and every day. This implies that this prayer should be prayed daily. We should ask God to glorify himself, for people to enter into God’s kingdom, for Jesus to return, for God to give us everything we need, for God to forgive us our sins, and to protect us—all on a regular basis.

And that leads us to the next petition: forgiveness of sins. Again, this is why this isn’t the prayer that Jesus prayed for himself. Jesus needed no forgiveness because he never sinned. But forgiveness from God is exactly what we need. Luke compares this to being in debt. We owe God love, worship, and obedience. And the fact is that all of us have not loved, worshiped, treasured, and obeyed God—not all the time, and not perfectly. The fact that the first humans sinned means led to a terrible reality: we are separated from God, and God put the world under a partial penalty, or a curse. Instead of living in a garden paradise, we live in a world that is fallen. It’s still beautiful, but it has cracks in it. We can still experience goodness and love, but not perfectly. There is harmony, but there are often discordant notes that interrupt our peace. We’re not at peace with God, not at peace with each other, not at peace with our environment, and we’re not even at peace with ourselves. The only way to be restored to God and to have hope of living in a paradise once again is to seek forgiveness from God.

Forgiveness always comes at a cost. To borrow an illustration from Tim Keller, if you were to damage my property, you would enter into my debt.[4] You would owe me, at the least, the price of repair or replacement of my property. And if I am to forgive you of that debt, I would have to pay the cost. The damage doesn’t go away unless someone pays. So, I can choose to forgive you but then I accept the cost of the damage. In a similar way, for God to forgive us, he can’t simply forget that we’ve done wrong. For our sin to be repaired, someone must pay the price for the damage. And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to pay the price for our sin, which is a debt so large that we could never repay it. Because he is righteous, he had no debt. Because he’s God, he is infinitely wealthy. He can pay for everyone’s sin. But first, you must come to him and trust that he is the only one who can make us right with God. You must trust him personally. And a good way to do that is to take this prayer that he taught and make it your own. Say it to God, but don’t repeat it as empty words. Adapt it with your own words. And mean it.

The prayer teaches us that we are completely reliant upon God, the way that young children are completely reliant upon their parents. We need God to provide for us. And he does. Every good gift we have comes from God (James 1:17). The Bible teaches us that God gives us the power to work and to earn money (Deut. 8:18). God sustains our lives at every moment. Without God, we wouldn’t exist. And without God’s mercy and grace, we couldn’t be reconciled to him, forgiven of our sins, and adopted as his children.

If we are forgiven, we will forgive others. Jesus makes that clear. If we are not forgiving of those who seek our forgiveness, we must not have experienced God’s forgiveness. If you truly know how awful your sin is, and how amazing it is for God to forgive you, then you can and will extend forgiveness to others, even when it’s hard. For there to be true forgiveness, there must be confession of sin and repentance. If someone comes to us, admitting their wrong and seeking reconciliation, we must forgive. We must be like our Father.

We are also supposed to ask for spiritual protection. We are supposed to ask God that he would not lead us into temptation. We should pray that God would deliver us from sinning. We shouldn’t view God’s forgiveness as a blank check to keep on sinning. We shouldn’t think that just because God pays our debt, we can keep running up a huge bill at his expense. We should desire not to sin. Though God gives us trials, these are meant to refine us. We should pray that we would endure the trials. But our Father knows are weaknesses, and we should ask him to strengthen us, not to overwhelm us with temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We should pray to that end.

So, Jesus teaches us to pray that God would be glorified, that God would provide for our needs, that God would forgive us our sins, and that God would spiritually protect us. This gives us a framework for how to pray.

But Jesus doesn’t just give us that model prayer. Jesus also taught us about why we should go to our Father in heaven. He is a good Father who gives his children good things. To see that, let’s look at the rest of the passage, verses 5–13:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The first part of that paragraph is a bit of a parable. Jesus has us imagine two men living in a village. One has a friend come to him at night. The problem is that this man has no food to give his visiting friend. The friend is probably tired and hungry and, again, there is no way to simply go to the grocery store or call for late night delivery. If the man doesn’t feed his friend, his friend doesn’t eat. More than that, the man would experience shame for being a bad host. So, he goes to his friend in the village at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. The other man in the village may be bothered. He lives in a one-bedroom house. The first man has interrupted his sleep and is in danger of waking up his children. But even if that man is put out, grumpy, and half asleep, he will give his friend what he needs. The point Jesus is making is that if such people are willing to answer the bold request of their friends, how much more does God the Father give good things to his children.

God is always listening. He never sleeps. He knows all. He can process billions of prayer requests at the same time. And God is not some grumpy man who gives begrudgingly. So, Jesus encourages us to go to God, to ask for what we need. We are to ask God, and what we need will be given to us. We are to seek God, and we will find him. We should knock on the door of his kingdom, and the gates will be opened.

Jesus then gives us another reason to go to our Father in verses 11–13. He asks what kind of human father would give his child a serpent instead of a fish. The serpent might have been a water snake used for bait.[5] We might paraphrase this statement by saying, “What kind of father would give his son a worm when he asked for salmon?” If the child asked for an egg to eat, no father would give him a scorpion. Now, I suppose there are some pretty terrible parents who might give their children something bad when they asked for something good, but most parents wouldn’t do this. Most parents give their children what they need, even if it’s not what their children want. And Jesus’ point is that if humans, with all their sin, manage to give their children what they need, how much more will the perfect Father give his children what they need when they ask him.

We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus refers to his followers as “evil.” God doesn’t flatter us. He doesn’t sugar coat things. Even the followers of Jesus have their sins. Christians don’t earn their way to God through good behavior. No one is good enough to be in a right relationship with God. Even the best people are evil because of the power of sin. That’s why all of us need to go to God for forgiveness, and the only path to God is Jesus himself (John 14:6). Jesus does not teach us that we are deserving of God’s good gifts. He teaches us that God gives to those who are undeserving. God even adopts bratty kids into his family and makes them his own children.

So, if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the perfect Father give good gifts to his children. And the chief good gift is the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that Jesus says that at the end: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That seems to come out of the blue.

Well, if the mention of the Holy Spirit seems to come out of the blue, it’s because we’re not thinking of asking God for the right things. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray for: God’s glory, God’s kingdom, what we need, forgiveness of sins, and protection from sin and evil. This is what we need to pray for, and the answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit.

Earlier, I quoted a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where God says that he will act to vindicate his name. These are the verses that immediately follow:

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24–28).

How does God sanctify his name? How does God vindicate the holiness of his great name? He gives the Holy Spirit to his people. The Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, to see and enter into the kingdom of God by faith (John 3:3–8). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t trust Jesus, we wouldn’t seek forgiveness from God. Without the Holy Spirit, we couldn’t be protected from sin and evil. We may ask God for all kinds of things we want, all kinds of things we think we need. But what we need most is God himself. And God gives himself to those who seek him. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God. God is one being who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So, when Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask, he’s saying that God will give himself. God is the greatest gift. He is what we need, and he can be found and received if we would only ask.

Jesus teaches us today to seek God. Part of our problem is that we don’t seek God for himself. We want things from God, but we don’t want him. You might say that’s the root of sin. Our failure to regard God’s name as “hallow,” or holy, our failure to see that he is greater than his creation, leads us to make created things our gods. We treasure the things of this world more than the “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This doesn’t mean that we utterly reject God. Instead, we often treat him as a cosmic butler. When we really want something or when we’re in a bind, we may call on God to give us what we want, or to get us out of a jam. But we don’t come to God and seek him above all else. That’s because we’re evil.

Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to treasure God above all things. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be convicted of sin. If you’re here today and you feel that you haven’t been seeking God for who he is, and you’re coming to see that you haven’t loved the Father the way a good, loving child should, then the Holy Spirit is working on you. If you’re in that place, then ask God for forgiveness, seek him with all your heart, knock on the door of his kingdom. He promises to open that door, to accept you as his child, to forgive you of anything bad that you’ve ever done. His love, his goodness, and his grace are infinite. If you want to know how to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

If you are already a Christian, consider how you normally pray. Are you praying the way that Jesus taught? Do you pray above all that God would be glorified? Do you pray that God would give you what you need, instead of what you want? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for him, your knowledge of him, and your obedience to him? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for others?

If you haven’t prayed for these things, there’s good news: God forgives us, and we can boldly seek forgiveness from him, because Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 4:14–16).

God always answers prayer, and he always gives us what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we want, or the things that we ask for. Sometimes, his answer is no. Sometimes, we’re asking God for a serpent, and he gives us a fish. But if we ask things of God that line up with his will, we can be sure that he will give us what we need. The apostle John wrote this toward the end of his first letter:

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:13–15).

Let us go to our Father in heaven and pray the way his Son taught us.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 471.
  3. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  4. See the discussion of forgiveness in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 194–200.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1061 n. 36.

 

One Thing Is Necessary

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 10, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Does anyone here remember the movie City Slickers? The movie came out in 1991 and starred Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern as three middle-aged men, the city slickers of the title, who are all having what amounts to a mid-life crisis. The three friends leave New York City and go out west to a tourist ranch to take part in a two-week cattle drive. While there, they meet an old cowboy named Curly, played by the leathery Jack Palance, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. At one point in the film, Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, is riding alone with Curly, and they discuss marriage, love, and life. Curly recognizes that Mitch is like most of the other men who come to the ranch, all in the midst of their mid-life malaise. So, Curley asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He then holds up one finger and says, “This.” Mitch says, “Your finger?” Curly says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and every else don’t mean [ahem].” Mitch says, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Curly responds, “That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”

That’s a question we should all ask ourselves. What is the one thing? What is the most important thing in life, the thing we need to stick to? What is the highest priority? Figure that out, and everything else follows.

We’ve been studying the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke. And today we’ll see that Jesus says something very similar to what ol’ Curly said. One thing is necessary. What is that thing? Let’s see.

Today, we’re looking at Luke 10:38–42. Jesus spends time with two sisters, Martha and Mary. One of them has discovered that one necessary thing and the other hasn’t. Let’s read the passage.

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”[1]

On one level, this story is easy to understand. There are two sisters, Martha and Mary, who are with Jesus in Martha’s house. These two women are most likely the sisters of Lazarus, whose story is told in John 11. While Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, Martha is “distracted with much serving.” She’s probably cooking, bringing Jesus food, cleaning dishes, worried about being a good hostess. And she’s bothered that she’s doing all the work. So, she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus answers her by telling her that she is worried about a lot of things, but only “one thing is necessary.” He implies that if there’s something to be concerned about, it’s that one thing. But here Jesus sounds like Curly. What’s the one thing?

The answer is found in Mary. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” What is the good portion? On the surface, it seems like Jesus is saying that Mary has chosen to listen to him, to learn from him. And that’s no small thing. In fact, it was not common for women to be allowed to sit a teacher’s feet, yet here we see Jesus teaching a woman.

But is Jesus only referring to his teaching? Is that the good portion?

Perhaps the word “portion” is the key to understanding “the one thing” that “is necessary.” And if we look the Old Testament, we find out what, or who, that portion is.

We’re going to turn to some Psalms see to see how that word is used. The first one we’ll look at is Psalm 16, particularly verses 5–8:

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Jesus says that Mary chose the good portion. David says that “the Lord is my chosen portion.” Notice how he also says, “I have set the Lord always before me.” David says that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is his portion, he is the one who is always before him, and because of that, he will not be shaken.

I don’t think it’s an accident that in this passage of Luke, Jesus is referred to as “Lord” three times, twice by Luke and once by Martha. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew, the covenant name of God, which we pronounce as Yahweh, appears as “Lord” (Greek: κύριος, kyrios). Jesus is Lord, the Son of God who has always existed, yet who, over two thousand years ago, also became a man. And just as David chose Yahweh as his portion, Mary chose Jesus as her portion.

Let’s now turn to Psalm 73, a Psalm of Asaph. I’ll read verses 26–28:

26  My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27  For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
28  But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works.

Again, God is called “my portion forever.” The idea is very similar to what we’ve seen so far. Jesus says that Mary’s good portion would never be taken away from her. Asaph says here that though his body would decay and die, God is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Those who are apart from God will perish. The implication is that those who find their refuge in God will live forever.

Finally, we’ll look quickly at one verse in Psalm 119. This is verse 57:

57  The Lord is my portion;
I promise to keep your words.

Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm, and it’s the longest chapter in the Bible. It’s a Psalm that praises God for revealing his word. And there’s a strong connection between praising God and praising his word. In a sense, God’s word is an extension of himself. Because God is true and never lies, his word is true. He always says what he means. Our words are an expression of ourselves, but we don’t always say what we mean. I don’t mean that we always lie, though we can be dishonest. Sometimes we struggle to find the right words. Sometimes we say things that aren’t very meaningful. We say things just to avoid silence, we say things that are foolish, we say things that are wrong. We say things just to please other people. God doesn’t do any of these things. There’s a strong bond between him and his word. That’s why the psalmist can say, “The Lord is my portion,” and then, without changing topics, say, “I promise to keep your words.” If God is really your portion, you will pay attention to his words and you will do what he asks you to do.

That’s what Mary is doing. Because she recognizes that Jesus is Lord, she has chosen him as her portion. Because she has chosen Jesus as her portion, she’s sitting at his feet, listening to his teaching. And she’s surely doing that not because his words are entertaining, or because they satisfy her intellectual curiosity. She must understand that his words give life, and she is likely learning from Jesus so that she can live rightly.

As we start to think about what this short passage in Luke has to do with us, how it informs our lives, we need to think about what that “one thing” is in our lives that is most important, that is truly necessary. In fact, if you’re talking to non-Christians with the hopes of sharing the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ with them, you might want to ask them what they think that “one thing” is. What is most important in life? People might say that one thing is family, or being a good person, or doing something that truly matters, like leaving a positive impact on future generations. But Jesus is saying that one thing is God; specifically, he is saying that one thing is him.

Now, that might sound arrogant. If you or I said, “I am the most important thing in life, so choose me!” we wouldn’t be just arrogant, but crazy. But Jesus isn’t just a man; he is God. God the Father sent him to do his will. And if we want to know God, we must know Jesus.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus often talks about his relationship to God the Father, how his words are the Father’s words and his work is the Father’s work. In John 6, he talks quite a bit about his own identity and work. In verse 27, he says, “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.” We might paraphrase that, in light of today’s passage, as “Don’t focus on all those ‘many things’ like Martha is doing, because they won’t last. Focus on ‘the one thing that is necessary.’ Make that your food, your portion. I’m the one who can give that to you.” In the next verse, John 6:28, Jesus’ audience says, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).

Jesus says the key to having food that is eternal is to believe in him. That doesn’t mean believing he exists, or believing facts about him. We believe a lot of things to be true, but that doesn’t mean those things give us eternal life. He means that we need to trust that he is the Son of God, and we must trust him personally. We must believe that he and he alone is the one thing necessary to give us eternal life, to make us right with God, to fix our major problem in life, which is our separation from God cause by our sin, which is rebellion against God.

If we keep reading in John 6, we see that Jesus makes this more and more clear. In verses 35–40, he says,

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.”

What he says here matches up with what he says in Luke. Mary’s good portion will never be taken away from her. Those who make Jesus their “bread of life” will never be cast out, they will never be removed from God. They will be raised to eternal life on “the last day,” the day of judgment. And Jesus makes it clear later in John 6 that if people do not trust him, they will not have that eternal life with God (John 6:53). He says that those who do not believe that he is God (“I am he”) will die in their sins (John 8:24).

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus is the “good portion,” the “one thing” that “is necessary.” Those who make him their good portion will never lose their relationship with him. They will be with God forever. Though they die, they will live forever, raised to eternal life on judgment day. We also see that, somehow, this is connected to Mary choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet.

Now, if we’re thinking about this carefully, we should ask a pretty obvious question: How do we sit at Jesus’ feet? Jesus was there in the flesh, and Mary could literally sit down in front of him and hear his words. How do we do this when Jesus is now in heaven?

The way that we have access to Jesus’ teaching is through the Bible, the written word of God. If Jesus is truly our portion, if we realize that he is the God-man, the bread of life, the only one who gives us eternal life, then we will want to hear from him. In John 6, after all that talk of bread that gives eternal life, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, said to him, “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God
(John 6:68–69). The way that we access Jesus’ “words of eternal life” is through the pages of the Bible.

And Jesus’ words are not limited to the “red letter” words of the Gospels. Jesus makes it clear that his words are the Father’s words (John 12:50). Jesus also says that the Holy Spirit would speak to the apostles, and that these words were also from him and the Father (John 16:13–15). The entire Bible is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), authored by him through human authors (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter says that Jesus’ own commandments came through the apostles (2 Pet. 3:2). And there are times when the New Testament writers attribute Old Testament passages to Jesus (Heb. 10:5–7, which attributes Ps. 40:6–8, written by David, to Christ). So, to know Jesus’ words is to know the Bible.

And we need to come to the Bible again and again, to learn, to revisit what we’ve already read, to think on it again and again. Psalm 1 talks about someone who is blessed, who doesn’t do what the wicked do. It says that this person’s “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). Then, it says,

He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Those who delight in God’s word and think on it are like well-nourished trees that do not wither. Those who reject God’s word whither away.

The Bible uses organic metaphors when it talks about growing in faith, or being connected to Jesus. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15). The Bible doesn’t often use transactional language, like, “Take the treasure that is Jesus and store it up your vault.” A relationship with Jesus is living, and it needs to be nourished constantly, the way that a tree needs water, nutrients, and light. If those things are removed from the tree, it will die. We need God’s word to be nourished. We also need things like prayer and fellowship with other Christians. I think those are also aspects of sitting at Jesus’ feet. Without those things, we wither, we get spiritually sick and weak. Without those things, we are ineffective.

Now, at this point, I’m anticipating an objection. This objection might not come from within this room, but there are certain people who say that we put too much emphasis on the Bible. We do too much Bible reading, Bible study, Bible discussions. There is a kernel of truth in this criticism. The kernel of truth is that we might listen to Jesus’ words but not do what he says. And that can happen. And that is wrong. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). He says that we must not only hear what he says, but do what he says. So, it is possible to study the Bible and not live according to what we read. And that is wrong.

But the answer is not to ditch the Bible and just get busy serving. In that case, we would become like Martha. If we don’t come back to the Bible again and again, we’ll end up doing what we believe to be God’s work for us, but we’ll drift away from what God has actually said. We’ll do certain things that appeal to us, but not the things that are hard, that are contrary to our desires and inclinations. And perhaps the greatest danger is that we’ll believe we can achieve a right standing with God by doing certain things.

Last week, we looked at the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), when a Jewish religious scholar who tried to test Jesus asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked this man what the law (the Old Testament commands) said. The answer, more or less, was to love God and love other people perfectly. Jesus showed the man what this looked like, telling him that if he did this, he could have eternal life. But the point is that we can’t do that. We don’t love God and others perfectly.

And if we try to achieve a right standing through our own efforts, however much good work we do, we’re not sitting at Jesus’ feet. We’re not doing the work of God, which Jesus says is to trust him. It’s very possible to a religious person, a doer of good works, and avoid a relationship with Jesus. You can avoid a personal relationship with Jesus by rejecting his words, by rejecting the Bible, and avoiding church. You can also avoid a personal relationship with Jesus by being a very busy person in church, doing a lot of good works, but shutting him up by keeping your Bible closed. If Martha realized exactly who it was that was in her house, she would have served Jesus, yes, but she also would have stopped and listened to him, fallen at his feet and realized that he is the Lord whose words give eternal life.

So, the answer to the criticism that we are a bunch of Bible-worshiping hypocrites is not to make less of the Bible, but to make sure that we are doing what it says we should do. We should adopt Jesus’ views of Scripture. He called it God’s unbreakable word (John 10:35). He quoted favorably Deuteronomy 8:3, which says, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (see Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). Our food is God’s word. But Jesus also said that his food was to do the will of God (John 4:34). We must be hearers of God’s word and doers of it (James 1:23–25).

In fact, I think that we need to be soaked in Scripture, to read it often and meditate on it often, in order to do what it says. God asks his people to do hard things. And we won’t do them unless we believe that the story told in the Bible is true. If we don’t believe that God is the creator of the universe, that we are all sinners who deserve condemnation, that Jesus is the world’s only Savio, and that the only solution to our problem of sin, we won’t understand who he is, let alone trust him. I’m also convinced that if we don’t believe that this life, in this fallen world, corrupted by sin, is temporal, and that life either with God or apart from God is eternal, we won’t have the perspective on life that is necessary to do what God says we must do.

Think about some of the things that God asks us to do. He asks his people to give generously. We’re supposed to give to those in need and give to the church, to support those who preach and teach, to support other Christians. Giving generously is hard for a lot of people. If you believe that this life is all there is, then you will want to live comfortably. You will want to seek as many pleasures as you can. If you give generously, you’re going to make sacrifices. You’re going to sacrifice some vacations, some gadgets, some clothing, some meals in restaurants, or tickets to sporting events or concerts or whatever. You can’t do all these things and give generously. But if you understand that everything you have is from God, that he entrusted these things to you to use wisely, that this life is not all there is, and that if you know Jesus you will live an eternal life in a new creation that is full of pleasures beyond what we can imagine, you can make some sacrifices in this life.

Christians are called to be ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), witnesses of Jesus who tell others about him. We’re supposed to share the gospel. We do this because we want God to be known, to be glorified and worshiped. We do this because we believe that those apart from Jesus are truly lost, destined for condemnation. If we love others truly, we will be concerned about their souls. But evangelism is hard. One evangelist called our willingness to open our mouths for Christ crossing “the painline.”[2] Evangelism is hard because it’s hard to change the course of a conversation toward Jesus. It’s hard because when we do that, we might be regarded as fools. It’s hard because we may lose friends, or we might be shunned by others, not we might not receive a promotion at work, or perhaps we may experience some other consequence, including persecution. But if we believe what the Bible says, if we meditate on the biblical narrative again and again, we will cross that “painline” and speak.

Christians are called to believe that certain things are right and other things are wrong. We are called to take unpopular stances, particularly with respect to ethical issues that are controversial. If we hold fast to what God has revealed in his word about sex and marriage, about the exclusivity of Jesus (that he’s the only way to be right with God), or any number of topics, we’ll experience some level of persecution. The world will think that we’re stupid, or bigots, or whatever. There’s a great temptation for Christians to compromise their beliefs in order to fit into the prevailing culture. There’s a temptation for Christians to keep their unpopular views to themselves. The only way to fight against this temptation is to keep coming back to God’s word, to trust that it is true, and to know that the world can often be wrong.

Christians are called to deny some desires, urges that feel natural to us. Sometimes, like in the area of sex, those urges can be quite physical. If you don’t sit at Jesus’ feet, reading the Bible and praying to him, and being part of a group of believers in a church, I don’t think you can fight against your sinful desires. And we all have them. Because of sin, we have distorted desires. We are born into a sinful world, and as a result, our thinking isn’t right, and neither are our hearts. As Paul says it, because of the power of sin, people “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). We have pride, anger, lust, greed, and all kinds of desires that have to be mastered and even put to death. How can we do this if we don’t fill our minds and our hearts with God’s word? If it is true that you are what you eat, you will never rise above the level of what you’re putting into your mind. And I don’t think you can change the desires of your heart if you don’t change your thoughts and your behaviors. They’re all connected. If we understand that this life is not all that there is, that our desires can be wrong, and that in eternity, our desires will be perfected and no joy will be withheld from us, then we can put some desires to death. We can deny ourselves.

Christians are also called to suffer. We’re called to endure difficult situations and circumstances. That might be a health problem, a job that isn’t fulfilling, a marriage that is a struggle, raising kids when it’s really hard. In some of these circumstances, it might be tempting to blame God and quit following Jesus. It might be tempting to get out of our commitments, to leave a marriage, or to abandon a family, to be irresponsible in the name of finding our true selves and making ourselves happy. We might be tempted to escape life through suicide. But that’s not the way of Jesus.

It’s not the way of Jesus because he is faithful. He knows what it’s like to endure, to even put some desires to death. Jesus never had bad or sinful desires. But, in his humanity, he didn’t want to experience God’s wrath. He didn’t want to die on the cross. At the least, he didn’t want to experience that physical and spiritual pain. I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant to be rejected, mocked, ridiculed, abandoned, betrayed, tortured, and killed. But he went through all of this to do the Father’s will. He did this because it was his will, to bring glory to the Father, and glory to himself, and also to rescue his people from condemnation. To do all this, Jesus had to stay rooted in Scripture. He prayed often. He knew the biblical narrative because he is its author. He knew the story didn’t end in suffering and death, but in resurrection and glory. So, he endured the cross, despising its shame, because a greater joy was set before him (Heb. 12:2).

So, we need to sit at Jesus’ feet, to have our relationship with him nourished. We need to feed on his words, so that we can be strong in our faith and strong in our obedience. We need to pray to God through the Son by the power of the Spirit to keep a strong connection to our good portion, and to do what that portion tells us to do.

So, what is the one thing? We might answer the way Jesus did: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Everything else will perish, but the kingdom of God will endure, and it cannot be shaken. I urge us all to sit at Jesus’ feet, to trust him, to hear from him, to talk to him,

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Rico Tice, Honest Evangelism: How to Talk about Jesus When It’s Tough (Croydon, UK: The Good Book Company, 2015), 15.

 

Who Is My Neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)

When asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus points us to God’s law, which tells us to love God and to love our neighbors. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus shows us what a good neighbor is. Ultimately, Jesus is our true neighbor, who rescues us in our time of need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan on March 3, 2019.

The Harvest

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 24, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Imagine something with me. Imagine that someone tells you they have developed a new medicine that will cure every major medical problem. In fact, he says it’s the only way to cure some diseases. For the sake of this story, let’s say it requires a lot of commitment to take the appropriate dosage—you have to take several large, bad-tasting pills at specific times each day. Also, the medicine works slowly. You don’t see results immediately. But the promise is that it really works. And here’s good news: it’s free. You just have to commit to taking it. Suppose you’re in bad shape and desperate for a cure, or the person who has developed this medicine has proven himself to be trustworthy, so you take the medicine.

Over time, you start to feel better. You’re not 100 hundred percent sure if it’s the medicine working. Perhaps it’s a placebo effect. But you believe it’s working. Then, the person who makes the medicine says, “We have to get word about this drug to others. Go tell others about it.” There’s no money in this drug, because it’s free. Mass advertising won’t work. If big pharma hears that a wonder drug is being given away for free, they’ll try to shut this movement down. It’s not FDA-approved. The person who makes the drug explains that the best way to get the word out is to do this personally.

He says that if you go out and tell people about his life-saving cure, there will be people who trust that it will work, and they’ll take the medicine. And then they’ll tell other people, and so on. He says that though you’re not selling the medicine, people will be grateful and they’ll give you some money. At the least, they’ll feed you and, while you’re traveling, they’ll let you stay in their homes.

But he also promises that there will be opposition. Some people will think you’re a fool. They’ll want nothing to do with you. And the major drug companies will try to sue you, to get the government to arrest you. However, getting this drug to people who need it is worth the risk. And he promises that, in the end, you will succeed. You’ll have helped many people get healthier. And, when you reach retirement age, regardless of how many people took your offer, you will be financially secure. You’ll never have to worry about money again.

That may seem too good to be true. Or, it may seem too strange to be true. But Christianity says something similar. It says that God has something for us, a priceless gift that will fix all our major problems. Though it’s priceless, it really is a gift. It’s not for sale. But it requires commitment to take it. And since it’s so helpful and so valuable—the only way to truly fix what ails us—we must tell others about it. Some will trust us, but many—probably most—will reject us. Nevertheless, we’re promised that God will be with us, that no one can ultimately harm us, and that we should rejoice that we will live with God forever.

We’re going to see this in the passage that we’re studying today. We’ve been reading carefully through the Gospel of Luke, one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible. So far, we have seen that Jesus has taught about the kingdom of God and performed miracles. He also called twelve men to himself to learn from him, to witness who he is and what he has done. They are called disciples, students who follow him. Earlier, he had sent these twelve men out to tell other people about God’s kingdom—that the King has come, that people can be right with God if they would turn to the King and trust him, and that this leads to eternal life. Now, Jesus sends a larger group out to tell more people this good news.

We’re going to read Luke 10:1–24. We’ll start by reading the first twelve verses, which describe this mission and how people will respond to Jesus’ message.

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.[1]

Jesus sends a group of seventy-two out to gather “the harvest.” These people are to give a message of peace to those they meet. If people receive this message of peace, Jesus instructs them to heal the sick and to tell them that the kingdom of God—or the rule and reign of God—has come near them. But there will be people who want nothing to do with them. Jesus tells them not to waste their time with those people.

Our translation says there were seventy-two people sent out. There are some manuscripts that say seventy were sent out. (Some translations, like the KJV and NRSV, say “seventy.”) Does this number have any significance? Perhaps it does. In the Old Testament, in Genesis 10, we’re given a list of seventy nations that descended from Noah. The Hebrew Bible has seventy names, but when it was translated into Greek, the number became seventy-two. Perhaps the idea here is that this message that Jesus gives the disciples is meant to go out to the whole world. Earlier, Jesus had sent the twelve out (Luke 9:1–6). Matthew’s Gospel says that Jesus told them to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel. If seventy-two or seventy represents the nations of the world, this larger group, while not going out to all the nations yet, foreshadows a day when the gospel, the good news of Jesus, will be sent to all peoples.

Jesus likens this mission to a harvest. It’s an idea found in both the Old and the New Testaments (Isa. 27:12; Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13; Matt. 9:37–38; John 4:31–38; Rev. 14:14–20). It’s a metaphor that says that there are people who are ready to be gathered into God’s kingdom, which, according to one author, can be defined as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] The Bible tells us that God is a perfect being who created the universe. He created us to know him, to love him, to worship him and reflect his greatness. We exist for God, not the other way around. But from the beginning, we have acted as if God doesn’t exist, or is there to serve our needs. We act like we’re the kings and queens of the universe. Therefore, there’s a broken relationship between God and humanity. That broken relationship is the reason why anything bad happens in the world: diseases, natural disasters, our seemingly natural ability to screw things up, and death itself.

But God sent Jesus into the world to reconcile people to himself, to bring them back into the fold. He is gathering people to himself, into his kingdom, the way a farmer gathers grain. And he does this through people, who bring a message that we can now have peace with God.

So, that’s what Jesus is doing here. Luke tells us that Jesus is Lord. Jesus tells his workers to pray that the Lord of the harvest will send more workers. That’s a subtle way of putting Jesus on the same level as God the Father, something we’ll see again later in this passage. It shows that this harvest will be gathered through prayer and through more people bringing this message of peace to more and more people. The answer to the prayer for more workers will come as more people hear good news from God and decide to work for him.

Jesus tells this larger group that the task won’t be easy. They’re being sent as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Matt. 10:16 says they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” because of the danger.) He also tells them to take no supplies: no moneybag (which was something that traveling philosophers used, because they sold their teaching), no knapsack, and no (extra?) pair of sandals. They should go with a sense of urgency, not pausing to chit-chat with others (cf. 2 Kgs. 4:29). They should trust that God will provide for them.

Jesus says that they should say “peace” to people. This isn’t a casual greeting. The idea is that God is offering peace, or wholeness, to others. People can be at peace with God, forgiven for doing wrong, for ignoring God and breaking his commandments. If people receive this message of peace, they will invite Jesus’ followers into their homes and feed them. The disciples should then heal their sick. Jesus has given them authority and power to perform miracles. In a sense, Jesus is telling them that there will be people who accept this offer of peace.

But he also says that if people don’t receive this peace, then the peace offered doesn’t go to them. And Jesus implies that the disciples shouldn’t heal those who reject this offer. Healing only comes to those who accept God’s offer of peace, who want to come under God’s rule and blessing and therefore become part of God’s kingdom. Those who reject the King will have no peace and no healing. If a town rejects the disciples, they should “shake the dust from their feet,” an act that says something like, “We’re done here, we don’t even want to take your town’s dust with us” (cf. Acts 13:51). The disciples should move on, warning the town that though they have rejected the King, his kingdom has still come. The King won’t disappear simply because certain people don’t want to hear about him.

Jesus then talks of “that day,” when the King comes to call all people to account for how they have lived, to sort people into two categories: those who have entered the kingdom and those who haven’t. This is judgment day. Jesus says it will be more bearable for the people of Sodom on that day than it will be for these people who have rejected Jesus’ messengers. This is shocking, since Sodom is known as a wicked city, one that wanted to rape two angels sent by God (Gen. 19:1–28; see also Isa. 13:19; Ezek. 16:48–50). The wicked people of Sodom won’t be judged as harshly as these people who reject Jesus’ messengers.

Jesus then gives a warning to a few cities. The idea is that these cities are without excuse. They will be judged harshly because they had experienced Jesus’ power and yet still rejected him. Let’s read verses 13–15:

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were towns in Galilee, Jesus’ home region. They had witnessed Jesus’ miracles. (Capernaum is mentioned specifically in Luke 4:23, 31–37; 7:1–10.) Jesus had shown them his identity, as the Son of God who also became a human being, who came to bring people into God’s kingdom. And they rejected Jesus. Jesus says that on the day of judgment, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon. These were two cities to the northwest, on the Mediterranean coast, cities in Gentile territory. (Sidon is actually one of the seventy-two nations mentioned in Genesis 10.) Tyre and Sidon were known for their pride and wickedness (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26–28). They’ll do better on judgment day than people who rejected Jesus. This would be shocking for Jewish people to hear, because they assumed they were superior to Gentiles.

Why are Jesus’ words so harsh? Look at verse 16: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Those who listen to Jesus’ messengers, who receive their words, are actually receiving Jesus. It’s not Jesus’ followers that they’re believing, but Jesus himself. Likewise, those who reject Jesus’ followers aren’t rejecting them; they’re rejecting Jesus. And Jesus says that those who reject him are rejecting the one who sent him. That is, they’re rejecting God. God’s message comes through Jesus and through people who talk about Jesus. If people are telling the truth about Jesus and their message is believed, taken to be true and trusted to be what people need, then that person has a relationship with God. If people reject that message, they’re not rejecting the messenger; they’re rejecting the one who is the subject of that message. They’re rejecting the one who wrote the message.[3]

So far, we’ve seen that Jesus has sent his followers out into a hostile word to offer peace to other people. There will be those who receive this message of peace, who welcome good news from the King. Others won’t. There will be “wolves” that are hostile to this message. Jesus tells his followers not to worry about them, but to shake the dust from their feet and move on. In the next paragraph, we see that the disciples come back from their mission. They have had some measure of success. They are full of joy. Jesus assures them of ultimate victory. Let’s read verses 17–20:

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The seventy-two return with joy. They claim that even demons, evil spirits, are subject to them—that is, in Jesus’ name. That means that because of who Jesus is and the authority he gave his followers, even demons were subject to them. They probably drove out demons from people, something that Jesus himself did. This causes Jesus to say something stunning: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Some people believe this happened long before Jesus came to Earth. But in the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is pictured as being in heaven (Job 1–2; Zech. 3:1–5). Other places in the New Testament say he was thrown down from heaven at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave (John 12:31; Rev. 12:7–12). I think what Jesus is saying is that as demons are driven away by the work of his followers, he can already foresee the time when Satan is cast out of heaven. He is anticipating Satan’s defeat. Satan will be thrown down because Jesus, though killed by evil people under the influence of Satan, triumphed in his resurrection. And one day, when King Jesus comes back to Earth on “that day” of judgment, Satan will be cast out forever. Jesus knows Satan will lose.

His point is that neither Satan and his demons, nor anyone else, can ultimately harm his disciples. He has given them “authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” I think this is symbolic. I don’t think Jesus means we should go around stepping on poisonous snakes with our bare feet. Serpents and scorpions often represent evil in the Bible (Deut. 8:15; Ps. 91:13; Rev. 9:10, 19). The forces of evil can harm Jesus’ followers in the short-run. Some people who have been missionaries have been killed. But no one can harm Jesus’ followers in the long-run.

And Jesus tells his followers that they should rejoice, though perhaps not for the reasons they’re rejoicing. They might have let their success go to their heads: “Look at us, we did great things!” Jesus tells them not to rejoice in that. After all, some Christians won’t experience that kind of success in this life. He tells them to rejoice that their names are written in heaven. The Bible often talks about a book of life, or a list of names that are registered in the divine census. These are the names of people God chose to save, to reconcile to himself.[4] Jesus is saying that they should rejoice that they have been chosen to receive this message of good news. They should rejoice that they will live with God forever. The reward for a Christian life isn’t success in this world. The reward is being part of God’s kingdom forever, living under the rule and blessing of the King. That is what should bring us the greatest joy. No one can take that away from you if you know Jesus. If you have that gift, praise God that he chose to give it to you.

And this leads to the final words of Luke 10 that we’ll look at today. Jesus began his teaching with a word about prayer, and now we see that he prays to his Father, thanking him that he chose to reveal this message of salvation to the disciples. Let’s look at verses 21–24:

21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

Here, we see that God chooses to reveal himself to certain people. The Bible says that all of us know there’s a God because we live in the world he created (Rom. 1:18–20). But we have har hearts and darkened minds, so we tune out that truth. And creation’s general message that there is a God is not specific enough to tell us how to be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God. God has given us his word, written down in the form of the Bible, which tells us a lot of specific information about him and what he expects of us. Anyone can read it. But not everyone will understand it and believe it to be true. Only those to whom God has chosen to reveal this message will receive it.

Jesus says that God the Father has given him all authority (John 3:35). He says that only God the Father truly knows who God the Son is. And only Jesus, the Son of God, truly knows who God the Father is. How can anyone else understand the Father and the Son? Jesus says that those to whom he chose to reveal this information will know. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that the Father has drawn people to the Son (John 6:44, 65; 17:2, 25). Here, he says that he has given understanding to people. What the Father does, the Son does. What the Son does, the Father does. They are not the same person, but they are the same God. They do everything in perfect unity.

God has not chosen the wisest, or the richest or the most powerful, to receive the gift of salvation. He has chosen “children,” or quite literally, “babies.” It’s true that people who are wise and rich and powerful do come to faith in Christ. But they don’t come to Jesus because they’re smart and powerful. They come because they know they need Jesus. They rely on him the way that a baby relies on a parent. If we realize our complete dependency on God, we’ll receive his message of salvation. If we think we can fix ourselves, we won’t.

Another point is that true knowledge of God only comes through Jesus. You can’t have a right relationship with God if you reject Jesus. That’s why Jesus says, in John’s Gospel, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23), and, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also” (John 15:23). I’ve been studying Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke, and he says, “No one can really understand the Father or what God is about without listening to the Son and his revelation.”[5]

Jesus says that his followers are blessed because God has given them eyes to see what they are seeing. Many in the past, both prophets and kings, looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed servant, but they died before that day arrived. To know Jesus is a tremendous privilege. It’s a gift that comes from God. And if you have it, you are blessed.

Now that we have looked at this passage, what does it have to do with us? It may seem that some of this doesn’t relate to us. Are we really called to go out into the world and take part in this harvest?

I don’t think all of Jesus’ instructions here are normative. We’re not told in the New Testament that all of Jesus’ followers must travel, and that they must do so without supplies, in order to reach those who don’t know Jesus yet. But we’re all called to be ambassadors of Christ, witnesses who represent him, who tell other people the good news of how to be reconciled to God. Some people will be missionaries, traveling to foreign lands. Some people will be pastors and evangelists. But all are called to take part in God’s mission. Are you part of that mission?

I think that many people who call themselves Christians are not part of that mission in any way. And I think the reason we are not is because we don’t truly believe the gospel. If we believed that the only way to be made right with God was to trust Jesus, and that without that relationship, people were going to hell, we would do more to tell other people the good news. If you knew that by consuming a certain pill each day, people would be made well, you would tell them about it. Why don’t we tell people about Jesus? Why don’t we view this with a sense of urgency?

I suppose because we either don’t think it’s that important or we’re afraid of rejection. Perhaps it’s both. But if we don’t take it upon ourselves to tell others about Jesus, who will?

If we care about souls, if we care about God and his glory, we should want other people to know Jesus. We should view ourselves as part of God’s mission. We should pray that God would send more workers into the field. Pray that God would raise up more evangelists and pastors and missionaries. But we shouldn’t just pray. We need to act. The way that God raises up more workers is by using people like us to tell others about Jesus.

That’s one thing to keep in mind. Another thing is that when we tell others about Jesus, some will receive us and others will reject us. Jesus is quite clear about that. He acknowledges that people will be hostile. The world is full of “wolves.” But we need to keep in mind that when people reject our words, they are not rejecting us. They are rejecting Jesus. They are rejecting God. We’re just messengers. But some will receive our message, which means they are received by Jesus and by God.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us

Those words were written by Martin Luther about five hundred years ago.[6] Another point we should see is that though there is evil in the world, and though we may be persecuted because we dare to speak about Jesus, nothing can ultimately harm us. The worst that someone can do to us is cause us physical pain and kill us. But even that can’t separate us from God (Rom. 8:31–39). Jesus said that nothing would harm his disciples. He didn’t mean they couldn’t feel pain and die. Jesus felt pain, both emotional pain and physical pain. Jesus died. But pain and death were not the last word for him, and they are not the last word for his followers. We are never told to fear death or other people, or even Satan himself. We are told to fear God, who has the power to give us life or to condemn us (Luke 12:4–5). And if we are united to Jesus by faith, we will never face condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

That’s an important point related to our message about Jesus. We can warn people about God’s judgment, but we don’t condemn people. We can say certain things are right and wrong, but we don’t sit on God’s throne, judging others in that final, decisive way that he can. We simply tell people the truth and leave the results to God. And God is in control.

Jesus says that God is the one who chooses to reveal the truth to certain people. God opens up the eyes of the spiritually blind to help them to see. We don’t know who will receive the message. In faith and in obedience to Jesus, we tell others about him. From our perspective, it doesn’t seem likely that many people will believe. But God is in control. He has chosen certain people to believe. He will bring his word into their hearts and minds and use it to bring them to spiritual life. But we must cooperate with God. The fact that God will bring people to faith doesn’t mean we don’t have to act.

If we realize that we are blessed because we know Jesus, because our names are written in heaven, we will tell others. If you know who Jesus is, you have been given a priceless gift. If you have a Bible, you have been given something that people in other parts of the world wish that they could have. If you have faith in Jesus, you are blessed beyond measure. You are more blessed than the rich. Billionaires have a lot of money, but that doesn’t fix their biggest problems. And I’m not sure any of us would want to trade places with Bob Kraft this morning. But if you’re a Christian, you have been given the greatest treasure. Share it with others.

If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to do everything you can to learn about him, to put his teachings into practice, and to trust him. Jesus makes this harvest possible. In John’s Gospel, he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus died to give us eternal life. No one else can offer that to you. Receive Jesus and you receive all of God’s blessings.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. Jesus’ words in Luke 10:16 sound like things he says in John 13:20; 15:23.
  4. A list of passages that deal with this topic is quite long: Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Dan. 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1012.
  6. They come from his famous hymn, “A Might Fortress Is Our God.”

 

The Harvest (Luke 10:1-24)

Jesus sends his disciples out to tell the good news of the kingdom of God and to heal people. Though they will be met with opposition, some will receive their message and experience peace. Jesus promises that nothing will ultimately harm his followers and that they are blessed beyond measure. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 10:1-24 on February 24, 2019.

The One Who Is Great

This sermon was preached on February 17, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

“Who is the greatest?” That’s a question that we hear a lot in sports. There’s a lot of talk about G.O.A.T.S. in sports. It used to be that a goat was a villain, someone who made a big mistake and cost his team the game. Now, G.O.A.T. is an acronym for “Greatest Of All Time.” There’s a lot of talk about Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T., the greatest quarterback of all time. And there’s a debate about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the NBA’s G.O.A.T. Some might say it was Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even Bill Russell, who has eleven championship rings.

The question of the greatest isn’t limited to sports. People ask who the greatest singer is, or the greatest actor or rock band. People come up with lists of the greatest movies, the greatest paintings, the greatest restaurants. If we can rank things, we do. There’s something about the human heart that desires to identify greatness. And there’s something in the human heart that wants to be great. This starts at a young age. I can’t tell you how often we tell our kids, “It’s not a competition!”

Today, we’ll see how Jesus defines greatness. We’ll see that Jesus indicates that the road to greatness isn’t through power. Greatness doesn’t come from a desire to be Number One. We’ll see in Luke 9:46–62, the passage of the Bible that we’re focusing on today.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’re studying the Gospel of Luke, which is a biography of Jesus. It tells about his birth, his life of teaching about God and performing miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave. We’re just finishing the portion of the Gospel that is dedicated to Jesus’ activity in Galilee, his home region. Today, we’ll start the beginning of the section of Luke that leads to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified.

We’ll begin by reading verses 46–48:

46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48 and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”[1]

“Them” here refers to Jesus’ twelve disciples. They’re debating which one of them is the greatest. It’s ironic that they’re doing this immediately after Jesus told them, for the second time, that he would die (Luke 9:44–45). Jesus is going to die, and all they can talk about it is which of them is the greatest. This shows how much the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is going to do. And it won’t be the first time. A similar dispute occurs on the night before Jesus dies (Luke 22:24–27).

Jesus knows what’s in their hearts. That’s because he’s not just a man, but he’s also God. The Lord knows all our actions, all our words, and all our thoughts.

To answer the disciples, Jesus takes a child, probably one quite young, and brings the child to him. Then he says that whoever receives the child receives him, and whoever receives him receives God the Father. And in God’s kingdom, the least is great.

To understand why Jesus says this, you must know that children at that time were not regarded as great. Today, we often dote on children and cater to their whims. But things were different then. According to David Garland, “Children had no power, no status, and no rights, and they were regarded as insignificant and disposable, as witnessed by the exposure of (usually female) children in the Greco-Roman world.”[2] The point is not that children are particularly special. The point is that children were low in status. If you want to be great, Jesus says, you must welcome the lowly.

I don’t think Jesus means that if you’re nice to kids, you have a right relationship with God. That would go against a lot of what the rest of the Bible says about being justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It’s true that those who receive Jesus, or who trust in him, receive or believe in the Father. If you have a right relationship with Jesus, you have a right relationship with God. But if you do, you’re going to have a right understanding of other people. Everyone, even the lowliest person, is made in the image of God. If you treat other people poorly, you’re disregarding God’s creation. That’s why Proverbs 14:31 says,

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t identify which person is the greatest in God’s kingdom. He only says who is great. The one who is least among Jesus’ disciples is great. That’s another way of saying that everyone who is united to Jesus is great. Greatness doesn’t come from making a great name for yourself. True, eternal greatness comes from God making you great. It comes from bearing the name that is above all names, Christ the Lord. Try to make yourself great, and you won’t be. Humble yourself and have a relationship with the greatest, Jesus, and you will be great indeed.

Let’s move on and read the next two verses, verses 49 and 50:

49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

It may be strange for us to read about casting out demons, but this is something that appears fairly often in the Gospels. When Jesus walked the earth, there was heightened demonic activity. Jesus exorcised demons, and he gave his disciples authority to do the same (Luke 9:1). There are still many stories of demon possession and oppression today, though I suppose it’s a somewhat rare phenomenon.

What we should focus on is that John, one of the disciples, says this right after Jesus makes his comment about receiving the child. Jesus has just said to receive the lowly, but now the disciples can’t tolerate the idea that someone else might minister in Jesus’ name. The story is parallel to something that happens in the Old Testament. In the days of Moses, Moses took seventy elders of Israel and gathered with them. The Holy Spirit rested on all the men, and they prophesied. They were able to speak a message from God. But this only lasted for a short time. Two other men who weren’t part of that gathering had the Holy Spirit come on them, and they also prophesied. Word about this reached Moses, and Joshua, his assistant, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:24–29).

Now, John is basically saying, “Lord, stop them.” Jesus says. “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” The name of Jesus isn’t limited to one small group of people. There are others who were following Jesus. Jesus is not the exclusive property of one person, one nation, one tribe, one church, or even one denomination. That doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian is really a Christian. People do bad things in the name of Jesus. But these other people weren’t doing that. All people will either be with Jesus or against him (Luke 11:23), but that doesn’t mean they all have to be in one pack. Again, this isn’t a competition. Thinking that you’re the only Christian, or the only one who is right, is another way of insulting God, because there are many different Christians out there. The disciples needed to learn this.

The next paragraph in Luke begins with a statement about Jesus being determined to go to Jerusalem, where he will die. Jesus knew his mission all along. He came not just to teach people about God, and not just to do amazing things, which proved that he is the Son of God and were signs of what he will do for God’s people. He came to live the perfect life that we don’t live, a life of perfect love and perfect obedience to his Father in heaven. But he also came to die, to bear the punishment that our sins deserve.

Let’s read verses 51–56:

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

Luke says that the “days drew near for him to be taken up.” This is probably a reference to Jesus’ ascension to heaven, which is how Luke’s Gospel ends (Luke 24:51). But before that event, Jesus must die. We’re told he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That language is a way of describing people who are determined to do something (Gen. 31:21, for example). Sometimes, the prophets set their face against people to prophesy against them, to announce that they were in the wrong and that God would judge them (Jer. 21:10; Ezek. 6:2; 13:7; 14:8; 15:7; 21:2–6). But here, the language probably echoes something we read about in the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 50:4–9 says this:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;|
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

That person speaking is the servant of the Lord, the one who would die for the sins of his people (Isa. 52:13–53:12). The passage makes it clear that he was not guilty. He wasn’t rebellious. No one could declare him guilty. And yet he “gave his back to those who strike.” He didn’t hide his face from shame and spitting. Those words are quoted in Handel’s Messiah, in the great aria, “He Was Despised.” The very next verse says that God helps him and that he knows he won’t be to put to shame. That’s why he could “set [his] face like a flint.” Jesus knew that his death wasn’t the end of the story. Beyond the cross stood glory. But first, he had to die.

His disciples don’t understand this still. They were traveling in Samaria, about to enter a village there, and Jesus had sent “messengers” to find a place to stay. But the people in that Samaritan village didn’t receive Jesus. Interestingly, we’re told the reason why: “because his face was set to Jerusalem.” It wasn’t God’s plan for Jesus to linger in this village.

Two of his disciples are indignant, and they ask Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven to consume the village. Why would they do this?

To understand, you have understand something about Jewish relationships with Samaritans. According to Darrell Bock, “The Samaritans were a mixed race of Israelite and non-Israelite blood, who were despised by many pure-blooded Israelites because they believed that the Samaritans compromised the faith.”[3] The Samaritans were very distantly related to the northern kingdom of Israelites, who had mixed with Gentiles long ago. A couple of decades after this event, something happened that illustrates the tensions between Galileans and Samaritans. Some people from Galilee were traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles when one of them was killed in a Samaritan town. In response, some Jewish people attacked Samaritan villages and set them on fire.[4]

Perhaps the disciples had in mind something else from the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah once called down fire from heaven to destroy a hundred soldiers sent by Ahaziah, the evil king of Israel who was in his palace in Samaria (2 Kgs. 1:1–12). James and John, whom Jesus elsewhere calls “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), were apparently zealous and thought that these Samaritans deserved the same treatment. Jesus had told them that when a town rejects them, they should shake the dust off their sandals and move on. But these disciples didn’t want to shake the dust off their sandals; they wanted to shake the town to dust.

Jesus simply rebukes him. There are some manuscripts, which probably don’t reflect the original writing, that say, “the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” (You can find those words in the ESV footnote.) That’s certainly true. The first time Jesus came, he didn’t come to bring judgment, but salvation. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). One day, Jesus will return, and he will judge those who have rejected him (John 5:25–29; 12:47–48). But that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose when he came the first time, and it’s not the way we do things during this age.

Let’s move on to the last paragraph of this chapter. Here are verses 57–62:

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Here, there are three people who say they will follow Jesus. The first one comes up to Jesus and says that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. But Jesus says that while animals have homes, he doesn’t. Jesus probably had a home while he worked as a carpenter, but after he begins his public ministry, he goes from one place to another, staying with disciples and friends and others who would receive him. But, more importantly, Jesus left his true home in heaven when the Son of God became Jesus of Nazareth. And those who follow Jesus are “strangers and exiles” on the earth (Heb. 11:8–10, 13–16; 1 Pet. 2:11). In a way, Jesus is warning this man that if he follows Jesus, he will no longer be at home in the world.

Jesus then calls another person to follow him. The man says he will, but first he must bury his father. This seems like a reasonable request. The fifth of the Ten Commandments requires people to honor their parents, and in Jewish culture, burying dead parents was one way to honor them.[5] But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” That may be an expression that simply means something like, “That will take care of itself.” Or he might mean that the “spiritually dead,” those who don’t follow Jesus, will take care of mundane things like that. The point is that this man shouldn’t delay. He should honor Jesus above his family because Jesus is God. So, Jesus asks the man to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

The third person says he will follow Jesus, but first he wants to say goodbye to those at home. Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, don’t look back, look at straight ahead at me and move forward.

What are we to make of these sayings of Jesus? They seem harsh. Perhaps Jesus is using hyperbole to show how following him is more important than anything else. To see that, we have to once again consider something related to the prophet Elijah, who casts a long shadow over this chapter of Luke. Last week, I mentioned that Elijah ran away from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in order to save his life. He was depressed and wanted to die. But God preserved his life and encouraged him by saying that he had work to do. Part of that work was anointing his successor, a man named Elisha (see 1 Kgs. 19:16). So, Elijah found Elisha and called the man to follow him. When Elijah found Elisha, Elisha was plowing a field. Elisha said he would follow Elijah but first he wanted to kiss his father and mother goodbye. Elijah allowed him to do that. Then Elisha took the animals with which he was plowing, sacrificed them, and fed the people with their flesh. That sounds strange, but I think it was a way of showing that his old life was done. He then went with Elijah (see 1 Kgs. 19:17–19).

Jesus might be alluding back to that passage. He might be saying that following him is even greater than following a mere prophet. Elisha was allowed to go back home first, but Jesus wants his followers to put him first. Elisha went from plowing to prophesying. Jesus takes people and has them start plowing, metaphorically speaking, for the kingdom of God.

The main point is that Jesus demands total commitment. He must come first. He must come before family and everything else. And those who follow Jesus must not look back. When Lot and his family were rescued from the wicked city of Sodom, Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26). When Israel was delivered out of slavery in Egypt, their tendency was to look back and romanticize their time in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). There’s something in the human heart that looks backward, probably because we know what has happened in our past, and our future is unfamiliar and feels uncertain. But Jesus wants his followers not to look back, but to look forward.

Now that we’ve learned the basic meaning of this passage from the Gospel of Luke, what do we learn? What do we learn about Jesus? And how should we live?

I want to make four points that line up with the four parts of today’s passage. The first is that to be great, we must be willing to be lowly. Jesus tells his disciples to receive children, who were considered lowly. We must be willing to associate with the lowly, for they are made in God’s image, just like us. We shouldn’t think that we are greater than other people. The apostle Paul tells us “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). We shouldn’t see life as a competition, a survival of the fittest. That’s a different worldview, not the Christian one. Life is not a competition. To be great, we must be associated with Jesus. And putting our trust in Jesus means humbling ourselves. It means acknowledging that we are sinners, rebels against God. We begin life as his enemies. If you don’t know your lowly position as someone who has failed to live life on God’s terms, you can’t understand Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s grace. God made us to live for him. He is supposed to be at the center of our lives. And we ignore that and make ourselves or something else the center of our lives. This is nothing less than a war against God. We deserve death.

But God did something amazing. He sent his Son, his only child, to die in our place. If we would humble ourselves and receive that special Child, we will receive God himself. Jesus humbled himself because he’s great. If Jesus can humble himself and become a human being, experiencing all the pain and suffering that came with a human life, humbling himself to the point of being killed though he was innocent, we can humble ourselves. If we do that, we are great. Everyone who does that is great. Everyone who is united to Jesus is on the same team.

And that leads me to the second point. The Christian life, as I said, is not a competition. All Christians are on the same team. We shouldn’t compete with other Christians, with other churches. If other people are doing the work of Jesus, we should rejoice. We shouldn’t covet other people’s successes or spiritual gifts. If people are teaching the truth about Jesus and loving others the way that Jesus would want them to love others, then we should be satisfied with that. God gives us a specific role to play. We may not all see great success, or have our names prominently displayed. That doesn’t matter. All Christians are great in God’s eyes. The important thing is to be faithful, to do what God has called us to do. We can rejoice that there are Christians throughout the world, who sometimes do things a bit differently than we would do them. Jesus isn’t our exclusive property. It’s the other way around: we’re Jesus’ exclusive property.

The third thing we see in today’s passage is how to respond to those who reject us. If we live as Christians, people will hate us. They will hate that we’re different, that we don’t endorse their views or condone their practices. When we try to share the message of Christianity with others, there will be times when we’re rejected. How do we deal with this?

Jesus teaches us to respond not in anger, not to avenge ourselves, but to respond in love. When we’re wronged, we don’t retaliate. Sometimes, we just walk away. Jesus already taught us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27). That sentiment is taught in the book of Romans, too. Romans 12:17–21 says,

17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The reason why we can let people do wrong things to us, and why we can tolerate people doing evil in general, is because we know that vengeance is God’s. In the end, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42). He will avenge his enemies, all those who refuse to trust in him. That means we don’t always have to defend ourselves. Jesus didn’t defend himself. He let evil people do the most evil thing possible: to kill the Son of God.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stop evil when we can. That doesn’t mean that governments can’t punish evil. In fact, right after Paul’s words in Romans about not repaying evil, he talks about government’s role in punishing evil (Rom. 13:1–7). But we can’t respond to evil with more evil, and we don’t respond to evil with a wish to put all our enemies to shame.

The Christian message spreads not through the power of man, or through violence. It is spread through the power of God, which works through words of persuasion. Islam was first spread through violence. It worked its way through the Middle East and northern Africa through violence. That happened in the seventh century. It’s a matter of historical record.[6] Christianity is very different. The early church had no political power or military might. They lived out their faith, loved people, and told them the good news. That’s because the Son of Man didn’t come to squash his enemies with power. Instead, he died for his enemies.

The last point is that when we turn to Jesus, we must put him first, and there’s no looking back. Jesus might have been speaking in hyperbole when he told those men that they couldn’t bury a father or say goodbye to family. Christians should do those things. But he certainly meant that we can’t delay making a decision to follow Jesus. We can’t use lame excuses. (We’ll read a parable about people who make excuses in Luke 14:12–24.) We can’t say, “Oh, I know I should follow Jesus, but things are really busy right now. I’ll do that later.” The time to follow Jesus is now. Following Jesus is more important than whatever else is going on in our lives. Don’t delay following through on a commitment to Jesus. Perhaps you know Jesus wants you to do something and you’ve been waiting. Maybe it’s a personal thing, or a commitment to Jesus’ church. Don’t make excuses; don’t delay.

When we turn to Jesus, there is no looking back. The apostle Paul said he didn’t look back at his old life, his accomplishments or what he used to be. Instead, he looked forward to being more like Jesus and to the time when he would see Jesus face to face (Phil. 3:13–14). We can look back for all kinds of reasons. We can look back at the things we used to do before we became Christians, how we used to have fun. But we must realize that we were doing things that were unhealthy for us. Some things that are bad for us can be fun at that time, but they’re also self-destructive. I’m sure doing drugs is fun for a moment, but I wouldn’t advise you do it. Don’t look back to the “glory days,” because the best is yet to come.

Sometimes, we look back at our old sins, our regrets. When we do that, we should look further back in time. Look back to an event almost two thousand years ago, when Jesus died on the cross. Jesus died for sins, even the worst things we could do. Even before you did those things, the Son of God knew them, and he went to the cross to pay for them. He stared straight at it and was determined to go forward. He looked ahead, not back, knowing that after death came glory. The same is true for us.

If we give up trying to be great, we become great. If we let go of trying to be powerful, God will give us his power. If we stop trying to avenge ourselves, we can trust that God will right every wrong. And if we give up our lives to Jesus, we will find true, eternal life.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 404.
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 969.
  4. Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.12.3–4.
  5. See the non-biblical book of Tobit 4:3–4.
  6. See Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperOne, 2010).

 

The One Among You All Is the One Who Is Great (Luke 9:46-62)

Who is the greatest? That’s a question we often ask of athletes, artists, entertainers, and many others. The disciples asked that question, and Jesus gave an unexpected answer. Find out how to follow Jesus, who offers true greatness to his people.

Follow Me

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on February 3, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

I have a question for the Patriots fans here: How many of you want the Patriots to lose today? Anyone? Do you think any of the Patriots woke this morning in Atlanta hoping that they would lose? Of course not! We want our team to win. Why? Because that will satisfy us. That will make us happy.

About sixteen hundred years ago, the great theologian Augustine observed this in his great book, The City of God: “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all men desire to be happy.”[1] In his Confessions, he writes, “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?”[2] Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants the good life. But how can we be happy? How can we have the good life?

We often find happiness by getting things, whether it’s money or fame or, perhaps, by winning the big game. But experience tells us that we can’t gain happiness, or ultimate satisfaction, by winning. Fourteen years ago, Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl with the Patriots. A few months later, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. This is what Brady said:

Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? . . . I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?

Of course, Tom Brady now has five Super Bowl rings, and today he has an opportunity to get a sixth. Yet something tells me that six championships won’t satisfy him. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.”[3]

After saying that in the interview, Brady was asked, “What’s the answer?” And Brady responded,

I wish I knew. I wish I knew. . . . I love playing football, and I love being a quarterback for this team, but, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find. I know what ultimately makes me happy are family and friends, and positive relationships with great people. I think I get more out of that than anything.[4]

I think that’s admirable of Tom Brady to say. Relationships certainly last longer than Super Bowl victories. But even those relationships, like all things in this life, come to an end.

So, the experiences of the rich, the famous, the accomplished tell us that happiness, that real life, doesn’t come through the greatest accomplishments.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible tells us the same thing. For example, read the book of Ecclesiastes. Most of the book consists of the words of the Preacher, a wise and wealthy king. He finds that life “under the sun”—in this world, from our perspective—is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). In other words, things don’t last. Even if we should have great pleasure, wisdom, and accomplishments (Eccl. 2), we will find those things empty. They won’t satisfy. And they don’t last. We could gain the whole world and lose it to decay and death.

According to Jesus, there is only one way to true happiness—to an abundant life that will ever end. Those things come not from winning, but from losing, which is contrary to what we would expect, and yet, it rings true with experience. If we first lose, we will gain, but if we strive to gain, we will lose.

Today, we will see that, and we will see once again who Jesus is and why he alone is the key to happiness and real life.

We’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in chapter 9, which we started last week. So far, Luke has told us about Jesus’ birth and then the beginning of his ministry as an adult. He has been teaching people about the kingdom of God and performing miracles, and he has called twelve disciples—twelve special followers who are learning from him. As Jesus does amazing things, the question of his identity keeps coming up. When he healed a paralyzed man, he also said the man’s sins were forgiven, which led people to ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). Later, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Herod, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus and asked, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9). Now, this question will be answered.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:

18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”[5]

Jesus was praying alone. Luke frequently mentions prayer, and I think it’s important that what happens is a response to Jesus praying. After praying, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. Jesus isn’t trying to get polling data. He’s not worried insecure about whether his message is coming across or not, as if he were a politician. What he’s doing is making sure that the disciples know who he is. The crowds say the same things that we heard last week, several verses earlier, when Luke told us about what Herod heard (Luke 9:7–9). But when Jesus asks the disciples who he is, Peter answers for the group: “The Christ of God.”

“Christ” is based on the Greek word that means “anointed one.” Another word for this is “Messiah,” which is based on a Hebrew word. It was used of priests (Lev. 4:5, 16; 6:15), the king (1 Sam. 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14, 16; 19:22; 22:51; 23:1), and to a special Anointed one (Ps. 2:2) who is also called God’s Son in Psalm 2:7. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of a coming King, a son of David, who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–5; Jer. 23:5–6). It might be that Peter had this kind of king in mind, a powerful political ruler who would be just and righteous.

In Matthew’s Gospel, he records a fuller answer given by Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). (I suppose Luke has his reasons for only recording part of the answer.) When Simon Peter says this (in Matthew), Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Peter has come to realize something true about Jesus, and this can only be known because it was revealed to him by God. Jesus’ true identity is not some bit of guesswork on our part. We don’t say he’s the Christ, the Son of God, because we’re speculating. We say that because God has revealed it to us through his written word, the Bible.

Even though the disciples were coming to realize who Jesus was, they still didn’t fully understand his identity. They didn’t fully understand why he came. So, Jesus starts to tell them more. Let’s read verses 21–22:

21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

This is the first time that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in clear terms. He refers to himself as the Son of Man, which is a name that comes from Daniel, who sees a vision of a figure “one like a son of man,” who comes to God and receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13–14). But before Jesus assumes that position of glory, he must first be rejected the Jewish religious leaders, suffer, and die. This must have been quite a shock to the disciples. Luke doesn’t record what happens next, but Matthew does. We’re told that Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter couldn’t imagine that the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would die. It’s like he’s saying, “They can’t do that to you, Jesus. We’ll protect you. We’ll make sure they don’t harm you.” But Jesus’ response is harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Remember that Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer.” That means it is part of God’s plan. To try stop Jesus’ suffering and death is to do the work of Satan, the devil, the one who is opposed to God.

If Jesus does not suffer and die, then God cannot save his people from their sin. He is not only the anointed one, the King of kings, but he’s also the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 52:13–53:12), the one who would take the penalty of his people’s sin, be punished in their place, so that they could go free. God takes our sin very seriously because it is a rebellion against him. It’s a personal affront to him. But it’s also corruptive. It poisons his creation and destroys everything. The reason we can’t be completely happy and satisfied in this world, even under the best circumstances, is because of sin, which leads to our separation from God. We have a broken relationship that can only be healed if someone takes our punishment and unites us to God. That’s exactly what Jesus came to do.

The kingdom of God cannot come without the cross. You can’t know who Jesus and have a right relationship with him if you don’t acknowledge both his status as King and his suffering on the cross for our sin. You can’t know Jesus unless you realize that it was God’s plan to have him die in our place, to pay for our sin. And this was Jesus’ plan, too, as he knew full well. There are people today who say they are Christians who don’t seem to realize that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. They reduce him to a symbol of “love,” an example of how to be nice. In their view, it’s not clear that Jesus is God, and it’s not clear why he had to die. They call themselves “progressive Christians,” but their views have been around for a long time. About eighty years ago, Richard Niebuhr said this about this view: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[6] That kind of Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. It’s useless. We need God to have wrath over injustice, because he cares about right and wrong, and sin corrupts his creation. We need a Christ with a cross or else we would die in our own sins.

But Jesus didn’t come just to teach us to be nice, to be kind to one another. He came to rescue us from condemnation and to transform us. And if you want to be united to Jesus, which is the only way to have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, you have to be changed at the very core. Jesus starts to teach his disciples this in verses 23–27:

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus says that his followers need to follow in his footsteps. They must be willing to suffer as well. First, he says that his followers must deny themselves. They’re something within us that must be denied. He does not say, “I love you just the way you are.” He says, “There’s something wrong within you. You must change. You must deny your wrong desires, some of your natural inclinations.”

Second, he says that his followers must take up their crosses daily. Now, the cross for us has become a nice symbol. People wear it on necklaces. We see it in all kinds of designs. And we trivialize the saying, “We all have our cross to bear.” “Your husband snores? Well, we all have our cross to bear.” In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death, reserved for slaves, for enemies of the state. It was reserved for terrorists. They were made to carry the crossbeam to the site of their death, the same beam upon which they would be impaled and hanged for hours or even days until they died, bearing that shameful death in public view. Perhaps we could recover a bit of the original shock of Jesus’ words if we imagined him saying something like, “You must be guillotined daily.” Though that was a quick death and crucifixion was not. C. S. Lewis once said, “He says, ‘Take up your Cross’—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp.”[7]

What Jesus is saying is that we must be willing to suffer. We must also put to death those wrong desires, and we must do that daily. We don’t enter into a relationship with Jesus because we’re good. We are saved by grace, which means it’s a gift from God, not something we have earned. So, when we become Christians, it’s because we realize how messed up we are. We are not what we should be, and we realize that only Jesus can help us. As we follow him, we are a work in progress. Our old desires haven’t magically disappeared. Even when we feel like we’ve controlled them, they can still pop their ugly heads up. And when they do, we must cut those heads off again. We have to crucify the old desires—if they’re contrary to God’s ways. Not all desires are wrong. But there are some that are wrong and destructive, and they must die.

We also must be willing to suffer as Christians. Life as a Christian isn’t easy. It requires discipline, effort, work. We don’t work to earn God’s favor, but once we’ve received salvation, we’re supposed to “work it out,” or put it to use. The good news is that God gives us the strength to do that (see Phil. 2:12–13). He works in us through the Holy Spirit. But change comes slowly through effort, through practice. So, we have that internal battle. But there’s also an external battle. People will hate Christians. Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). The world killed the most loving, perfect man who ever walked the face of this planet. It will not treat Christians differently. We must be willing to bear whatever hatred the world throws our way, including name-calling, being excluded, and even being persecuted.

Third, Jesus tells his disciples to follow him. We follow his example, but we must also obey his commands. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Hearing and following means obeying what Jesus commands.

Now, if this all sounds too difficult, there is great news. Those who trust Jesus, take up their cross, and follow him will gain the whole world. They will be acceptable to God. They will experience God’s love and favor forever. But those who reject Jesus and try to gain the world on their own will lose it. This seems like a paradox.

There is something paradoxical about seeking meaning and happiness in this life. If you seek primarily after happiness, you likely won’t find it. That’s because we seek happiness in money and the things it can buy, often stuff, whether that’s clothing and jewelry or houses, cars, and gadgets. We think we’ll be happy when we’re more comfortable, or better entertained. But happiness often comes through focusing on others. When we help other people, when we live for something beyond ourselves, we find happiness. Seek after happiness, and you will likely lose it. Seek after something greater than happiness, and you’ll get happiness thrown in.

That same principle could be applied to so much in life. Want a good marriage? Don’t focus on trying to get your spouse to please you, or to create a romantic environment. Focus instead of loving your spouse. Want a good worship experience? You can try to manufacture a good experience of worship, by having the right physical environment and the right songs, but you can’t guarantee it will come. My best experiences in worship come at really odd times, like hearing someone sing a song about Jesus a cappella, or without accompaniment. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said this about trying to create an experience of the Holy Spirit: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove, and it flew away.”[8] The point is that if you want a great religious experience, focus on Jesus and you’ll get it. But if you focus on a great religious experience, you won’t get it.

If we try to find ultimate meaning or happiness in the things of this world, or in ourselves, we won’t find it. But if we seek those things in God, we will. Augustine knew this well, which is why he writes things like these statements in his Confessions: “When I seek for you, my God, my quest is for the happy life.”[9] “That is the authentic happy life, to set one’s joy on you, grounded in you and caused by you.”[10] Christianity isn’t a joyless march to suffering and death. Christianity is actually about finding the greatest joy. But we find that joy in the very source of our lives, in God. If we seek for true life in anything less than God, we will only find death. We can gain the whole world and lose it, or we can give up control over our lives to God and find, in the end, that we haven’t lost anything, but we’ve gained everything

And after the suffering of this life comes glory. Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and die, but he also said they would see the kingdom of God. We’ll look at this more next week, but after this passage, Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray. And as he prays, his appearance changes. His face starts gleaming. His clothes become a dazzling white. And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (See Luke 9:28–36.) This is a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity and a glimpse of what he is like after he dies and rises from the grave. Though he died, he rose in a body that is indestructible, a glorified body that can never die again. And all his followers will experience the same. Though we suffer and die in this life, one day we will be raised again in indestructible bodies and we will live with God forever in a perfect world. We will experience perfect, unending happiness, infinite joy. But that only comes after we first are willing to put our old selves to death.

So, what does this mean for us? The only way to be right with God, to have true peace, happiness, and to live forever in a perfect world, is to be united to Jesus. To be united to Jesus means being willing to come after him, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. We have to put the old self to death and put on the new self.

Here’s what this doesn’t mean. Dying to self isn’t becoming a Buddhist and eliminating all desire and attachment. It doesn’t mean being stripped of all your personality and becoming a mindless slave or a robot. Christianity teaches us that we can enjoy God’s creation, when we use it rightly, according to his design. We can have fun. We have personalities. Not all desires are bad. Not every single aspect of us must change completely when we become Christians, though we the overall trajectory of our lives will change, our motives and purpose for living will change, and we will come under the rule of Jesus, not ourselves and our desires.

But Christianity does teach that things do have to change. And we need to use Scripture to know which things must change and how we must change. I think one passage of Scripture teaches us quite clearly.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he indicates what the life of a Christian should look like. At the beginning of chapter 3, he says that Christians should seek Jesus and have their minds fixed on him, not primarily on all the things of this world. He says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). He also says that Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). In his letter to the Galatians, he says something similar. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus now owns us and lives in us. Our old identity, our old selves must die so that we can truly live.

Then, Paul writes the following, which is worth reading. This is Colossians 3:5–17:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

So, what do we put to death? “Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” “Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” Lying, a feeling of being superior to people who are different from us. In short, we have to stop being greedy, stop grabbing every kind of pleasure, stop making something other than God the ultimate reason why we live. Whatever we love most, whatever we trust in most, whatever dictates the course of our life—that is our God, that is what we’re truly worshiping. If any of the things we do causes us to worship a false god and reject God’s design for our lives, we need to kill it.

But it’s not enough to kill something bad. We must replace the bad with the good. So, what do we do? We become compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We love—not some generic love, but the way God instructs us to love. We thank God. And we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” Notice that you can’t have a new self without God’s word, the Bible. And we can’t do it alone. We must meet together regularly and teach and admonish one another and sing together. And “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

That’s what it looks like to deny our selves and follow Jesus. And that can only come if we give ourselves—our whole selves—to Jesus.

Jesus never said, “Invite me into your heart.” That silly saying isn’t in the Bible. I hate some of the clichés we have because they give the wrong impression. That sounds like you can give Jesus a tiny portion of your life. Jesus doesn’t just want a little place in your heart. He wants your whole heart, you whole body, your whole mind, and your whole soul. When we invite Jesus into our lives, he takes them over. And that’s how things should be. If we try to retain control of our lives, we will drive them into a ditch. Controlling our lives leads to disaster. But if we let Jesus take over, he will bring us home, to God and all that comes with a right relationship with him: peace, meaning, happiness, security, and true, unending life.

C. S. Lewis had so much to say about this. I encourage you to read his Mere Christianity, one of the great books on Christianity. I’m tempted to give you a whole heaping of Lewis quotes on killing the old self, but I’ll end with just a short one: “The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”[11]

Notes

  1. Augustine, City of God 10.1, trans. Marcus Dods (1950; New York: Modern Library, 2000), 303.
  2. Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196.
  3. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 94–95.
  4. This interview was conducted in June 2005. The relevant part of the transcript is available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-tom-brady-part-3/ (accessed February 5, 2016).
  5. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  6. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 193.
  7. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 197.
  8. Quoted in Vaughan Roberts, True Worship (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), 91.
  9. Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196.
  10. Augustine, Confessions X.xxii, 198.
  11. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 213.

 

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.

The Seed Is the Word of God

This sermon was preached on January 6, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

How many resolutions have your broken so far in this new year? I’m not asking if you’ve broken any resolutions. It’s January 6, after all. I’m asking you how many resolutions you’ve broken.

Resolutions are made to be broken, or so it seems. That means that either we’re quitters, or we set our goals to high. I have a friend from college—I’ll call him Seth, because that’s his name—who said he only makes resolutions he knows he can keep. He said one year his resolution was to wear his bathrobe inside his house every day. Another year, he resolved to never say “oh” instead of the number “zero.” Maybe there’s something to be said for setting the bar low.

But no matter how high or how low we set the bar, we realize that most of us don’t achieve our goals. Only some people seem to cross the finish line. Many resolutions involve diet and exercise. We realize that some people never bother to do those things. Some people start out with the best of intentions, work hard for a week or a month, and then give up. Only some people will achieve their diet and exercise goals.

The same is true when it comes to pursuing a relationship with God. In the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re told that some people won’t bother with the things of God. Some people will seem to have a relationship with him—they may seem to become Christians and talk about Jesus, attend church, and read their Bible—but then trials come, or they get too busy with other things in life, and they change. Only some people will truly pursue a relationship with God. These people will have a life-long relationship with God and are part of God’s family.

Today, we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. If you haven’t been with us so far, you can catch up by visiting wbcomunity.org/luke. We’re still in the first half of the Gospel, so there’s a lot more to learn about Jesus, his teachings, and his death and resurrection.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:4–8:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”[1]

Notice that Jesus is attracting a great crowd of people that have come from various towns. Jesus is still in Galilee, the region where he grew up. And perhaps because there’s a great crowd, he teaches in a parable. We’ve already seen a couple of short parables in Luke (Luke 5:36; 6:39), but we’re going to see many more of them, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them. A parable is a way of teaching that isn’t direct, or straightforward. Sometimes, parables are like proverbs, short, colorful statements that teach theological truths. Other times, parables are stories that teach a theological truth, but not in direct way. The word parable comes from a Greek word that literally means something cast alongside. A parable comes alongside a truth and communicates it in an indirect way.

There are a lot of ways to communicate something. If I wanted to tell you about God, I could tell you things in short, propositional statements. I could say that God is all powerful. That’s a direct way of teaching something about God. But I could also tell you that by telling a story about a king who has complete control of his kingdom. I could tell you that God is merciful. Or I could tell you a story about how a king forgave his dishonest servant. I could tell you that God is loving. Or I could tell you a story about a father who loves his rebellious son.

There’s a lot to be said for teaching things in a direct way. But parables are different. They get you from point A to point B, but not in a straight line. They get there in a roundabout way, kind of like the way parabolas are curved. Parables get us to think. They’re colorful and memorable. To those who understand, they’re clear as day. But those who don’t understand may be stumped and might scratch their heads. This is why Jesus teaches in parables.

This parable is pretty easy to understand on one level. In Jesus’ day, people were all familiar with the basics of agriculture. To grow crops, you had to sow seed. We hear of a sower who sows seeds. Some seed fall on the path, where they get trampled on and the birds eat them. The path would have been hard ground, so the seed would have no chance to get into good soil to grow. Some seed fell on rocky ground. There would be a thin layer of soil above limestone. This seed would grow up to a point, but it couldn’t develop deep roots and it couldn’t draw in enough moisture to withstand the hot weather. Other seed grew up amidst thorns, which choked the plant and caused it to die. And some seed fell on good soil, where it grew and produced a large crop.

On one level, the story is easy to understand. But why is Jesus teaching about agriculture? What’s the point of this story?

The disciples want to know, so they ask Jesus, and he answers. Let’s read verses 9–15:

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

There are a couple of things to see here. The first is what Jesus says about “the secrets of the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God, to use a definition we studied recently in our Bible study, is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[2] Not everyone is part of God’s people. Only those who turn to the King and come under his rule will find his blessing. Luke clearly presents Jesus as this King, the one who has come to establish his kingdom on Earth. And the secrets of this kingdom, or what we might call the ways of this kingdom, are not communicated clearly to everyone. To Jesus’ disciples, he gives them the clear meaning, but others will only hear in parables that are not interpreted.

Jesus then quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was sent to Israel, which was supposedly God’s people, to send them a message of warning about their sin, but also a message of hope for those who would hear. Israel had rebelled against God. They had worshiped false gods. They rejected the very reason why God made them, which was for his glory, so that they would know him, love him, and worship him. They rejected the true God and went after gods that seemed to please them, but who couldn’t help them. So, Isaiah was told to speak to them. But Isaiah was told that the people were hardhearted. They could see, but they couldn’t really see the truth. They could hear, but they wouldn’t hear God’s words and act on them. Because they worshiped idols, they became like them. Idols have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear.

In a way, that’s our story. The Bible says that because we live in God’s creation, and because we were designed by God, we know certain things about God. We all know there is a God who exists, who created everything, who is powerful and eternal (Rom. 1:20; cf. Eccl. 3:11). But though we know this, we don’t pursue God. That’s because we don’t really want there to be a God who is both Creator and King. That kind of God tells us that he made things to function in a certain way. That kind of God is the ultimate authority. We tend to want to be the ultimate authority of our lives. We want to determine the course of our lives. We’re going to set our own goals, our own resolutions, thank you very much.

Because of our rebellious nature, God lets us go our own way. But he graciously reveals himself more clearly to some of us, those whom he is calling into his kingdom. This is what Jesus means when he prays to God the Father. This is what he says in Matthew 11:25–27:

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

It’s God’s gracious will to reveal himself. That means that knowing God is a gift. And so is salvation. Christianity teaches that we can be reconciled to God not because we deserve it, because we work hard or because we’re good. No, Christianity teaches that we’re so bad that the only way to be made right with God is if he gives us the gift of salvation. And if he has given us that gift, our lives will change forever.

The second thing we need to see is the meaning of the parable. For anyone who cares to read the Bible, the meaning is made clear. In the story about the sower and the seed, the seed is the word of God. Jesus has been sowing that seed, speaking God’s words. Those words will fall on deaf ears, who hear but don’t seem to understand (see Matt. 13:19), or perhaps who aren’t interested at all. Jesus says the devil comes and snatches the word away from such people. Elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that “the god of this world” blinds “the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The second type of soil is rocky, shallow soil. Jesus says these people appear to receive the word of God with joy. In other words, these people seem to believe for a while. But he says they have no root, and in a time of trial, and in that “time of testing” they fall away. The third type of soil is similar: this represents people who seem to believe for a while, but that faith is “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Does this mean that people can truly believe that God’s word is true and then later not believe?

I think that’s possible, but I also think that’s different from trusting in God himself. I believe that the Bible, in its totality, teaches that no one can truly understand who God is and what he requires of us, and then have a right relationship with him, unless God draws that person to himself and gives them eyes to see the truth. In other words, we can’t come to God unless we’re born again of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says in John 3. We can’t come to God truly unless he transforms us. And if he changes our hearts, we will be changed forever. We will not fall away from that kind of faith.

But the Bible also teaches the possibility of false conversions. Some people say they believe in Jesus. Some people will act like it for a while. But then they experience difficult times, perhaps hardships or temptations, and they walk away from Jesus. Others will care more about things that seem to be pressing realities, the “cares . . . of life.” They may say, “I’ll read the Bible when life slows down, when my kids are off to college, when I have some extra time.” Others will be consumed with “the riches and pleasures of life.” And these people will walk away from Jesus, too. These people were never “born again,” or regenerated by God.

This seems easy to understand. It’s easy to say you believe. Anyone can do that. Anyone can take a few steps toward following Christ. They can go to church, get baptized, read their Bible. They can appear quite sincere. But it’s one thing to do this for a little while and quite another to do this for a long time, particularly when life is difficult and when so many other things compete for our attention, affection, energy, time, and money. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that hard to get a gym membership, to show up to the gym for a while, and to eat a healthier diet. A lot of people can do that for a week. But how many can do that for a month, or a year? How many people make that a new lifestyle? You can’t realistically say, “I’m going to get really buff by working out for a week,” or, “I’m going to lower my cholesterol by 50 points in the next week.” To become healthy, your life needs to change permanently, not just for a little while. The same thing is true of pursuing a relationship with God.

Those people who appear to have faith but don’t follow through in their relationship with God never had true faith. As the apostle John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These people who end up walking away from the church were never “of us,” they were never transformed by God, they were never born again of the Holy Spirit, they were never saved.

Some people have a hard time accepting that. In my experience, those people are usually parents whose kids went to church, made a profession of faith while they were young, were baptized, and then went off into the world and didn’t live as Christians. These parents are often in denial about the true spiritual state of their kids. If your kids abandon the church as adults, I am quite sure that they didn’t have a real faith to begin with. Don’t fool yourself and say, “Oh, they know the Lord, they’re just not walking with him now.”

Here’s a quick story: the year that I came to this church, 2014, I had applied to a number of churches to be their pastor. One of these churches pursued me and was interested in calling me to be their pastor. We visited the church a couple of times and I preached one sermon for the congregation. I had preached on a passage from Colossians 2, where Paul urges Christians to stay rooted in Christ. And I mentioned that the Bible teaches about the possibility of false conversions. Those who aren’t rooted in Christ fall away from him. They don’t have real faith. They aren’t really Christians. I was supposed to preach a second time before they offered me the job, but I didn’t feel that it was a good fit, so I called the head of the search committee to let him down. When I did that, he mentioned that one man didn’t like my sermon. I knew who this man was. He taught a Sunday school class. In it, he mentioned that his adult daughter wasn’t “walking with the Lord” and didn’t even want him to pray for her. But he also was quick to say he knew she was “born again,” so she was okay with God. If the Spirit of God resides in a person, that person will never reject prayer. I think this man had fooled himself because he couldn’t bear the thought that this daughter rejected Jesus.

The Bible calls those who don’t walk with Jesus unbelievers, not “backsliding Christians.” There are no perfect Christians in this life. And our faith can go through valleys, when we fall into sin. But a real Christian repents, again and again, and keeps turning to Jesus. If the Spirit of God dwells in you, he will bring you to Jesus. Your life will bear the fruit or the marks of a Christian.

And that’s what Jesus says about the fourth type of soil. This soil represents those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” These people are truly Christians. They hold fast to the word of God and they bear fruit “with patience.” They are in it for the long haul. They’re like the people who, seeking better health, stick with their diet and exercise program even when it’s hard, doesn’t seem like fun, or doesn’t seem to produce great results in the moment. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

It seems clear that Jesus commends only this last group of people. They are the ones who are part of his kingdom, who are forgiven of their sins, and who will live forever with Jesus. Again, Jesus doesn’t mean that these people earned those things. Salvation is a gift. But if it has been received, it will be put to use by those who have received it.

That’s more or less what Jesus says in the next paragraph, verses 16–18:

16 “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world.” He says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus comes to reveal things as they truly are. He reveals our true spiritual condition. He exposes our sin, our rebellion against God. But he also illuminates the path to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He himself is that path. If you understand and believe that Jesus is the light of God, you would hang on to that light and shine it in all parts of your life. You wouldn’t hide it in a box or stick it under the bed, like an unwanted Christmas gift. People do that, of course, but these are not the people who realize who Jesus truly is.

Jesus says that even if you do that, his light will be revealed. “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.” You can try to cover Jesus up, or shut him up, but in the end he will prevail. He is in heaven now, but when he comes to Earth a second time, everyone will see that he is Lord, the true King. And he will bring everyone into judgment. There will be no hiding him, no silencing him on that day. All will come to light, including our sins and whether we have truly believed Jesus or not. If we do believe in Jesus, our sins will be covered. They have already been paid for when Jesus died on the cross almost two thousand years ago. But those who have rejected Jesus will have nowhere to hide. They will have to pay for their own sins.

Since that is so, Jesus says, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” If you receive God’s word and are faithful to what God has given you, he will entrust you with more. But the one who truly doesn’t have a relationship with God, “even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” I believe there will be many people on that last day who will be surprised by the judgment that Jesus makes on their faith. There will be people who say, “But Lord, I made a confession of faith. I prayed that prayer I was told to say. I was baptized. I went to church.” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus is giving us a warning. We are hearing the word of God. What are we going to do with it?

Jesus makes it clear that hearing the word of God and believing that it is true leads to action. Those who belong to the family of God hear the word and do it. We see that in verses 19–21:

19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus’ biological family wanted to see him. Instead of saying, “Oh, thanks for telling me. I’ll be right there,” Jesus takes the opportunity to define his real family. His real family consists of people who hear and do the word of God. Again, we don’t earn our way into the family of God by doing his word. Did you earn your way into your family? No, you were born into it. But no one is born biologically into God’s family. We must be reborn, which is a work that only God can do. But once we’re in the family, we’re supposed to act like it. And Jesus says that the people who are in his family show themselves by their actions. It’s easy to say you believe something. Act like it, Jesus says.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, how do we respond?

I simply ask three questions. One, is there room in your life for the word of God? Two, are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Three, are you acting according to God’s word?

Is there room in your life for God’s word? Are you listening intently now? Are you reading the Bible? Are you studying it to make sure you understand what you’ve read? There are many things that will crowd your life so that you don’t read the Bible. There are many concerns that we have. We’re worried about our family, our health, our job. Don’t let these things choke out the word of God. There are many pleasurable things to do, and not all of them are wrong. Don’t let these things take up all your time so you have no room for God’s word in your life. Trials will come, and you may doubt God’s word, or temptations may come, and you may not want to hear from God because you know he will correct you. But this is a mistake. We need to run to the one who can correct us, forgive us, and heal us.

Make sure there is room for God’s word in your life. You can do this in many ways. Reading the Bible regularly is the best way. I recommend getting a study Bible like the ESV Study Bible and reading systematically. We have Bible plans available here and on our website (wbcommunity.org/bible). You can read through the Bible in a year. But if that’s too fast of a pace, do it in two years. You can also listen to the Bible. There are different apps you can use. Christianaudio.com has an app and you can find cheap recordings of the Bible to purchase. You can read alone or with your family. One of my only New Year’s resolutions was to have a regular time of worship as a family. So, three times this week we read a Psalm, sang a song or hymn, read a question and answer out of a catechism, and prayed. It was quick—maybe 10 minutes—but over a long time, that practice will help mold and shape us as a family. Ten extra minutes of exercise every day adds up to big changes over a long period of time. Likewise, our daily diet affects our health. You are what you eat, and we cannot be better than what we put inside ourselves.

Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian and a pastor in Massachusetts, made several resolutions when he was a young man. Most of them involved actions and attitudes. But one of them was this: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.”[3] Resolve to study the Bible.

Are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Do you let God speak into area of your life? Do you let him expose your sins, the ways you are not doing life according to his terms? Or do you try to silence God and cover up his light? You can do this for a time, but in the end Jesus’ light will shine. His voice will roar. It is better to respond now so that he can heal you. If you are not yet a Christian indeed, I would love to talk to you about what it would look like to follow Jesus. I urge you to let God’s word and light into your life.

Are you acting according to God’s word? We all fail to do perfectly according to God’s word. But are you trying? Are you acting on what you know? It’s not enough to be hearers of God’s word. It’s not enough to nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s right.” We must act.

Jesus’ brother, James provides a great commentary on today’s passage. This is James 1:16–25:

16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This comes from Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  3. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.

 

The Seed Is the Word of God (Luke 8:4-21)

What does it look like to respond rightly to Jesus? What does it look like to believe in him? Jesus teaches a parable about four types of responses to his message. Find out what it looks like to be a real Christian. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 8:4–21, on January 6, 2019.

In Full Accord and of One Mind (Philippians 2:1-11)

Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.

God Has Visited His People (Luke 7:11-17)

Jesus does the unimaginable: he brings a dead man back to life. He can bring spiritually dead people to life through his word, and the dead will be raised at his command when he returns. Listen to this message on Luke 7:11-17, preached by Brian Watson.

Foundation on the Rock (Luke 6:43-49)

Jesus divides people into two groups: those who produce good fruit by listening to his words, and those who produce bad fruit by refusing to hear him and do what he says. People in the first group build their houses on the solid ground, but those in the second group are like those who build a house without a foundation. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:43-49.

Blessed (Luke 6:17-26)

Jesus challenges the world’s priorities and values by saying that the poor, hungry, sorrowful, and hated are blessed, while the rich, full, laughing, popular people are to be pitied. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:17-26, which includes the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.”

He Called His Disciples (Luke 6:12-16)

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow him, witness his acts and teaching, and to be his representatives. Who did he pick? A surprising group of men. Find out why this matters by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on September 23, 2018.

He Called His Disciples (Luke 6:12-16)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 23, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Our younger son, Simon, started playing soccer this fall. He’s only 6 years old and he’s playing in a league of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. He had his second game yesterday and it’s interesting to see how, even at that young age, different kids have different athletic abilities. Some are bigger and some quite small. Some are faster than others and some are more coordinated. Some have a good sense of the game, where the ball is going and where it needs to go.

I don’t know how these kids are assigned to different teams. But it would be pretty easy to pick which kids you’d want on your team. There was one kid yesterday, on the other team, who could dribble through traffic and who scored two goals—one with the right foot, and one with the left. I’d pick that kid first if I were building a team.

Did you ever have that experience as a kid when captains were picking teams to play a sport? Maybe you were the one who did the picking. You know how this goes: all the people who want to play are lined up and two people take turns picking these players to be on their team. Usually, the first choices are obvious. The fast, coordinated, strong players are picked first. If you’re playing basketball, you’d pick the tall people quickly. Then you pick the average players. Eventually, you pick the people who look like they couldn’t run if they were under cooked eggs. Maybe you were always the last one picked and this whole idea brings traumatic memories to mind.

But imagine for a moment that you were building your own professional sports team. Imagine you could build your own Dream Team of the very best players in that sport. Money is not an issue here, and there’s no salary cap. Most of your picks would be pretty obvious ones. You’d pick the fastest, strongest, most coordinated, winningest athletes.

Now, imagine you were building a company from scratch. Let’s say this is some kind of tech company. Who would you want on your team? You’d want the genius computer whizzes. You’d want the best designers, the best financial officers, the best marketing guys. You’d want people who could design a product, make a product, sell the product, manage the money, and manage the personnel. You’d want the smartest, the best educated, the most creative.

Imagine you were a political leader, and you’re assembling your cabinet. Who would you want? You also would want the smartest and best educated people. But you would want other people, people who were connected, people who were powerful, people who could get things done. You’d want public policy wonks and power brokers, ideas people and influence people.

Now imagine that you’re building something far more important than a sports team, a company, or even a nation. Imagine that you’re going to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Let’s say that you happen to be God, and you come to Earth and you want to pick a dozen guys who will witness the things you do and say, who will train with you, and who will carry on your work after you’ve gone back to heaven. Who would you pick? You’d pick the religious leaders, right? You know, the people who know the Bible the best. Or you’d pick powerful people, like kings and princes. Maybe you’d want some rich people, and you always need a few smart, egghead types. You’d want people who are calm-headed, even-keeled, not people who act rashly, right? So, who would you pick?

Well, those are very hypothetical situations. The bad news is that none of us will be owners of professional sports teams or Fortune 500 companies. I’m pretty not one of us is going to be president or governor. But there is good news: none of us is God. And when it comes to that last situation, it’s not so hypothetical. God did come to Earth and he did pick a dozen men to witness what he did and said, and they did go on to tell other people about this God. But the men God picked were not the kind of guys that you or I would likely pick. And that’s another thing about Jesus that is stunning.

Today, we’re continuing our series through the Gospel of Luke, and we’re going to focus only on five verses. In these verses, we see that Jesus, who is still toward the beginning of his public ministry, is going pray and then choose twelve men out of his larger number of followers to be his apostles, his specially-commissioned messengers. And, suffice it to say, the twelve men are not the most powerful, most influential, or even the smartest men there are. But God knows what he’s doing, and he has a surprising way of doing things.

So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 6:12–16:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.[1]

This passage is short, and if you don’t know who Jesus is and what he came to do, you wouldn’t understand the significance of this passage. So, I’ll give us some context.

We’ve already seen in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is unique. He is no ordinary man. He had a conception unlike anyone: he was conceived in a virgin, without sex. Miraculously, the Holy Spirit caused Mary to be pregnant. And even before that time, we have strong clues that Jesus won’t simply be a miraculously-conceived man. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And even before this, the prophet Isaiah foretold of a time when it would be announced, “For unto us a child is born . . . and his name shall be called . . . Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). How could a child be born who is called “Mighty God”? How can God be born a child?

Well, that’s one of the greatest claims that Christianity makes. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe. And over two thousand years ago, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Son of God became a human being, first as an embryo, then a baby, then a child, then a man. And he did this without ceasing to be God. It’s a bit hard to grasp that Jesus is both God and man. We say that he’s one person with two natures, one divine and one human. This is one of the hardest things about Christianity to grasp, along with the Trinity. Just as we believe that there is one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we believe that Jesus is both God and man.

We believe that because it’s revealed in the Bible, and we believe that the Bible is God’s written word. Already in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve had some hints that Jesus is God. Gabriel said he was the Son of God, and Jesus claims to forgive sins—sins that were not committed directly against the man Jesus. When Jesus makes this claim, some of the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). And that’s the point; Jesus is God. We’ll get other hints as we go through Luke. One of the clearest passages in Scripture that says that Jesus is God is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The “Word” here is the Son of God, Jesus. And he is somehow both with God and is God. He is God—the Son of God—and he was with the Father from what is known as eternity past.

What’s interesting here is that Jesus prays to God—to God the Father, more specifically—before he chooses twelve men who will serve as his apostles. We may wonder why Jesus has to pray at all. If he’s God, can’t he just go ahead and pick these men? Doesn’t he know who he’s supposed to choose? And even if he has to pray, why does he pray all through the night?

The answer is that though Jesus is God, he lived his life primarily as a man. He never stopped being God, but he didn’t rely on his divine attributes to go through life. Every once in a while, he could call on his divine powers to heal and to forgive and to know things that ordinary people don’t know. But most of the time, he lived as a man, using the same resources that are available to us all, things like reading Scripture and praying. The reason why Jesus became a man was to fulfill God’s design for humanity. He came to live the perfect human life, because no one else has. We were made to love God and represent him and worship him and obey him. But we don’t do any of these things well or often, and certainly not perfectly. So, Jesus comes to live the perfect human life, to be the true image of God. That’s one of the reasons why he came.

Jesus came to do the will of his Father (John 6:38). The man Jesus relied completely on the Father during his time on Earth. As the perfectly obedient Son of God, Jesus spent time with his Father in prayer. When he was about to do something important, he prayed. The man Jesus wanted to talk to God the Father. He wanted to know the Father’s will.

So, we see Jesus praying on a mountain all through the night. Perhaps he went up a mountain simply to get away from the crowds that were following him. Perhaps we’re supposed to see echoes of Moses meeting with God on Mount Sinai. But the important thing is Jesus is praying before making an important decision. He’s about to choose twelve men who will be spend the next two or three years with him, men who will go on to tell the world about Jesus. To but it bluntly, Jesus couldn’t afford to screw this choice up. He had to get the right men, the ones God wanted.

So, Jesus prays throughout the night. And when it was day, Jesus calls his disciples to himself. This must be a larger group of Jesus’ followers. Literally, a disciple is a student. There were people who wanted to learn from Jesus. And out of this larger group of people, Jesus chooses twelve men, whom he named apostles.

The word apostle means someone who is sent, usually to be a messenger. The apostles are later said to be people who were with Jesus the whole time of his pubic ministry and who saw him after he later rose from the grave (Acts 1:21–22). Jesus’ life, his miracles, his teachings, and, later, his death and resurrection are so important that there must be witnesses, people who could go to the world and tell what they saw Jesus do.

Before we look at who these men are, we should ask an important question: why twelve? Why does Jesus choose twelve? Why not ten or fifteen? Jesus chooses twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. We know that because toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, he’ll say this to his disciples:

28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28–30).

Jesus is restoring, renewing, and recreating Israel, the people of God. This reminds us slightly of the book of Numbers, when Moses and Israel were still at Sinai. At Mount Sinai, God told Moses to take a census of the people of Israel. God told Moses that he would be assisted by one man from every tribe (Num. 1:1–44). Something similar is happening here. That’s why at the beginning of the book of Acts, when there are only eleven apostles, they must name a twelfth apostle. Jesus is rebuilding Israel. He will use these unlikely men to gather the true Israel, the people of faith.

Now, let’s take a look at who these apostles are. We’ve already met some of them in Luke 5. The list begins with four fishermen. Simon is better known as Peter, a name that Jesus gives him. He is the leader of the group. He’s often bold, even acting rashly. When Jesus is later arrested, he takes a sword and cuts off a soldier’s ear (John 18:10). Yet after that bold move, he is cowardly and denies knowing Jesus so he can save his life (Luke 22:54–62).

Simon’s brother, Andrew, is not as prominent among the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ earliest followers. In John’s Gospel, we see that he introduced Simon to Jesus (John 1:40–42). That’s when Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means “rock.”

The next two disciples are another pair of brothers and fishermen, James and John. They were partners with Peter and Andrew. It’s possible that they were cousins of Jesus (compare John 19:25 with Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40).[2] James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples, along with Peter. John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20), the one who wrote the Gospel of John and John’s letters and the book of Revelation. James and John were known as the “sons of thunder,” probably because of episodes like one we’ll see later in Luke. This is Luke 9:51–54:

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Jewish people looked down on Samaritans. Add to that the fact that the people in this village didn’t receive Jesus, and you can see why James and John might be a bit put out. They were probably thinking of the good old days of the prophet Elijah, when he would call fire to come down from heaven to consume God’s enemies (see 1 Kgs. 18:20–40; 2 Kgs. 1). But Jesus rebukes them (verse 55).

We don’t know a lot about the next disciples. Philip was from Bethsaida, just like Peter and the other fishermen. He invited his friend Nathaniel to meet Jesus (John 1:45–46). Bartholomew is probably the same man as Nathaniel, since we only read about Nathaniel in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew appears in the other Gospels.

Matthew is the same person as Levi, the tax collector we met in Luke 5:27–32. Tax collectors were known as traitors since they served the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that had power of Israel. They were also known as being dishonest.

Thomas is most famous for doubting that Jesus rose from the grave (John 20:24–25). But when he saw the risen Jesus, he made the great confession, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He had also said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16).

We know very little about James the Son of Alphaeus. The same is true of Simon, who was also called the Zealot. Some have assumed that he was a revolutionary, part of a group of people who were against the Roman Empire. But this group of Zealots didn’t emerge until a few decades later and it’s just as possible that Simon was zealous for the Jewish law. We also don’t know much about Judas the son of James. He’s called Thaddeus by Matthew and Mark (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). John simply refers to him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” so we don’t confuse him with the more famous Judas (John 14:22).

And that brings us to Judas Iscariot. He was the treasurer of the apostles, handling their money. But we’re told by John that he helped himself to that money (John 12:4–6). Judas is infamous for betraying Jesus, telling the Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus how they could arrest him away from the crowds. That’s why Luke says that Judas “became a traitor.” Jesus’ arrest led to his trial and death. After Judas had realized what he did, he regretted his actions and gave back the money that he was paid to betray Jesus. But he couldn’t live with what he did, so he hanged himself (Matt. 27:3–10).

These are the men that God led Jesus to choose. There were no Bible scholars, no religious leaders, no politicians, no particularly wealthy men in the bunch. In most ways, these men were thoroughly unimpressive.

  So, why does God choose these men? We’re never told explicitly. But the Bible states that God does as he pleases, that his will is perfect, and that he governs everything that happens. So, we trust he has good reasons for what he does.

We also know something else: God often chooses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish (in the world’s eyes) to shame those who are supposedly wise.

Consider this passage by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Paul is saying that God is truly wise, but God’s perfect wisdom is not what the world regards as wise. In the eyes of most people, what God does doesn’t make sense. At the time of Jesus, it didn’t make sense that God would become man and die on a cross. That’s because Jews knew that those who died in that way were cursed by God. Gentiles knew the cross was for enemies of the state, and the whole idea that there’s one true God who became man, died, and rose from the grave didn’t make sense to them.

But God truly knows what he’s doing. Paul says that Jews demand signs, or miracles. What greater miracle is there than for God to be come man and then rise from the grave after dying? Paul says Greeks seek wisdom. What wiser way to take care of the problem of sin, our rebellion against God, than for Jesus to bear that sin himself, absorbing the punishment that we deserve, so that all who are united to him can be forgiven?

God shows his wisdom by using unlikely people, the average person, the weak, the poor. God doesn’t need to use the powerful, the rich, the smartest guys in the room. That’s because God has infinite power, and he can do what he wants in spite of our limitations. If God were picking a team, he might pick all the chubby kids with two left feet. He does this so that he can take all the credit for his works. We cannot boast because God is the hero of the story. We are only recipients of God’s grace.

The fact that God used very ordinary men to build the church is something of a miracle. In fact, we might even say it’s proof that Christianity is the true religion. I’m taking a course on apologetics now. Apologetics is basically the study of why Christianity is true. The word comes from the Greek word apologia, which can mean “defense” or “reason.” The idea comes from 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word reason is a translation of apologia.

At any rate, I’ve been studying apologetics, including the history of how people have defended the faith against objections and how they have given reasons why people should put their trust in Jesus. And some of the older apologists said that the truth of Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that God grew the church out of a small group of common men. This is what one preacher, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), said

How many did the Church win over? Not two, or ten, or twenty, or a hundred, but almost every man living under the sun. With whose help did it win them over? With the help of eleven men. And these men were unlettered, ignorant, ineloquent, undistinguished, and poor. They could not rely on the fame of their homelands, on any abundance of wealth, or strength of body, or glorious reputation, or illustrious ancestry. They were neither forceful nor clever in speech; they could make no parade of knowledge. They were fishermen and tentmakers, men of a foreign tongue. They did not speak the same language as those whom they won over to the faith. Their speech—I mean Hebrew—was strange and different from all others. But it was with the help of these men that Christ founded this Church which reaches from one end of the world to the other.[3]

The point is that unless God were working through these ordinary men, there’s no way a new religious movement could have spread throughout the world. These men didn’t have any political power or wealth. Judaism was tolerated by the Roman Empire, but Christianity was something new, something not protected by law. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar, the emperor, is not. This challenged the Roman Empire. Christians refused to bow down to the emperor and worship him or any of the other false gods in the Empire. To become a Christian was to go against Rome and the old order of Judaism. You wouldn’t do this, and you wouldn’t succeed if you did, unless God were behind it.

What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t just choose some ordinary men. He chooses a man who will be a traitor. The fact that Judas sold Jesus out wasn’t something that surprised God. God knew this all along. He always knows everything. Yet God chose Judas. I suppose someone had to betray Jesus so that he would die. One of the things the Bible says is that God has a plan for everything and that people are responsible for their actions. We see this most clearly at the cross (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). The fact that Judas was chosen was not an accident. Judas was responsible for his sin, but he was part of God’s plan.

And Jesus’ death was not an accident. Yes, people didn’t believe him and hated him, and that’s part of why he died. But ultimately, Jesus’ death was God’s plan to rescue his people from their sin. Earlier I said that Jesus came in part to live a perfect life, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity. The other reason why he came was to pay the penalty for our sin. Our sin is so offensive to God and so destructive to his creation that he must remove it. God is a perfect judge who sees all the evidence, and he must punish sin. Jesus’ death is the way that God punishes sins without destroying sinners.

Jesus prayed before choosing his disciples. He prayed before Peter made the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Luke 9:18–20). He prayed before he was transfigured, revealing his divine glory to Peter, James, and John (Luke 9:28–29). And he wrestled in prayer on the night he was arrested, the night before he died, because he knew that he was about to experience hell on earth (Luke 22:39–46). Jesus prayed for our benefit. And he still prays for us. He came and lived the perfect life for us and he died for us. If you put your trust in Jesus, you are freed from condemnation and the fear of death, you are forgiven, and you are a child of God.

So, what do we do with this passage? I think we should see a few things.

One, the fact that Jesus chooses the weak and the poor and the foolish should give us hope. We don’t have to be the world’s smartest, most powerful, and most talented people in order to know God. What we really need is to realize our need for salvation. When we realize our spiritual poverty and weakness, we’re in a place where we can come to Jesus. God chose twelve foolish men to be Jesus’ disciple, and God chose a vast amount of foolish people to be Christians. That may injure our pride, but it should give us hope.

Two, the fact that the disciples often made mistakes after Jesus called them should give us hope. Even Peter, who denied knowing Jesus, was forgiven. I think it’s possible that even Judas could have been forgiven, but he didn’t understand that. The difference between Judas and Peter is that one couldn’t see any hope. No matter what we’ve done, we can run to Jesus for forgiveness.

Three, Jesus prayed. He regularly spent time with his Father in heaven. And we should pray like Jesus. But we should remember that when we pray, God may not give us what we want. God doesn’t always give us easy answers. But he always gives us what we need. Remember, God led Jesus to pick Judas. Jesus had to go through great pain and suffering. If we trust Jesus, we don’t have to experience the punishment that he endured on the cross. But we may experience quite a bit of pain and suffering. Yet whatever trials we face are for our good and they are not the final chapter in the story. The final chapter for God’s people is eternal life in a restored, renewed, recreated world, a life in Paradise with God.

So, let us be thankful. Let us boast in Jesus and trust in him. And let us pray like him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 544. Bock asserts that they are cousins, though I don’t think this as clear as he insists.
  3. John Chrysostom, A Demonstration against the Pagans that Christ Is God 12.9, in William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader, to 1500, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 199.

 

Lord of the Sabbath

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 16, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

How are you feeling today? Do you feel well rested? In general, does your life feel at rest, or do you feel anxious? Do you feel at peace or ill at ease in this world?

Today we’re picking up our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, after taking a six-month break. If you weren’t here months ago, you can catch up on this series by visiting wbcommunity.org/luke. This is a good time to get to know the true Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible.

This is what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke is writing this biography of Jesus to provide an orderly account of the story of Jesus. He says his writing is based on what he has received from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2).[1] Luke is writing history, but it’s a theological history. He wants us to know what God has done in and through Jesus.

Luke tells us that Jesus had supernatural origins. His miraculous conception by a virgin was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Right at the beginning of this story, we’re told that Jesus is more than just a man. Gabriel tells Mary,

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” (Luke 1:32–33).

Luke tells us that Jesus grew and he gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus at age 12. When he is fully grown, Jesus is baptized, an event that begins his public ministry. When he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and the voice of God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). There are echoes here of the beginning of the Bible. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over these waters, where the Word of God is present. Just as God created a universe out of nothing, he has created a new man out of “nothing” (a virgin’s womb). Just as God pronounced a blessing over the first creation, calling it “very good,” God pronounces a blessing over this new creation. God has stepped into the universe that he has made and Jesus, the God-man, will fix what is broken in the first creation.

He does this in part by withstanding the devil’s temptations. Luke tells us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when Satan tempted him. Jesus stands up to Satan’s attacks by quoting Scripture back to him. Jesus is the only one who doesn’t give in to evil.

Then we see Jesus begin his public ministry. He does this by teaching and by healing. He teaches in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, telling those who are gathered that he fulfills the Old Testament. But he is not well received. We see that Jesus’ teaching is divisive, and he gets run out of his hometown.

Jesus heals people who had various diseases and he heals people who were under the influence of unclean spirits, or demons. This shows that Jesus attacks the results of evil in the world and evil itself. According to the Bible, all bad things in the world are the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of sin in the world. Angels and people have rebelled against God, and as a result, God has given the world over to things like diseases and death. But God hasn’t given up on the world. Jesus’ becoming a man is God’s rescue mission to save a lost world. And Jesus’ miracles indicate that he has the power to fix what is broken.

We also have seen Jesus call his first disciples and get into various controversies with some of the religious leaders in his day. These are usually the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that was devoted to a strict interpretation of the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus hung out with people who were regarded as particularly sinful. This was controversial. But he called them to a new way of life, a better life. And Jesus even claims that he has the power to forgive sins.

Today, as we begin Luke 6, we see those controversies continue. We’ll see two controversies over the Sabbath. Let’s first read Luke 6:1–5:

1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

To understand what’s happening here, we need to understand what the Bible says about the Sabbath. So, let’s take a quick tour of what the Old Testament says about the Sabbath.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, we see God creates, or orders and arranges, his creation. Over six days, God establishes realms of sky and sea and land and he fills them. There are a lot of different views on whether those days are twenty-four periods or longer ages, or if the week is analogous, but not exactly equivalent, to our week. But we won’t get into that today. What we do want to see is that on the seventh day, God rests. This is Genesis 2:1–3:

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

This doesn’t mean that God was really tired from those six days and need a break. It meant that his work of creating and arranging was done. God had established the world to be his temple, a theater for his glory, and he was done. He could now sit on his throne, as it were. The drama of the Bible’s big story could now begin.

This seventh day of rest established a pattern for Israel. In fact, God commands Israel to rest on every seventh day in honor of the pattern he established at creation. The Sabbath is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. This is the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:8–11:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The word “Sabbath” basically means rest. It was also a day of worship, a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Holy means “distinct, withheld from ordinary use, treated with special care,” the opposite of “profane” or “common.”[2] The seventh day was a “Sabbath to the Lord,” a day that belonged to God (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15). The Israelites were supposed to take a break from their regular work. This taught them to trust in God’s provision and to realize that they were not in control of time.

The Sabbath reminded the Israelites both of creation and salvation. Exodus 20 mentions creation. The Ten Commandments are also given in Deuteronomy 5. There, we are told another reason why Israel should observe the Sabbath: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he created a new people, a people who could rest, instead of working as slaves. The Sabbath is the link between creation and salvation.

The Sabbath was so important that it was a sign of the covenant (Exod. 31:12–17; Ezek. 20:12), just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 9:12–17), and circumcision was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). We may not understand the word “covenant” very well, but it’s sort of like a treaty. It’s similar to a marriage contract. It’s something that binds two parties together and sets the terms for that relationship. In this case, the covenant was how God would relate to his people and how they would relate to him. It spelled out what was expected of God’s people. The Ten Commandments were like the founding principles of Israel, something similar to the Bill of Rights. But instead of rights, the Ten Commandments told Israel what God expected of them.

Observing the Sabbath was so important that the punishment for breaking it was death (Exod. 31:14–15; see the story in Num. 15:32–36). Breaking the Sabbath was associated with idolatry, the worship of false gods (Lev. 19:3–4; Ezek. 20:16–24). It seems that breaking the Sabbath was one of the reasons why Israel went into exile (2 Chron. 36:21; Jer. 17:19–27; 25:11–12; Ezek. 20:12–24). After Israel returned from exile, the Sabbath was one of the concerns of Nehemiah.[3]

By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws.[4] Keeping the Sabbath had become synonymous with Judaism. It set Jews apart from the people of other nations and religions. On the Sabbath day, Jews met in synagogues for prayer and Scripture readings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws that accumulated over time, forbade thirty-nine activities on the Sabbath day.[5]

So, that’s a quick study of the Sabbath in the Old Testament.

Now, let’s go back to Luke 6:1–5. Jesus and his disciples were going through a field on the Sabbath. They took some grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff, and ate. This is hardly work, but according to strict Jewish interpretations of the law, this violated the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. This is a serious charge. Yet Jesus doesn’t answer directly. As he often does, he asks a question. He reminds them of a story from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 21:1–6). The story was about David, the greatest king of Israel. Before David became king, was on the run from Saul, the first king of Israel, who was jealous of David and who wanted to kill him. David had to flee from Saul just to stay alive. At one point, David and his men were so hungry that they ate the bread of the Presence, which was bread that was in the tabernacle, the holy place where God dwelled among Israel. This bread was holy. It symbolized Israel eating in God’s presence. It was bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Now, Jesus brings this up and challenges the Pharisees to say that David was wrong. The implication is that David didn’t do wrong, and just as David didn’t do anything wrong by eating that bread, because he was hungry, Jesus and his disciples didn’t do anything wrong by eating some grain that they “worked” for on the Sabbath.

Jesus doesn’t deny that there might have been some violation of the Sabbath, at least according to the way the Pharisees understood the law. Instead, he seems to say that when two principles clash, some things are more important than others. David and his men were starving. So, the priest decided it was okay to let them eat holy bread. It was more important to support these men than to uphold laws regarding the bread. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and need some sustenance. The grain was there for the plucking. In Mark’s telling of this passage, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was supposed to help people, not hurt them.

The Sabbath was for the benefit of the Israelites. It told them to rest in God’s provision, to trust in him. It wouldn’t make sense for Sabbath observance to put them in harm’s way. And there must have been some understanding of this. Sometimes, two laws clash, even two biblical laws. Israelite boys were supposed to be circumcised on the eight day. If a boy was born on a Sabbath, he would have to be circumcised on the following Sabbath day. Either that doesn’t count as work, or it does and you violate the Sabbath commandment, or you circumcise the boy on the seventh or ninth day, thus violating another commandment. Sometimes, laws must bend. What’s important in those cases is upholding the spirit of the law.

Here’s an example we can relate to: We know that lying is wrong. But what if you’re living in Europe in the early 1940s, you’re hiding Jewish people in your attic or your basement, and Nazis come to your door, asking if any Jews are there. What do you do? Do you lie and save lives, or do you tell the truth and let them be led to slaughter? I know what I would do.

Mature Christian thinking understands this. There are times when we feel like two moral principles are clashing against each other, and we have to find ways to accommodate the spirit of both of those principles. For example, we’re called to welcome the sinner, but we have to have safeguards against the destructive power of sin. An abusive person can be forgiven and yet there can still be consequences for that person’s behavior.

In this passage, however, Jesus does something besides suggesting that laws can bend. He says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. “Lord” could be used to address people of authority, but it was also the way God’s name, Yahweh, was translated from Hebrew into Greek. And Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. That sounds like he’s making a claim to be God. After all, the Sabbath was the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10). Jesus is saying it’s his. He owns the Sabbath. And if it’s his, he can do what he wants with it. This should have given the Pharisees pause. Jesus is coming quite close to saying he’s God.

Let’s look at the next paragraph, Luke 6:6–11.

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

It’s another Sunday, not necessarily the very next one. The Gospel writers weren’t terribly concerned about precise chronology. Luke (and Matthew in Matthew 12 and Mark in Mark 2) wants us to see the connections between these two Sabbaths. On this one, Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There happens to be a man with a withered hand there. His hand must have been crippled, his muscles atrophied. Perhaps he had suffered some kind of accident in the past, or perhaps he had a birth defect. The Pharisees and the scribes, the strict religious leaders of the day who were so concerned about how to follow the Old Testament law, carefully watched what Jesus would do. They were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They would have loved to have some dirt on him, to put him on trial and put an end to him.

Before I go on, notice the irony. This is a day of a rest, a day of worship. And what do the religious leaders do? They work at trying to capture Jesus in some violation. They aren’t thinking about God; no, they are looking for a way to trip Jesus up. Who are the ones violating the Sabbath? And who is the one who is maintaining the spirit of the law?

Jesus asks the crippled man to come to him, and then he asks a rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Who could argue with that? Later in Luke’s Gospel, during another Sabbath controversy, Jesus will ask, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5). Wouldn’t you help a person or even an animal that was in trouble, even if it were on a Sabbath?

Confident that no one will argue against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus then asks the man to stretch out his hand. The man does, and when he does, his hand was healed. The man listens to Jesus’ voice, does what Jesus tells him to do, and then finds healing. We could say the man had faith that Jesus could heal him, he responded, and Jesus healed him.

One thing we can learn from this episode is that the Sabbath was intended for the good of humanity. It is better to do good than to allow one to suffer.

But think about this: the man with the withered hand was not in dire need of healing. Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to heal him, but Jesus intentionally heals him on the Sabbath, even though this wasn’t an emergency. In healing on the Sabbath, he was making a point. To understand the point, we need to think about the relationship between sin and Sabbath. In the Gospels, healing is a physical symbol of the salvation that Jesus offers. All physical problems come from sin, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why anyone gets sick is because the world is tainted by sin, a powerful force of rebellion that entered into the world when the first human beings decided not to trust and obey God. Sin violated the first Sabbath.

Think back to the original Sabbath, the one in Genesis 2. There was nothing but peace and rest. The Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe was a taste of that peace and rest. It was almost a way of recapturing the original harmony of the world before sin corrupted it. But the Sabbath also pointed to one who would come, a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David. It pointed to the Prince of Peace, the only one who can bring rest, the only one who can restore us to harmony with God.

The four Gospels that we have in the Bible have similar material, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before these two Sabbath controversies that we’re reading about today, Jesus said,

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).

The fact that this saying of Jesus comes right before his actions on the Sabbath shows us that Jesus is the true Sabbath. He fulfills the Sabbath. He is one who gives us rest.

But how does Jesus do that?

In the Gospel of Luke, there are seven different Sabbaths. There were two in chapter 4 (Luke 4:16, 31) and now we’ve seen two in chapter 6. One more appears in chapter 13 (Luke 13:10) and another one comes in chapter 14 (Luke 14:1). I suppose there’s no accident that there are seven Sabbaths in Luke’s Gospel. Seven is the number of completion or perfection, and the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The seventh Sabbath in Luke is the one when Jesus was in the tomb, after he died on the cross. He was killed on Friday, the sixth day of the week, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, which began on Friday at sundown. He rested in the tomb on the seventh day of the week, after he completed his work. Remember, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work, at least in part, was to come and die for our sins. He completed that work in full when he died on the cross. There is nothing that you and I can do to pay for our sins. Our crimes against God are so great that only the death of the Son of God can pay for our sins. And we can have our sins paid for if we simply trust in Jesus. He asks us to stretch out our arm to him and if we do that, trusting that he alone can make us right with God, we are healed. No amount of law-keeping makes anyone more righteous. We can’t fix ourselves. The only way we can be healed is to rest from our striving to save ourselves and to let God save us. Only Jesus can remove our sin and make us right with God. Only Jesus can get us to heaven. Only Jesus can make us live with God forever.

After Jesus died on the sixth day and rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, he rose from the grave on the eighth day. Or, we might say that he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, a new era. For these reasons and others, I believe that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath for us, just as he fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul writes,

16 Therefore [because Jesus died for our sins and has given us new hearts—see Col. 2:6–15] let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16–17).

The Old Testament Sabbath was meant to point Israel to Jesus. It foreshadowed the rest that only he can give. But now that Jesus has come, we don’t need to keep the Sabbath in the way that Israel did. To keep the Sabbath today is to stop striving to save yourself and to start resting in the give of salvation that Jesus has given you.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first installment of a new creation. He established something new. His death inaugurated a new covenant. This new deal promises that God’s people will be forgiven of sin, they will have his law written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, and they will truly know him. Jesus’ resurrection also promises new life. We don’t feel completely at rest in this life. We struggle, and we die. But a day is coming when Jesus will return, when all who have trusted in him will be raised from the grave in bodies that can never die. At that time, God’s people will live with God forever in a recreated, or renewed world. They will experience perfect rest.

Again, we can experience some of that rest now, but we also look forward to the ultimate rest that will come when Jesus returns to Earth, when he establishes a new creation. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). That means we rest from trying to earn our salvation. But we must also work. Jesus said that God is always working (John 5:17). It’s not as though God stopped working on the original seventh day. He always upholds the universe. If God didn’t do that, things would cease to exist. So, even though we rest in one sense, we also continue to work. We don’t work to earn something from God, but we work because we are thankful, because we love God and he has given us work to do. So, we work and rest, and we urge other people to find rest in Jesus.

The Sabbath is a reminder that each person is spiritually restless and that the only rest available to satisfy our souls is offered by Jesus, who beckons the weary to come to him. Augustine understood this reality when he prayed to the Lord, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[6]

Nothing else in this world can give our restless souls rest. But in order to receive true rest, we must give up. We must stop working. We must trust that God will provide for us. We must realize that Jesus is our Boss, our Master, our King, and our Lord—the Lord of the Sabbath.

The religious leaders “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Matthew says, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). How do you respond to Jesus? If you’re not resting him, I urge you to do so now. If you don’t truly know Jesus as your Lord, I would love to talk with you. But for now, let’s pray.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century. New American Commentary in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 87.
  3. Nehemiah recalls the giving of the Sabbath in his prayer of confession (Neh. 9:14) and he states that no buying or selling should be done on the Sabbath (10:31). When he discovers that the Sabbath commandment was being broken, he confronted the leaders of the people and then made sure the gates of the city were shut on that holy day, so that no buying or selling of goods could be done (13:15–22). He likely did not want the people to be exiled again for their lack of observing this important commandment.
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49.
  5. Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95.
  6. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.

 

Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11)

Jesus clashes with the religious leaders of his time on two Sabbath days. Find out how Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and gives us true rest. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:1-11, recorded on September 16, 2018.

Slaves

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 26, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Religion can be very controversial. I know that well, and I suppose there’s something within me that likes to address controversial topics, especially when they find their way into the public square. Well over five years ago, there was a controversy related to Barack Obama’s second inauguration, after he was reelected as president. Whoever organizes inaugurations had invited a rather mainstream evangelical pastor named Louis Giglio to give the benediction. Later, some people had discovered that Giglio actually believes what the Bible says about homosexuality, and that he once preached a message on Romans 1 and addressed that topic. So, Giglio was basically uninvited. A “liberal” pastor who doesn’t believe what the Bible says about homosexuality replaced him.

Now, I’m not going to preach on the issue of homosexuality this morning. That may or may not be a relief to you. But I remember watching something on TV when this controversy with Giglio emerged. One of MSNBC’s hosts, Lawrence O’Donnell, gave a commentary on this controversy. He noted that Giglio would be replaced with a pastor who doesn’t believe parts of the Bible, the same parts of the Bible that Obama doesn’t believe. And he suggested that we shouldn’t believe all of the Bible, and that no one really believes all that’s found in the Bible. I think O’Donnell would have been happy to ditch the Bible altogether.

But this is the part that really got me. Here he was, behind a desk with a closed Bible on it, one that he surely has not read in its entirety. And he said this:

This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendant of slaves. [He’s referring to Michelle Obama.] But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting somewhere near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.[1]

As someone who has actually read the Bible several times and someone who has studied it, I had to stop and think. Does the Bible contain no words that condemn slavery? Is that true?

Whether you agree with O’Donnell or not, I think we should step back and think about some questions, ones that we might not have good answers for right at the moment. We all know that slavery is wrong, but why is that so? Why is slavery wrong? Where did that idea come from? What societies were the first ones to forbid slavery? And, since we’re in a church, what does the Bible actually say about slavery?

Well, I hope to answer those questions, at least in part, today. And I’ll do that as we continue our study of 1 Timothy, which is a book in the New Testament of the Bible. If you’re joining us for the first time, we usually study a book of the Bible in its entirety, going passage by passage. Sometimes, a passage is a paragraph, or a whole chapter of the Bible. Today, I’m going to look at just two verses, 1 Timothy 6:1–2. And just to give us a little context, I’ll tell you this much: The book of 1 Timothy was written by the apostle Paul, a messenger of Jesus Christ and a man who started some churches throughout the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago. He wrote this letter to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. Paul had left Timothy to help a church in the city of Ephesus (in the western part of what is now known as Turkey). This church had its share of problems, and Paul wanted Timothy to know how “one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).[2]

In this part of the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how different groups of people should behave in the church. And, at the beginning of chapter 6, he talks about slaves. And this is what Paul says:

1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves][3] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved (1 Tim. 6:1–2).

It’s a bit jarring to read about slaves and masters, because it seems so foreign to our experience. That, and we know slavery is wrong. And what Paul tells Timothy doesn’t match our expectations. We might expect Paul to tell Timothy to contact his senators and representative, or start a petition at change.org, to put an end to slavery. But Paul doesn’t do that.

To understand why Paul says what he does, we have to understand slavery in context. Today, I’m going to give us three contexts in which we should understand slavery. The first is the context of the whole Bible.

“In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and he made human beings in his image and likeness, which means that we are unique in all of God’s creation. We alone are made to reflect what God is like, to display his glory, to rule over his creation by coming under his rule, to worship him, and to love and obey him as his children. What God made was good, and there was no hint of division, greed, or exploitation. If you knew nothing other than the first two chapters of the Bible, you would never imagine that such a thing as slavery could ever exist. Everything was peace and harmony.

But something changed. The first human beings didn’t trust God. They failed to obey him. They violated his commandment, deciding that they knew better than God. And the consequences have been horrific. Because human beings rebelled against a holy, perfect, righteous God, he could not allow that rebellion to go unchecked. So, he removed them from the sacred space of the garden of Eden, and he put a curse on all of creation. In a sense, he gave them over to their rebellion and let them go their own way. And when we reject God, who is the source of truth, beauty, goodness, and life, we find lies, ugliness, evil, and death. The reason why we’re at war with each other is because we’re first at war with God.

The first mention of slavery in the Bible comes in the context of a curse. In the story of Noah, after the flood has ended, his son Ham violates him. And Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). The New International Version says, “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

I’ll add this here: slavery was a universal institution in the ancient world. Every ancient society had slaves. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon and far beyond, all ancient societies had slaves. While the Bible never commands people to enslave others, it does assume that the practice exists. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, after all.

So, the Bible talks about creation and the entrance of sin into the world, which we call the fall. And the fall is the reason why anything bad, including slavery, exists. The next part of the story is called redemption, which I will come back to later. The final part of the Bible’s story is restoration, when God makes everything right in the universe. And while we only get glimpses of what a renewed and restored world will be like, there is no hint of slavery there. That is because there will be no sin in that perfect world.

The second context in which we should understand slavery is slavery in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament. As I said, slavery was universal. It existed for a long time before the time of Jesus. It was found in ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire. There are several things to know about slavery in the Roman Empire. One, there were a lot of slaves. Exact figures are hard to come by in the ancient world. One estimate I read was, “Slaves accounted for something like 2 to 3 million of the 7.5 million inhabitants of Italy.” That same author, James Jeffers, says, “Slaves were probably closer to 10 percent of the population elsewhere in the Empire.”[4] That’s a low estimate. Another author says, “Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and [the] peninsula [of] Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries A.D. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage.”[5] Let’s assume the truth is somewhere in between those figures. Perhaps 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire were at any given time slaves and many more were freed.

Two, people could become slaves in a few different ways. Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts. That may sound odd, but as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, people could go to prison for debts. When I was a doctoral student in music, I studied the life of Richard Wagner, the famous German composer, and I read that he spent time in debtor’s prison. There was nothing like bankruptcy then. In the ancient world, you could work off your debts through slavery. People could also become slaves by being captured by slavers, or because they were children of slaves, or because they had been abandoned by their parents and raised to become slaves. More likely, people became slaves because they were conquered by the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire expanded, prisoners of war became slaves.

Three, slavery in the Roman Empire was much different than what we think of when we think of slavery. Slavery wasn’t based on skin color. I don’t like using the word “race” because there is only one human race, but slavery then wasn’t based on race. Masters and slaves often had the same ethnicity. In fact, that’s true of much of slavery in the world. In the Roman Empire, slaves could have certain rights. They could earn money and they could eventually buy their freedom. If they had rich masters, they might live better than the poor free people. They were often freed, usually at a relatively young age; we don’t have evidence of people dying as slaves.

Four, the way slaves were treated could vary greatly. The slaves with arguably the worst lives were those who were used for sex. Many slaves worked in mines, which apparently was the most physically demanding and miserable job. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked in the mines, and sometimes they were worked to death.[6] The largest group of slaves were farmers. Slaves could also be domestic servants, artisans, artists, and managers of their masters’ businesses. I’m sure a slave’s quality of life largely depended on his or her role.

All of that is to say that slavery was different than what we think of when we imagine slavery. No one would argue that slavery was a good thing, but slavery did not necessarily mean a person was worked to death or degraded. But the reality is that could happen, too. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations.

The final context I want us to see slavery in is the context of the New Testament. When we read Paul’s words, it’s hard for us to understand why he wouldn’t speak out more against slavery. Well, we should realize one thing: O’Donnell was wrong. (Unless we read the Bible as fundamentalists, which is something that unbelievers, ironically, tend to do.) There are some words against slavery in the Bible. At the beginning of 1 Timothy, Paul says that the Old Testament law can be used to reveal those who are “lawless and disobedient,” those who are “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:8). He then gives a vice list, and he includes “enslavers” among the list of “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:10). So, Paul quite clearly says it’s wrong to capture people and force them to be slaves.

Paul also wrote a short letter to a slave owner, a man named Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and he had a slave named Onesimus. We don’t know why, but Onesimus ended up with Paul. Many assume Onesimus ran away from his master, but we don’t know the whole backstory. At any rate, Paul writes to Philemon to encourage him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not a slave. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon to let Onesimus go. He had the ability to do that. He even says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philem. 8–9). Instead of commanding Philemon, he appeals to theology. He reminds Philemon that he, Paul, is (quite literally) “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (verse 9) and he says that he has become like a father to Onesimus. He tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus, “my very heart,” back to him. He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, because Onesimus served Paul while Paul was in prison. But Paul knows it is right to send Onesimus back, “in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (verse 14).

And here’s the main point: Paul says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [slave] but more than a bondservant [slave], as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philem. 15–16). Instead of treating Onesimus as a slave, Philemon should treat him as a brother, because that’s what he is—a brother in Christ.

Paul concludes by telling Philemon that he should receive Onesimus “as you would receive me” (Philem. 17). He tells Philemon that if Onesimus owns anything, he should charge it to Paul’s account (Philem. 18), which sounds like Paul might be willing to pay the price to free Onesimus. Paul also casually mentions that Philemon owes him “even your own self” (Philem. 19). Paul means that Philemon became a Christian through his ministry. In that sense, Paul has given Philemon the gift of eternal life. Philemon owes Paul everything. The least he could do would be to free his own slave. Paul then comes to this conclusion: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philem. 21).

This is a radical move by Paul. He is saying that Onesimus doesn’t have a lower status than Philemon. They are one in Christ Jesus. They have equal access to God, equal standing, an equal inheritance. That’s why Paul writes, in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (See also Col. 3:11). When Paul writes to churches and tells slaves to act in a certain way, and masters to act in a certain way, we should imagine that slaves and their masters were worshiping together. If you look at Paul’s references to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 (Eph. 6:5–9) and Colossians 3 (technically Col. 3:22–4:1), you see that he reminds slaves that they are really serving Jesus, so they should work hard and work honorably. And he tells masters that they should remember that they and their slaves both have the same Master, Jesus. Again, Paul puts slaves and masters on the same footing, telling them that they are both slaves of Jesus. They belong to the same Master, they are part of the same family, and this should change their relationship.

We might still wonder why Paul doesn’t write more forcefully against the institution of slavery. I think there are two reasons why he doesn’t. The first is that the early church had no political power or influence. None. And the Roman Empire wasn’t a democratic republic. They couldn’t send a lobbyist to Rome. If early Christians tried to put an end to slavery through force or by sending a prophet to Caesar, it wouldn’t work, and it would likely backfire. The Roman Empire would crack down hard on Christians and put an end to the church. This is why we should study the Bible in its historical context. If we fail to understand and historical and cultural context of the Bible, we’ll end up misunderstanding its meaning.

But we should also note that Paul does tell slaves that, if possible, they should buy their freedom. This is what he writes in 1 Corinthians 7:20–24:

20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant [slave] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [slave] of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slaves] of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

He tells slaves that if they can, they should buy their freedom. But as long as they are slaves, they should know that they are truly free in Christ. To those who are not slaves, Paul says that they should realize they are slaves of Christ. No matter what position they found themselves in, they should ultimately serve God. They can do that as slaves or as freedmen.

Another reason that Paul doesn’t speak forcefully against slavery is that he knows some things are more important than politics and public policy. The reason he doesn’t command Philemon to free his slave is because he wants Philemon to think about the gospel, the message of good news at the heart of Christianity. At the least, he wants Philemon to realize that his slave is now his brother. They belong to the same family. And that reminds me of something else, some words from that Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” The words are “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” While Christianity has given hope to literal slaves the world over, promising ultimate freedom in eternity, it also has something powerful to say to all of us: all of us are slaves.

Jesus once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Elsewhere, Paul says that all people will either be slaves to sin or slaves of God (Rom. 6:16–22). The apostle Peter says, “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19). We like to think that we are free. One of the gods of our age is the idea that we can do whatever we want, that we are free agents with free wills that cannot be constrained. We can determine who we are and what we’ll do. But the Bible’s message is, “No, you’re not really free. You’re enslaved by your sinful desires. You often know the right thing to do but you don’t often do it because your selfishness, your greed, your pride, and your lust really are your masters. You’re in chains.” We’re not really as free as we think we are.

But the Bible’s message doesn’t end there. It says something quite amazing. It says that though we were enslaved, God came to free us. And he came to free us by becoming a slave. Consider this famous passage, from another one of Paul’s letters. This is Philippians 2:5–11:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [a slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Though Jesus was and is the Son of God, which is to say he has always been God, he didn’t cling to that glorious status. He didn’t stand on his rights. He humbled himself by becoming a slave, by becoming a human being. And not only did he do that, but he put up with sinful human beings who doubted him, mocked him, rejected him, arrested him, tortured him, and killed him. He did this so that he could pay the penalty for our rebellion against God. Our sin must be punished, because God is a perfect judge and he can’t allow rebellion and evil to go unchecked. But if God punished us for our sins, we would be destroyed. Fortunately for us, God gave us a way to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the perfect man who became a perfect slave. Everyone who trusts in him is credited with his perfect obedience. Everyone who trusts in him has their debt of sin removed. Their chains are broken. They are forgiven. They receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who empowers us to trust God, to love God, and to obey God. Though our lives may be hard, we, like Jesus, will be exalted. Though we die, we will later be resurrected to live in a perfect world with God forever.

This part of the Bible’s story is known as redemption. It has given many people great hope. Slaves have been comforted by this news. Though they might be powerless to change their status, they could hope in Jesus, the God who became a slave. Though they were in physical chains, they knew the chains of sin were broken, and one day they would have eternal freedom. The apostle Peter wrote to slaves who were suffering unjustly. And he wrote these words (1 Pet. 2:18–25):

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

The message of Christianity is what brought about emancipation for slaves. Over a long period of time, slavery disappeared almost entirely from Europe. By the middle ages, there was almost no slavery in the Christian world. Sarah Ruden, a professor of the classics and hardly a Bible-thumping evangelical, says, “the early Christian church, without staging any actual campaign against slavery, in the course of the centuries weakened it until it all but disappeared from Europe. Slavery was doomed simply because it jarred with Christian feeling—the same basic circumstance that doomed it in the modern West.”[7]

It’s true that slavery reemerged in Christianized nations sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is a shameful thing. Yet Christians have always been the ones who pushed for the abolition of slavery. They realized that enslaving people was contrary to treating them like fellow image bearers of God. As many as two-thirds of abolition leaders in the United States were Christian pastors.[8] Many of the celebrated figures who pushed for the abolition of slavery in America were Christians and they were led by Christian motivations.

Some people might think slavery was ended by the Enlightenment, by people who were motivated by secular reason. But this isn’t true. Many famous figures of the Enlightenment, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Voltaire, supported slavery. David Hume, a famous philosopher who was a skeptic (what we might call an agnostic), was not in favor of abolition.[9] Worldviews that don’t believe all human beings are made in God’s image don’t give us good enough reason to free slaves. To free slaves, we have to go against self-interest. This would actually have us go against the survival instinct that we supposedly have. If we truly believed in any form of Darwinian evolution, we would believe that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that we are engaged in a competition. It’s a survival of the fittest, and if the weak become slaves to help the strong, well, so much the better for us.

But Christianity gives us a proper motivation for putting an end to slavery. In England, one of the leading figures in the abolition movement was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a Member of Parliament and a Christian. Largely due to his work, the British Empire banned the slave trade (in 1807) and then slavery itself (in 1833). And they did this at great cost. Slavery only existed in the more remote colonies of the British Empire, places like the West Indies, islands in the Caribbean, where sugar was made by slaves. The British Empire knew that the cost of abolition would be huge for slave owners. So, the Emancipation Act of 1833 paid slave owners to compensate for their losses. The cost was “equal to half of the British annual budget.”[10]

Freedom always comes at a cost. We see that most clearly with Jesus’ sacrifice. And there are many ways for us to respond to that sacrifice today.

If you are not a Christian, I urge you to put your trust and your hope in Jesus. Right now, you are not truly free. You’re not free to live out your God-given purpose in life, which is to know God, love him, and serve him. You’re not free from the fear or death. But Jesus came to destroy the power of death (Heb. 2:14) and to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). The only way to be right with God, to be forgiven of all wrongdoing, and to have eternal life in a perfect world is to trust in Jesus. I would love to talk to you more about what this looks like in your life. It first comes with the realization that you are enslaved and you can’t deliver yourself.

There are many ways that Christians should respond to this message. One is that there are things that are more important than politics. We often get caught up in defending our first amendment freedoms. We get caught up in trying to fix the world through politics. But there is something more important. Paul told slaves that, more important than their freedom, they should make the gospel look good. He told slaves to honor their masters, “so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Tim. 6:1). Paul told Titus that slaves “should be submissive to their own masters in everything . . . so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:9–10). Making God look good is more important than our own personal vindications. We should be willing to suffer for God. Jesus, the truly righteous one, suffered unjustly, and so should we.

We can also learn to serve God in all circumstances, regardless of our position in society. If you are an employee, you should work as though your boss were God. Ultimately, he is. If you’re an employer, treat your employees well, knowing that you have a greater boss to answer to. Regardless of our position in this world, we were called to serve the greatest Master there is. Any other master will ruin us and eventually destroy us. Jesus is the only Master who would become a slave to set us free, to die for us so that we could live forever.

Notes

  1. Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible,” NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. Both articles quote O’Donnell as saying “someone” instead of “somewhere”; surely, this is a mistake.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. The ESV formerly used “slaves” with “bondservants” appearing in a footnote. The actual Greek word, in the singular, is δοῦλος (doulos). Now, they have reversed this, probably so that we wouldn’t think of chattel slavery in America instead of Roman slavery. As we’ll see, the institutions were quite different.
  4. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 221.
  5. Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 881. He cites Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 105–131.
  6. Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 297.
  7. Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 168.
  8. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 279.
  9. Stark, For the Glory of God, 359.
  10. Ibid., 351.

 

Slaves (1 Timothy 6:1-2)

Why do we think slavery is wrong? Where did that idea come from? What does the New Testament really say about slavery? And what does this have to do with us today? Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and answers those questions.

Widows (1 Timothy 5:9-16)

The Bible teaches charity, compassion, love. It teaches us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible also teaches personal responsibility. People should care for their own family members and work hard. Pastor Brian Watson shows how both of these ideas come together in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.

Fathers, Brothers, Mothers, Sisters (1 Timothy 5:1-8)

Christians have two families, one natural, the other ecclesiastical (the church family). Christians have responsibilities to both families. Timothy was supposed to treat people in the church like family. The church should care for widows, though widows should be cared for first by their own natural families. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:1-8.

The Mystery of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 15, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.

How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?

Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.

Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.

Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 1 Timothy 3:14–16:

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

He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.[1]

Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).

But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.

This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?

The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.

This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.

The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).

In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).

Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.

The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.

That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.

When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.

What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:

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

This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity.[2] If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.

The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”

The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.

The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).

The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.

The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.

The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.

Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?

Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.

Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.

This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.

Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.

As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.

In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.[3]

God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.

Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.

The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.

When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.

Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.

If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.

A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.

When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.

But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”

If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.

And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?

If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.

And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.”[4] Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.[5]

So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.

And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20.
  3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176.
  4. Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23.
  5. In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words.

 

 

Everything Created by God Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

Everything created by God can be enjoyed if used in the right way. We sin when we use God’s creation in the wrong way, when we make an idol of something created, or if we forbid entirely the things God has made. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

Everything Created by God Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

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

When you have young kids in your home, you find yourself saying certain things quite frequently. One of those sayings is, “Knock it off!” That’s a favorite saying of my wife. My most often frequent saying is probably quite simply, “Stop it!” There’s another saying I have: “That’s not a toy!” I might say that whenever my sons start to play with something that catches their eye, like a computer or a hammer or a staple gun. Okay, I’m joking with that last item. My sons are now at an age when they’re naturally curious, and there are times when playing with something that’s not a toy can be destructive and even dangerous.

My wife used to allow our kids to play with some items in a drawer in the kitchen. It’s kind of our culinary junk drawer, where we store anything from measuring cups and measuring spoons to spatulas and other assorted kitchen tools. About three and a half years ago, I found Caleb playing with a crinkle cutter. It’s a little tool that makes crinkle-cut slices of potatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables. It’s designed for a purpose: it makes these crinkle-shaped cuts. It doesn’t do anything else. Caleb was running the edge of it along my nice, black, lacquer-finished piano. Now there is a nice, thin, long scratch made by the end of the crinkle-cutter. I guess I should be thankful that his brother doesn’t have a crinkle-cut finger. But I wasn’t thankful at the time. My boy had used something in a way that didn’t line up with its purpose.

Now, that’s not very serious; there are worse things than a scratch in a piano. But there are times when a tool, when used as a toy, could become quite dangerous. And there are times when things that are not used according to their purposes become very dangerous, even deadly. Think about the drugs we call opioids. Many of us have heard that we’re living in the midst of an opioid crisis or epidemic. Opioids are the kind of drugs that trace their origins back to opium, which is made from the opium poppy, a flowering plant. Opium is what makes morphine, a powerful painkiller. It’s also what can be processed into synthetic opioids, prescription painkillers that help people with acute and/or chronic pain. It’s a good thing to have painkillers. Seven years ago, I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The L5/S1 disc impinged on the sciatic nerve on my right side, which created a great amount of pain in my butt, hip, and leg. I spent the better part of three months lying down on the floor. I also took painkillers for three months. They didn’t eliminate the pain, but they reduced it greatly. When I had surgery, I was given some morphine afterwards. I have seen people dying on morphine, which eased the pain of their last days, hours, and minutes. Anything that is safe and can reduce this kind of pain is a good thing.

But some people get addicted to prescription painkillers. Millions of people misuse prescription painkillers. Millions in the world are using them illegally. And thousands die from overdoses every year. In 2016, there were 42,249 people who died of opioid overdoses.[1] Of those, 20,145 died from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) and 14,427 died of natural or semi-synthetic opioids. Opium can also be processed into heroine, an illegal drug, which killed 15,446 people in 2016.[2]

So, something that occurs in nature, the opium poppy, can be produced into chemicals that relieve pain and suffering. Those chemicals, when taken in excess, can also kill. And the same natural thing can be processed into a chemical that is illegal, highly addictive, destructive, and deadly.

This reveals an important biblical truth. Everything that exists in nature can be used for good or for bad purposes. God made these things good. But when they are misused, the result is very bad. We can misuse things by using them in a way contrary to God’s design for them. We can misuse things my making an idol of them. And we can also misuse good things by avoiding them and telling others not to use them.

We see all of this in the passage that we’ll look at today, 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Three months ago, we started to look at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the New Testament. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. Paul left Timothy in the city of Ephesus while he was gone. He wanted Timothy to make sure that the church in Ephesus was healthy. In particular, he wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teaching. In today’s passage, we see some of the content of their wrong teaching. So, with that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do today. I’m going to first read the passage, explain what it means, and then think a bit more deeply about how we can rightly appreciate and use the things that God has created.

Here is 1 Timothy 4:1–5:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.[3]

Paul says that the Holy Spirit has indicated that in “later times” people will depart from the truth faith and teach false things. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God; he is the one who empowers some people to speak the word of God. He is the one who led Paul to write this letter. And he spoke through apostles and prophets to indicate that in “later times,” there would be false teachers.

What does Paul mean by “later times”? Well, he means now. And I don’t mean the twenty-first century. I mean the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. If you look carefully at the New Testament, you’ll see this. For example, Paul writes something a bit similar in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, he writes,

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

I think that people have always been lovers of self and money, they’ve always been proud, and so forth. But if Paul meant that people would only be this way in the period right before Jesus returned to earth, he wouldn’t say, “Avoid such people.” Timothy wouldn’t have to worry about those people, because they would come much later in time. So, the “last days” and the “later times” are the long period between Jesus’ first and last coming.

Now, what prophecy is Paul referring to? Peter and Jude make a reference to prophecies about false teachers (2 Pet. 3:1–3; Jude 17–18). Jesus said that in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, “many will fall away” and “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt. 24:10–11). Paul may also be referring to something he said earlier in time, recorded in the book of Acts. While speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus (the same city where Timothy was located), he said,

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30).

Paul knew that false teachers would come, now they are in this church, and now they are leading people to depart from the faith. Literally, these people have apostatized.[4] These false teachers are insincere liars, which means that they know they are teaching false things. They’re not just making honest mistakes. They have consciences that are seared, which likely means that they are branded. It’s possible that their branding means they are marked as belonging to Satan, the devil. That would make sense of the why they are associated with “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” That may sound extreme, but it reminds us that all lies ultimately come from Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Bible teaches us that there is more to reality than what we can see. There are spirits, both angels and demons, who are at work to either support or fight against God’s plans.

False teachers are influenced by Satan, and they can appear to look godly, though their message is wrong. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote of other false teachers. About them, he wrote,

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).

So, what was this “teaching of demons” that these false teachers taught? Was it some secret occult practice? Was it teaching people to bow down before some shrine or statue of a god? Was it the first-century equivalent of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”? No, not at all. These teachers “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” That’s surprising. They were telling people not to get married—and probably to be celibate. They were also telling people not to eat certain foods. They were probably trying to tell people to maintain the dietary laws found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11). I say that because these same false teachers had an incorrect understanding of the Old Testament law, something Paul mentioned in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:3–11).

In short, it seems like they taught that certain practices could lead people astray, that marriage, perhaps because of the issue of sex, might somehow be inherently bad, that eating certain foods might corrupt people. We would think that false teachers would teach people to go have all the sex they want and eat all the foods they want. But this is quite the opposite.

Yet these false teachers were wrong. “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The problem isn’t marriage or certain foods. The problem, really, is inside of us, not the created things that we find in the world.

To understand this, we need to have a grasp of the story of the Bible, or what we might call a basic biblical worldview. To get a quick handle on that story, we need to remember four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

First, there is creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). When God made things, he saw that they were good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). There is no hint of created things, or physical things, being bad. God ordered and designed the material world to function in a good way. Other philosophies or religions teach that material things are somehow worse than so-called “spiritual” or immaterial things. But this isn’t what we see in the Bible. The goal of the biblical story is not to escape from the material world.

Second, there is the fall. Something bad happened, something that distorts us and our experience of this world. The first human beings turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and his word. They didn’t listen to his commandments. They believed the lie that God was keeping good things from them. They didn’t accept God’s design for them and his world. As a result, the power of rebellion that we call sin invaded the world. This created a separation between God and human beings, but it also creates a separation between human beings, and within human beings. There is something broken in us. There is something broken in the material world, too. But that doesn’t mean that the stuff that God created is inherently bad.

Jesus taught us what is wrong with us. He said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Then he said,

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18b–23).

What is wrong with us is our hearts, our disordered desires. Those disordered desires lead us to commit sins, wrong actions. The things that God made have right uses, but we end up using things the wrong way. And because we have fouled up God’s good creation, and because God wants to restore his good creation, God has every right to evict us from his good creation forever. In other words, he has every right to condemn us. That’s bad news.

But there’s good news. And that is redemption. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent his unique Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is therefore truly God and truly man. Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity. He is the perfect image bearer of God, the perfect representative, the perfect human ruler, the perfect worshiper, the perfect lover of God and lover of other people, the perfect Son of God. The fact that Jesus became a real man shows that the material world is not inherently bad. It shows that created things can be perfect. Though Jesus was and is perfect, he was rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He never did anything wrong to deserve such treatment. But people hated him and didn’t believe him. And yet this was all God’s plan to put the sins of his people on his Son’s shoulders, and it was the Son’s plan to bear the righteous judgment of sin on behalf of those who trust him. All who believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did are forgiven of their sins, adopted as God’s children, and granted eternal life. People who trust Jesus receive the Bible as the word of God and try to live their lives according to what the Bible says we should do in these “last days.”

The end of the is the restoration of the universe. In the end, God’s people won’t live in “heaven.” They will live in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), a new creation. It will be a physical world, a place where there is real food and there will be a real marriage, though not between mere human beings. The real marriage is between God and his people, Jesus and his church. This is a metaphor, of course; not all that occurs within a human marriage occurs with the divine marriage. But it captures something of the beauty, exclusivity, faithfulness, and love of the relationship that God has with his people.

So, the story of the Bible teaches us that created things aren’t inherently bad. Instead, it teaches that sinful people have a way of failing to use the things of God’s creation rightly. We fail when we distort God’s good gifts, using them for wrong purposes. When God says, “That’s not a toy!” we should listen. He knows better than we do. We fail when we make those gifts into an idol, something that is ultimate in our lives, an object of worship. Today, when people take one aspect of creation and build their lives around it, instead of building their lives around God, they don’t think they’re worshiping. They don’t think that thing, whatever it is, is an idol. But that’s really what it is. It is the functional object of their worship. Yet we were made to worship God alone. We also fail when we act as though God’s good gifts are inherently bad.

We can misuse anything. We can turn anything into an idol. And we can overcorrect by avoiding good things.

It’s not likely that we’ll do this with food, but it’s still possible to make that mistake today. People misuse food by eating too much of it, or by eating too much of things that should be eaten in moderation, like desserts. People can turn food into an idol when their lives revolve around gourmet food, or turn to food for comfort and security and happiness, or when they become obsessed about what they eat (probably for health reasons). I’m not sure that people forbid eating certain foods for religious reasons, though there are orthodox Jews and Muslims who abide by certain dietary codes.

We can do this with alcohol. This is what Psalm 104 says about wine:

14  You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15  and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Ps. 104:14–15).

Israelites were allowed to have “strong drink” when they celebrated feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:26). And the new creation is described as being a “feast of well-aged wine” (Isa. 25:6). Jesus ever turned water into wine (John 2), so it can’t be inherently bad.

But what do we do with alcohol? Many people drink too much, and this causes great destruction and death. Some people can’t live without it. Others then turn around and overreact, saying that all drinking is inherently sinful. Now, it’s true that the Bible says that drunkenness is wrong (Eph. 5:18 is but one example). But Scripture doesn’t forbid all drinking.

We can do this with marriage. Marriage is a good gift created by God. But we misuse it in many ways. God designed marriage to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet we redefine marriage; many ancient societies had polygamy: one man had many wives. Marriage is meant to be exclusive, so that the husband and wife do not have sex with anyone else; many people have committed adultery. Of course, there is the problem of divorce. And now there is the problem of redefining marriage, so that it’s not necessarily a union of one man and one woman.

Some people create an idol of marriage. They believe that their spouse will complete them. They believe their spouse will fulfill all their desires and dreams. Spoiler alert: the best spouse will never, ever do that.

Very few people forbid marriage for religious reasons. One group, the Shakers, did. But it’s hard to keep a religious movement growing when you don’t have marriages that produce babies. The last remaining Shaker community in America is located in New Gloucester, Maine, and it has only two members.

We certainly do misuse sex. It is a good gift, meant to be experienced only within marriage. Yet we have it outside of marriage. We reduce other human beings to “sex objects,” as things to be consumed. We turn sex into an idol, the ultimate pleasure or experience. And some people can give the impression that sex is somehow inherently bad, though it’s not.

We can do the same thing with work. We misuse work when we don’t work, or when we mistreat people who work for us. Work is distorted wherever slavery exists. Work becomes an idol for some people; they find their identity and satisfaction in life through work. Some people act as if work is a necessary evil, something that only exists because sin exists. But work existed before sin entered into the world. God gave Adam a job to do (Gen. 2:15). So, work is not inherently bad.

The same could be said of money or possessions. We misuse money by spending it on the wrong things, or by stealing. We’re supposed to use things and love people, but we turn this around and use people and love things. Wealth is a great idol. It makes the false promise to us that if only we were rich, we would be happy and secure. Some people then act as if having money, or owning anything, is evil. But possessions are gifts from God. They can be appreciated. They can be used for God’s glory. We use money to fund ministry. Any church, any missionary endeavor needs some level of funding. We can use our possessions to bless others. For example, we can use our homes to house guests, to have people over to get to know them, to provide a safe place for our family. A home can become an idol when we put too much money into it, when all our thoughts and energies and desires are wrapped up in having the perfect house. But a house is a good thing if used rightly.

As you can see, we can misuse anything. We take the good things that God has made and use them wrongly, or turn them into ultimate things, which then become the center of our lives. That place should be reserved for God alone. If we overreact and then refuse to use the gifts that God has given to us, or if we refuse to enjoy good things, we’re committing another error. We are denying the good things that God has given to us. When we reject the gift, we’re rejecting the Giver.

Our only hope is redemption. Our only hope is turning to Jesus for our salvation. Only Jesus can reconcile us to God. Only Jesus provides forgiveness of sins. And only Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, who starts to change our distorted desires. The Spirit can rearrange our loves so that we enjoy God’s gifts and use them rightly, the way that God designed them to be used. Without God’s help, we turn tools into toys, and toys into tools. Without the Spirit, we turn people into things, and things into idols. But when we come to Jesus, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit and seek to obey God’s instructions for life, we can begin to use the things that God has made in a right way. We can then enjoy a meal and not only think, “This steak is great!” Instead, we’ll also think, “How great is the God who made cows that we can turn into steak!” That may seem silly, but it’s not. The difference is big. If we see all of reality as designed by God, we can thank God for his good gifts and use them rightly.

If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you turn to him. Only he makes us right with God. And when we have a relationship with him, our vision of life starts to change. We start to see things rightly. We start to see everything with reference to God. He alone gives us eyes to see the truth and the power to live according to the truth.

Christians, remember that Paul says that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Let’s thank God for those good things. They were made good, so let’s not call God a liar by believing they’re not. And they’re made holy through God’s word and prayer. That is, the gospel message—this message of Jesus that we talk about—shows us how all things can be holy, consecrated to God. And when we pray to God, thanking him, asking him to help us to use his gifts wisely, all things can be enjoyed in the right way. Everything, even enjoying a meal, can be an act of worship. Elsewhere, Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Our final hope is the restoration of the world, the transformation of the creation. It will be a feast, a world of good gifts, the greatest of which is God—his presence and his blessing. The prophet Isaiah said,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).

Notes

  1. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-opioid-overdose-deaths-20180329-htmlstory.html
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. The phrase “will depart from” is a translation of ἀποστήσονταί (apostēsontai).

 

The Mystery of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.

The Majority

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 1, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Every week, people seem to be freaking out over something political, or some event that has political ramifications. This week, people were freaking out over the news that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court. That means that our president, Donald Trump, will be able to nominate a new judge to fill Kennedy’s open slot, which means that Trump will be able to place two judges on the Supreme Court in two years. Anthony Kennedy was known as the swing vote on the Court. Though he was nominated by a Republican president, Ronald Regan, he often voted in favor of so-called liberal decisions. If he’s replaced by a conservative judge, that means there will be five conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 85, retires or dies in the next two years, Trump could place three judges on the Supreme Court.

Now, all of this means that some people are happy, and other people are upset, depending on their politics. Isn’t it strange how so much can hinge on one person? Really, it’s a sign that our government isn’t working the way it ought to be. In fact, that so much can hinge on the presidency shows that our government isn’t working well. Congress should make the laws, the president and his administration should make sure the laws are carried out, and the Supreme Court should determine if laws (and their execution) are constitutional. But the reality is things aren’t work well, and big decisionx are often made by one individual. And that’s strange in a country of over 300 million people.

What about the church? Are all decisions made by one person, or a small group of people? What role does the congregation play in making decisions? I have spent considerable time in this series talking about the role of pastors, or elders, or overseers. (Again, these three terms are used of the same people.) I stressed that they are the shepherds of the church, the leaders. But does this mean that all decisions are made by them? Can the congregation make decisions?

Today, I’m going to talk about the role the congregation plays in making decisions. And since it’s hot and we’re also going to take the Lord’s Supper, I’ll try to make this sermon as short as possible. So, I’ll tell you up front what the Bible seems to say about the congregation’s role in making decisions. In short, the congregation helps decide who is in, and who is out. The congregation has some role to play in determining who can join a church or who must leave a church. The congregation may also play a role in affirming who can serve as ministers.

To see this, we’re going to look at some passages in the Bible. The two most important ones we’ll look at are 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. We’ll also take a peak at some other passages along the way.

So, let’s first read 1 Corinthians 5. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth, part of what we now call Greece.

1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”[1]

Let’s quickly review what we see in this passage. Paul calls out some sinful behavior in the Corinthian church. He says that “a man has his father’s wife.” He means that a man is having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. This is probably his stepmother, because Paul doesn’t say “his mother,” which would be even more shocking. Still, this is very bad, the kind of behavior that not even the pagans tolerated. And that’s saying something, because sexual practices in the Roman Empire would make us blush.

What I want us to pay attention to today is the fact that Paul addresses the whole church. He’s not just writing to the pastors, the elders, or overseers. He’s not saying, “Hey, pastors, why have you allowed this? Kick this man out of the church!” No, he says the whole church is failing. Instead of mourning, the people are boasting and are arrogant. Maybe they’re boasting about how tolerant they are, or how diverse they are. But Paul knows that what this man is doing is evil, and even a little evil has a way of producing a big effect, just as a little yeast can leaven a large amount of dough.

So, Paul tells the church, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”[2] That sounds intense, doesn’t it? What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? Well, at the least it means removing that person from the protection of the church. Paul wanted this man to be excommunicated, at least for a time. Whenever the man would be removed from the church, he would no longer experience the blessings of the church. His sin would be exposed. He was to be treated like a nonbeliever. Perhaps Paul thought that God would punish this man in some physical way, by using Satan to afflict the man with an illness. But Paul is clear that he wants the man to be saved from condemnation.

This episode shows what is at stake in the church. The great problem of humanity is our separation from God. Our problem is that we start out life with a broken relationship. Something is wrong with us, a power that corrupts us and keeps us from God. That something is sin, the power of evil and rebellion that leads us to reject the one true God and replace him with something else as our ultimate authority. Sin leads to condemnation. Why? Because God doesn’t want evil spreading throughout the world. He is patient. He is merciful. He puts up with our sin. But he won’t put up with it forever. There will be a time when he calls us all to account, when all our sins are judged. And we will pay for them.

We will pay—or someone else will. But the only person who can pay for our sins, besides us, is Jesus. He is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe, and who also became a human being over two thousand years ago. He is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always obeyed God perfectly because he has always loved God perfectly. Yet he was treated like a criminal, like an enemy of the state and of the Jewish religion. And he was killed, put to death on a cross. This was because people hated him and didn’t believe him. But it was also God’s plan, to have his Son bear the punishment of sinners. All who turn to Jesus in faith, who trust that he is who he claimed to be and that he has accomplished what the Bible says he has, have their sins paid for. They are reunited to God. They are forgiven of all wrongdoings. And though they die, they will rise from the grave when Jesus returns, just as Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.

But since Christians are united to Jesus, and since the church is where Jesus dwells on earth, by means of the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t keep sinning. Of course, we will sin. We still wrestle with our old nature. But we shouldn’t want to sin and as a church we cannot allow flagrant, egregious sins to occur. Sin has a way of corrupting the whole church. And more than that, it makes Jesus look bad. So, the church should monitor such behavior. Paul says, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” He doesn’t mean judge in an ultimate way. Neither you nor I can determine if someone truly knows Jesus. God knows the heart; we don’t. But Paul means judge in the sense of evaluate. We certainly can look at someone’s behavior and say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t what Christians should do.” Notice that Paul says we should make a distinction between what happens in the church and the world. Christians in America have this a bit backward. We spend all our time judging those outside the church and very little time judging those inside the church. Paul says we can’t separate ourselves from non-Christians, or else we would have to leave the whole world. But we can separate unrepentant sinners from the church, and that’s what we should do. “Purge the evil from your midst”—that’s a command that is repeated throughout the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24).

What Paul is commanding here is no different than what Jesus taught his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples how the church should deal with sin. This is what he says in Matthew 18:15–20:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus says that if a person has sinned against you, it is your responsibility to approach that person directly. Don’t gossip. Go to that person and point out his or her wrong. If they see the error of their ways, “you have gained your brother”—or your sister. But if that person will not listen, then things escalate. The next step is to take another person or two. These people will bear witness to whether the sinning brother or sister is repentant or not. But if that person still won’t listen, then he or she should be brought before the church. And if they refuse to listen to the judgment of the whole church, then they should be removed and treated like a non-Christian.

In both cases, the goal is to bring the sinning person to repentance. But there is another goal, which is to purify the church. And when the whole church says to a sinning person, “This kind of behavior won’t be allowed here,” it sends a strong message.

It’s not just flagrantly immoral behavior that deserves excommunication. That is, it’s not just things like sexual immorality, or violence or stealing or things we think are “really bad.” Paul also says that people who are divisive should be avoided. In Romans 16:17–19, part of another letter that Paul wrote to a different church, Paul writes,

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.

Divisive people can be obviously divisive, the kind of people who complain and argue and fight. But they can also be quietly divisive. Either way, divisions in the church threaten the health of the church, and divisive people must be avoided and, if necessary, removed from the church. The same is true of people who teach false doctrine. Paul tells the church in Galatia that anyone who comes teaching a different message is accursed (Gal. 1:8–9). And in 1 Timothy, Paul said that he removed a couple of men who were blaspheming (1 Tim. 1:18–20).

In each case, Paul says that the church should be involved. In another passage, 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul says that a majority of the church had brought a punishment upon a person. This may or may not be the same person that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5. In this case, the person has attacked Paul personally, but he has also caused pain to the whole church. If that were the man of 1 Corinthians 5, it’s likely that the man resisted any correction, attacked Paul’s authority, and then later the church excommunicated him. But it could be someone else. But, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the punishment was voted on. Let’s read what Paul writes:

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

Here, it seems as though the rebuke of the whole church has brought this person to a godly sorrow. Paul worries that if the punishment continues, it might produce “excessive sorrow.” So, he asks the church to forgive and comfort him. If not, they are playing into Satan’s schemes. Satan wants a divided church; he also wants an unforgiving church.

Now, I have to make this point: the fact that Paul says a majority of the church brought the punishment upon the sinner means that there is a definite number of people who voted. And, I would argue, it means that there should be definite church membership, or a roll of members.

Some people don’t like the idea of church membership. They think it is unbiblical because there is no one verse in the Bible that says, “You must officially join a local church.” It’s true that there is no one verse that says so much. But the concept of an official membership of a local church is presupposed in several passages. This is one of them. Who could vote against the unrepentant sinner? Did they take a vote on a Sunday, and everyone who showed up, including people who came for the first time, vote? That doesn’t make sense. But what about someone who had come for a month? Or someone who came to the church for a few years but refused to join and officially submit to the authority of the church?

Joining a local church is important because it’s a sign of commitment. Joining a church says, “This is my church. I belong here. I submit to the leaders of the church. I commit to these people. I will serve and love them. I am also committed to the spiritual health and purity of the church. And if someone starts messing with the church, I am prepared to take action.” That’s a big deal. I think churches suffer greatly because people don’t make that kind of commitment. And I think a lack of commitment to a local church speaks volumes about the level of commitment people have to Jesus.

What we have seen so far is that the congregation has a role to play in bringing discipline to unrepentant members. And what Paul writes suggests that there was an official vote. I think, by implication, that the reverse is true: when people officially join a church, the church should vote on that. The reason is that members of a church may know more than the pastors know about a person, their reputation, and their behaviors. When a potential member is brought before a church, it is like when a pastor asks at a wedding if there is any reason why the couple shouldn’t be married. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.” In the case of church membership, perhaps someone in the congregation knows why a person shouldn’t join the church.

There are also other things that churches may vote on, at least according to Scripture. In the book of Acts, we see the church active in determining who served the church and who were sent as missionaries. Now, we have to be careful, because what is descriptive in the Bible isn’t always prescriptive. To put it another way, what is narrated isn’t always normative. There were some unique things that happened in the early church. But in Acts, we see that the apostles asked the church to find seven men who could serve widows in the church (Acts 6:1–7). We looked at this passage two weeks ago when talking about deacons. So, it might be that the congregation has a role to play in deciding who serves in the church. Elders in churches were appointed, but perhaps that was something that apostles had authority to do. Now that we don’t have apostles, perhaps the church should determine who leads. Or, perhaps at the least, the church should affirm the decisions of those who are serving as elders. If a team of elders, or pastors, or overseers, recommend that another person join their ranks, they should ask the church to affirm their decision. That way, the church is making a statement: “We will submit to this man’s leadership.”

In the book of Acts, the church in Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off as missionaries (Acts 13:1–3; 15:3). The whole church in Jerusalem, with the apostles and the elders of the church, chose a couple of men (Judas and Silas) to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to deliver a letter (Acts 15:22). So, it would seem that the church has the authority to send people for certain purposes, and the church should vote on that, too.

The Bible does not speak of the congregation voting on all manner of other things, like a church budget or special purchases. But there is wisdom in having a church vote on such things. God uses the congregation to affirm the decisions of leaders. And the congregation, by voting, says, “We will financially support the church’s budget.”

The Bible does not teach anything about committees that consist of lay people. I suppose the leaders of the church can delegate authority and ask committees to serve for certain purposes. But it’s worth considering what Mark Dever, a pastor and author, says: “The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel. The congregation more normally recognizes than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.”[3] The elders of the church should be the ones that have their hands on the steering wheel, directing the church as God has directed in the Bible and as the Holy Spirit leads. The congregation can act as an emergency brake if they see that something wrong is clearly happening. The congregation can also recognize what God is doing through its leaders and the congregation can affirm what the leaders have decided.

So, what does this mean for us? I think the main thing we should consider today is that all Christians should care about the health of a local church. And that requires commitment. It requires knowing the people of the church, knowing them well enough to know if there is some egregious sin in their lives. Also, when we read the pages of the New Testament, we get the sense that all Christians should take ownership of the local church. They should care about the welfare of the church. They should serve in the church, which is something I’ll talk about next week.

If you’re here today and have not yet officially committed to this church, I would urge you to make that commitment. We will be inviting some of you personally to do that, and we will announce when a membership class is meeting. If you aren’t a member of this church, I invite you to be more than a consumer. A consumer comes and takes. And, yes, a consumer gives money. But a member of a church is more than that. A member cares about the whole body. A member cares about the health of the whole body. Do you care about this church enough to want to make it better?

If everyone who comes to this church joined the church and was truly committed to the church, we would be much better off. More people serving would mean we could accomplish more things. When few people serve, a great burden is put on a relatively small number of people. The 80/20 rule says that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. That’s probably true of this church. That means those 20 percent are taxed and burdened. It also means that we struggle to keep up with the basics. Instead of working on new things, like doing more outreach, we struggle to keep up with the basics of meeting together in worship and taking care of the building. We need more help. We need commitment. And beyond serving, the health of the church requires commitment. We should be committed not only to our own spiritual health, but the spiritual health of other people in the church.

I also need to say this: If you’re here today and you’re not yet a Christian, I would urge you to make a commitment to Christ now. There is no other Savior, no other one who can make you right with God and grant you eternal life. To reject Jesus is to reject God. And to reject God is to reject your Maker and the very purpose of your life.

Right now, I’m asking that all of us—even myself!—become more committed. Let us love one another. Let us care about each other’s souls. Let us care about the purity of the church, the reputation of the church, and the direction of the church. The church is where Jesus dwells on earth. Let us make sure his house is in good order.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. It’s interesting that Paul’s life sometimes echoes the life of Jesus. In verses 3 and 4, when Paul says that he is absent in the flesh but present in the spirit (because he had spent time in Corinth and was now writing from elsewhere), he is likening himself to Jesus, who is in heaven but is present with his people through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit of God is greater than the spirit of Paul, and perhaps this was Paul’s way of making the church realize that. In other words, if Paul is absent and his spirit compels the church to act in a certain way, how much more should they act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, who is with them though Jesus is in heaven.
  3. Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 143.

 

The Majority (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

What role does the congregation play in the church? What kind of decisions can the membership of the church make? The Bible indicates that the church as a whole has the authority and responsibility to determine who is in and who is out. Find out more by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on July 1, 2018.

Those Who Serve Well as Deacons (1 Timothy 3:8-13)

Serving others is just as important as leading. Service is so important to Christianity that the church has officially recognized servants called deacons. What is a deacon? Who can be a deacon? Why do we need deacons? Find out in this sermon by Brian Watson, based on 1 Timothy 3:8–13.

Equipping the Saints for Ministry

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the role of the pastor. A pastor shepherds the people of the church and equips them for ministry. The following texts are used: Psalm 23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; John 21:15-17; Ephesians 4:1-16.

Equipping the Saints for Ministry

This sermon was preached on June 3, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Last week, toward the end of my sermon, I made a comment that I hadn’t written down. It was something that occurred to me in the moment. I said that for some people, hearing a sermon on church government might seem like watching a cooking show. It might seem interesting (or not), but it was like getting some information you would never put to use.

I don’t know how many of you have ever watched cooking shows. They used to have real cooking shows on the Food Network, but now it seems they’re more likely to have strange cooking competitions, where the contests are given odd ingredients and have to make something edible out of them. “Here’s a package of gummi bears, some truffle oil, a head of lettuce, and a can of Spam. Now, do your best to give us a three-course meal.” But before those strange competitions, they used to feature chefs making various dishes that you could recreate if you so desired. I’m sure some people watched those shows to learn new techniques or to see if they could learn a new recipe that they would actually put into practice. But some us would watch those shows simply to be entertained.

I generally don’t cook. Sure, I could cook if I needed to. But I don’t, because I married a woman who likes to cook and does it well. And before we got married I survived on breakfast cereal, fruit, and protein bars and shakes. But even I could be entertained by those cooking shows. I appreciate seeing people who are skilled working on their craft.

Now, here’s my point: There’s a big difference between watching something in order to learn techniques that you will put into practice and watching something to be entertained. If you’re watching something to learn a new skill, you’re trying to get better equipped. Chefs might watch cooking shows. Athletes study video. Musicians listen to recordings. But many of us are accustomed to being entertained. We watch and listen not to learn new skills, but to pass the time, or to be amused or moved or to have a bit of curiosity satisfied.

So, here’s a question for all of us here today: Are we here to learn something that we will put into practice, or are we here to get some kind of spiritual entertainment? Are we here to be equipped, or to feel good about having a spiritual experience, or to do our religious duty? “I’m a righteous person because I went to church today.” If you’re here to become equipped, and even to be led, there’s good news: Jesus has given his church people who lead his flock and equip his saints. But if you’re here out of a sense of duty or to be entertained, I’m not sure I can help you.

Today is a continuation of what I talked about last week. It’s really part two of a longer message on what the Bible says about the leaders of a church. Because of that, I’ll recap last week’s sermon briefly.

Last week, we learned that leaders of a church are called by three terms: overseer, elder, and shepherd. We usually call these people “pastors.” “Pastor” simply comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.” We learned the qualifications for this office: men who are pastors have to have many positive moral characteristics, they must be able to teach, and they must be able to manage their own homes because they are managers over God’s household, the church. We also got a glimpse of what a pastor does: he overseers and leads the church, he teaches “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and he protects the church from false teaching and other things that might he harmful to God’s people.

If you wonder why I keep saying “he,” it’s because two weeks ago we learned that God designed the office of pastors to be filled by men. This doesn’t mean that men are somehow better than women. It just means that God designed men and women differently, and he has chosen to use some men to be pastors. Pastors are no better than other Christians; God has simply given them different spiritual gifts and different roles to play in the church.

Today, I want to continue to think about what a pastor does. A pastor shepherds the congregation, and a pastor helps equip God’s people for ministry.

Let’s first think about what a shepherd does. The theme of shepherding is one that runs through the whole of the Bible. Several important figures in the Bible were shepherds. Abraham, the father of Israel, had sheep (Gen. 12:16; 13:2) and herdsmen who worked for him (Gen. 13:8). His offspring would become the people of Israel. Moses grew up in Egypt, but he fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian; while away, he was a shepherd (Exod. 3:1). Later, Moses would shepherd the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. David was a shepherd, too (1 Sam. 16:11). As the great King of Israel, he would shepherd the nation (2 Sam. 5:2). Most importantly, God is called a shepherd.

Why is this important? Because it says something important about what God’s people need. Think about one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Psalm 23, a Psalm of David:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.[1]

Think about all the things that David says the Lord provides for him. He leads him to pastures and waters. In other words, the shepherd provides him with food, with sustenance. He leads him in paths of righteousness. The shepherd leads David through the valley of the shadow of death. He uses two implements, a rod and staff. The rod was used to fend off wild animals. In other words, it would protect the sheep. But the staff was used to discipline and control the sheep, to keep them on the right path. So, shepherds defend and discipline.

This gives us some idea of what pastors do for their “sheep,” their “flock,” the people of their congregation. They provide spiritual food, they lead, they protect, they nudge the sheep in the right direction and provide correction when necessary.

Last week, I read a passage written by the apostle Peter. In his first letter, he writes something to his fellow shepherds, or elders. This is what he writes in 1 Peter 5:1–4:

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

Last week, I said that the words overseer, elder, and shepherd all refer to the same office, the same position in the church. This passage shows that. Peter addresses the elders, he tells them to shepherd the flock, and he tells them to exercise oversight. Pastors shouldn’t feel compelled to do this, but they should do their jobs willingly. They shouldn’t do it to get rich, but they should be eager to do the work. They shouldn’t be domineering, commanding people to do what they themselves are unwilling to do. Instead, they should serve as examples to the congregation.

They should do this so that when the chief Shepherd, Jesus, comes, they will be rewarded. This shows that pastors aren’t just shepherds; they’re also sheep who must follow the leadership of the Great Shepherd, Jesus.

We should notice that Peter calls himself a fellow elder. Though he was an apostle, one of Jesus’ first followers and a man who was authorized to lead the early church, he considered himself a pastor. And he learned a great lesson about pastoring from Jesus himself.

Many of us know Peter’s story rather well. On the night when Jesus was arrested, the night before he died, he denied knowing Jesus three times. He did this to save his own life. If people knew he was with Jesus, who was arrested and was on trial, Peter might very well die, too. So, he lied about his relationship to Jesus out of fear.

Yet after Jesus died on the cross, he rose from the grave. And he later appeared to his disciples. In John’s Gospel, we’re told about a special encounter that Peter had with Jesus. This is John 21:15–17:

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

This is an interesting passage for a lot of reasons. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Three times, Peter said, “you know that I love you.” These three questions and answers parallel Peter’s three denials, showing that Jesus is fully forgiving Peter.

But what’s interesting is that each time Peter answers, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” or, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus could simply mean, “Take care of my people.” But he says “feed” each time. What is Peter supposed to feed the flock? What are all pastors supposed to feed their flock?

It seems the general answer is spiritual nourishment. But that’s kind of vague. More specifically, Christians are to “feed” on Jesus (John 6:51, 53, 55, 58). That’s metaphorical, of course, but the point is that Jesus gives us life. He is the food that strengthens our souls. But how do we know Jesus? Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). And what is Jesus’ voice? How do we hear it? We hear Jesus’ voice in the pages of the Bible. The whole Bible is, one way or another, about him. The whole Bible is God’s written word, and Jesus is the Word of God, truly God himself. So, we can say that the whole Bible is Jesus’ word to us. And Jesus himself said,

“Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4 [Deut. 8:3]).

So, if God’s written word is food that gives us access to God’s incarnate Word, Jesus, and if pastors are supposed to feed the flock that food, then the main way that pastors provide for their congregation is to feed them Scripture. The best way I can help you know God, keep you on the path of righteousness, protect you from false teaching, drive away fears that may surround you as you pass through your personal valleys of the shadow of death, and correct you is to teach you the Bible. That’s why I serve up heaping portions of Scriptural meals each Sunday. A pastor teaches with the Bible, leads with the Bible, protects against false doctrine with the Bible, and corrects with the Bible. The pastor heals the wounded and comforts the hurting with the Bible. You might say that both a pastor’s rod and staff are the Bible. That is why one of the qualifications of a pastor is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9).

Feeding a congregation the spiritual food of the Bible doesn’t mean that unless you hear Scripture read in a church service, you won’t understand it, or that you can’t grow by reading the Bible on your own. But what I’ve found is that many people have a hard time understanding how to read the Bible, how to understand what a passage means in its context. Most people don’t have the ability to teach Scripture. A pastor has been spiritually gifted to have certain insights into spiritual matters. And that gifting should be developed through experience, training, and education. The pastor then preaches and teaches the Word to the congregation, helping them to understand how they can read the Bible and interpret it and apply it to their own lives.

So, a pastor is a shepherd who leads, provides the spiritual food of the Bible, protects the congregation from false teachings, and corrects the congregation when false teaching or sinful practices enter into a church.

The pastor also equips Christians to do ministry. I want to look at another passage, this one from the apostle Paul. It’s found in his letter to church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about the unity of the church. To have true unity, the church must grow up, and one of the main ways that the church grows is to become equipped to do ministry. We’re going to zero in on a few verses, but to understand the context, I want us to read verses 1–16 of Ephesians 4:

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

That’s a long passage, but hopefully you understood the main points. Paul begins by saying he wants the church to walk in a manner worthy of the calling they have received. In other words, they’ve been adopted in God’s family through the death of Jesus, which pays the penalty for our rebellion against God. If we trust in Jesus, if we’ve been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we’re forgiven of our sins, we’re reconciled to God, and we’re his children. So, Paul says, “Act like you’re God’s children. Be humble and gentle and patient. Bear with one another. Have peace with one another. Just as there is only one true Lord and God, one true faith, one true baptism, there should be one true church, perfectly united.”

Then Paul says in verse 7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The body of Christ, the church, us unified, but within that unity there is diversity. Though every person is made in the image of God, made to reflect God’s glory, made to worship and serve God, made to love and obey God, not all of us have the same abilities and talents. Not all of us have the same spiritual gifts. We call these “spiritual gifts,” because they are gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God, through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These gifts are abilities that should be used to serve the church.

What Paul says here is that Jesus, after ascending to heaven, gave the church certain people to build the church up. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who descended to earth to become a human being in order to fulfill God’s designs for humanity. Unlike us, he lived the perfect human life, always reflecting the glory of God, always obeying and worshiping God, perfectly loving other people. In short, he never sinned. Yet ye died on the cross, not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people. Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus, who trusts that he alone makes us right with God, is forgiven of their sins because Jesus’ death already payed for them on the cross.

But not only did Jesus give his life. After dying, on the third day he rose from the grave. He rose in a body that is indestructible and immortal. His resurrection proved that his death paid for sins in full, that he has power over sin and death. His resurrection is also the first installment of a new creation that God will bring about whenever Jesus returns to earth. After rising from the grave, Jesus ascended to heaven, and he poured out the Holy Spirit on the church. It is the Spirit that enables certain Christians to perform certain roles in the church.

Here, Paul says that Jesus gave the church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” The apostles were people like Paul and Peter, people whom Jesus called to himself and authorized to represent him on earth. These were people who saw Jesus on earth after he rose from the grave. Paul was unique in that he saw visions of Jesus after Jesus ascended to heaven. Prophets were those who revealed truth from God in the first generation or two after Jesus ascended into heaven. I don’t think that we have apostles and prophets today, though there are some Christians who think we do. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The foundation of the church is biblical truth, revealed by the apostles and prophets. A foundation is only laid once, and there is no new, authoritative “word” from God that equals Scripture. But, certainly, the word of God equips the saints for ministry.

Evangelists are people who are especially gifted to share the message of Jesus. All Christians should be witnesses in one way or the other. But not everyone is going to be particularly good at this. Some people are more outgoing, better able to engage others in spiritual conversations. And these people can help the church do the ministry of evangelism. They can teach us how we all can tell people about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus. But there’s no indication in the rest of Scripture that there is a special office of evangelist in the church. This doesn’t seem to be an official position. But we might think of missionaries as evangelists, people whom the church should support.

That brings us to “the pastors and teachers.” This may refer to one office. In other words, Paul might very well mean “pastors who teach.” The grammar of the Greek is debatable. Perhaps Paul means that pastors equip the church for ministry, and in particular it is those pastors who teach that equip the saints for ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).

But the important thing we should see is that pastors are given to the church not do all the ministry of the church. No, pastors are given to the church to equip the saints—a word that means someone made holy by Jesus’ sacrifice and by the Holy Spirit—to do the ministry of the church. In other words, all Christians should be engaged in ministry. It’s the pastor’s job to equip Christians to minister.

As you might guess, pastors equip the saints for ministry through teaching the Bible. A pastor should teach about various roles that people play in a church. He should teach about spiritual gifts and help people to understand what their gifts are and how they can be used in the church.

This model of a pastor as equipper is different from the model that most churches have today. Some churches view pastors as the religious services provider. He’s the preacher, the one who does baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the one who visits the sick and offers counseling when people request it. More recently, churches view pastors as CEOs, as managers of a church. He is the leader, the one who manages resources, including people. Now, there are truths to both of these models. Pastors should preach and perform ceremonies and offer counseling. Pastors should lead churches; they are overseers, managers of God’s household. But both of those models suggest that the people in the pews are consumers.

A different model is that the pastor is a trainer, or a coach. We might say he’s a player-coach, the way that Bill Russell was at the end of his career with the Celtics, or that Pete Rose was at the end of his career with the Reds (though without the gambling). These different models were identified by two writers, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, who wrote a book on ministry called The Trellis and the Vine. They suggest the last model, that of trainer, is the most biblical one.[2] According to them, when this model is used, “Our congregations become centres of training where people are trained and taught to be disciples of Christ who, in turn, seek to make other disciples.”[3] The pastor doesn’t only exist to give people spiritual consumers a product. “His task is to teach and train his congregation, by his word and his life, to become disciple-making disciples of Jesus.”[4]

If we all came to church with the desire to be trained for ministry, the church would become more mature, more united. It would better reflect who Jesus is. The pastor is not the one who does all the ministry. One man, or even a few men, can’t do all the ministry of the church. And that’s not God’s design for the church. All Christians should be engaged in the ministry of a local church. I’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we talk about the role of the congregation in the church and about spiritual gifts.

So, what do we do with this information? Hopefully, we all have a clearer understanding of what a pastor’s role is. I’m sure I could do a much better job of shepherding and equipping you. In particular, I should make sure that I do a better job of training people for ministry.

But I do want to say this to you all: you will get out of church what you put into it. If you are coming on a Sunday morning thinking that church is some kind of product to be consumed, you will be missing out. Church isn’t a product to be consumed. It certainly isn’t entertainment. It shouldn’t be like watching a cooking show and saying, “Oh, so that’s how you make a soufflé!” Are you going to make a soufflé? “No, but I think it’s really interesting to watch other people cook one, and I would like to eat one when they’re done.” That’s not how church should work.

We should approach church as though we’re all players on a team. We all have different roles to play. Not everyone on a baseball team is a pitcher or a catcher. Not everyone will bat leadoff or in the cleanup spot. A football team can only have one starting quarterback, but it has many linemen. You get the idea. But every player is ready to use his or her abilities. And every player should come under the leadership of the coach.

A pastor doesn’t exist to please you. The Bible doesn’t say that pastors are your buddies, people that you like. I don’t know how much sheep like their shepherds or even agree with their shepherds. A pastor isn’t the church’s employee, a guy who exists to do the will of the congregation because, after all, they’re paying his salary. A pastor exists to do God’s will, and he does this by leading the church according to God’s word.

The best way that you can benefit from Jesus’ gift of pastors is to be willing to be led, to be willing to be taught, to be willing to be equipped. If you are not willing, you won’t get much out of church. If you’re not willing to do those things, it may be that you don’t truly know Jesus. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Part of following the Great Shepherd is following the shepherds of his church. He gave them to the church for a reason. Jesus laid down his life for the flock, to purchase them for himself. Regardless of our position in the church, all Christians should pour out their lives for Jesus. This, too, is a gift.

Let us ask God to give us the grace and the strength to do what he has called us to do in the church. Pray that I would be a better shepherd and equipper. And ask God to show you how you can be a better sheep and player on the church team. Let us be willing to listen to Jesus and act on what he has revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (Kingsford, NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009), 94ff.
  3. Ibid., 99.
  4. Ibid.

 

The Office of Overseer

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 27, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

As a leader goes, so goes a country, a company, a sports team, or any institution or organization. We realize that with our country, which is why we put so much emphasis on who is the president. The last election was only a year and a half ago, and people are still talking about it, but in a year or less, people will start campaigning for the next election in an effort to be the next president. We probably give too much weight to the presidency, blaming or praising him for almost everything that happens in this country. But we realize that if the president is a bad one, the country is in trouble.

The same is true of corporations. A company needs to have a good CEO to thrive. We don’t own a house right now, so we have some money invested in stocks. I’ve used one stock recommendation service to get some tips on how to invest, and one of the ways they evaluate companies is by evaluating their CEOs. A company with a wise and innovative CEO is more promising than one that has an incompetent leader.

The same is true in sports. Today, the Celtics play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. Despite whatever happens today, the Celtics have done better than most people would have imagined, since their star player, Kyrie Irving, has been injured for the last two months and won’t play again until next season. The Celtics also acquired another star, Gordon Hayward, last year, but he only played five minutes and scored two points before breaking his ankle. Since he’s getting about $30 million this year, that’s a bad investment. Most people credit the Celtics’ success to their coach, Brad Stevens. The Patriots have had some great players over the last seventeen years, but if you took away Bill Belichick, I don’t how many Super Bowls they would have won.

Leaders are important. And they’re important in churches, too. And that’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the leaders of churches.

Today, we’re continuing our study of 1 Timothy, a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. This book of the Bible teaches us “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15).[1] Paul had left Timothy in the city of Ephesus, an important city within the Roman Empire. The church there was threatened by the presence of false teachers. So, Paul wrote to Timothy to make sure that Timothy did his best to protect the health of the church. One way to protect the health of the church is to make sure its leaders are healthy.

And that brings us to today’s passage, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, which discusses the “office of the overseer.” First, we’ll read the passage, and then we’ll explore what it and another passage in the Bible say about leaders of the church.

But before we read this, I want to say to those who are visiting, or perhaps those who are not yet Christians: This text of the Bible may not seem like it pertains to your life at all. It is about the nuts and bolts of church life, after all. But what I’ll talk about today will give you a sense of what Christianity is all about, why the church is important, and why leaders of a church are important. And perhaps all of that will teach you more about the values of Christianity, the failings of Christians, and why those failings don’t mean that Christianity itself has failed.

Without further ado, let’s read today’s text. Here is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:

1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

I want to ask a few basic questions of this passage. The first one is, what is an overseer? That’s not a term used in churches, though it does appear a few times in the Bible. The King James Version translates the Greek word as “bishop.” But when we Protestants think of “bishop,” we think of the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps the Anglican or Episcopal Church. (The Episcopal Church is named after this Greek word, episkopos.) In those churches, a bishop is an authority over several churches in an area. Is that what Paul is talking about?

No. We can see that by comparing a few different passages. Let’s look at a very similar passage in another one of Paul’s letters, his letter to Titus. In Titus 1:5–9, Paul writes,

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Here Paul tells Titus that he had left him on the island of Crete so that he could appoint elders in every town. Then, after giving a few qualifications of an elder, Paul write, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” That’s what Paul writes in 1 Timothy, too. But Paul had first started by talking of elders, so it seems that overseers are elders. The two words refer to the same office.

Some churches use the word “elder,” but some do not. So, we might not be very familiar with this term. It calls to mind older people, though in the Bible an elder was generally the head of a family, not someone who is a senior citizen. And the leaders of churches are not necessarily very old. But the point is that elders are overseers, and overseers are elders. And, before we look at other passages, it’s important to see this: Paul told Titus to appoint elders—note, this is plural—in every town—this is singular. That suggests that in every place, perhaps every individual church, there should be multiple elders, or overseers.

Let’s continue to look at other passages to figure out what “elder” and “overseer” mean. We’ll look more at this passage next week, but in 1 Peter 5, another apostle, Peter, writes,

1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1–4).

Peter begins with that same term, “elders.” He calls himself “a fellow elder.” And then he says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” “Oversight” reminds us of the term “overseer.” It’s the verb form of the Greek word translated as “overseer.” But notice that other verb: shepherd. Now we’re getting on familiar ground. The verb could be translated “pastor the flock of God.” The word “pastor” comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.”

So, now we’re getting somewhere. An overseer is an elder is a pastor. These three terms refer to the same office. That might be confusing, but it’s not different than referring to the President as Commander in Chief. Those two terms can be used of the same office. The President is not someone different than the Commander in Chief. Those titles refer to the same person, or the same office. In a similar way, overseer, elder, and shepherd (or pastor) refer to the same office.

We’ll also see this in a moment when we look at some of Acts 20. When Paul was traveling back toward Jerusalem, he made a stop in Miletus, on the western coast of the province of Asia Minor, and he called the “elders of the church” of Ephesus to come to him. In part of his speech, Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Again, Paul is addressing the elders, and now he says that they are to care, “or shepherd,” the flock, because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The ESV says “to care for the church,” but it really should be “to shepherd the church” (as in the CSB and the NASB; the NIV has something similar). So, the elders are overseers, and they are to shepherd the church.

So, that answers our question. Overseers are elders or, more familiarly, pastors. That is one of two ongoing offices in the church. The other is deacon. That’s why Paul mentions both the “overseers” and the “deacons” at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). It doesn’t appear that there are any other ongoing offices in the church. There is no indication that there should be a pope, a head over the whole universal church. There is no mention of ongoing “bishops,” who govern all the churches in one city or province. The only priests in the new covenant, the church, are all Christians (1 Pet. 2:9, for example). The multiple levels of hierarchy that one sees in the Catholic Church developed in the centuries after the Bible was written, but they are not themselves part of God’s Word to his church.

Now, let’s answer a second question: what are the qualifications for an overseer, an elder, or a pastor? Let’s go back to 1 Timothy 3. Paul says that “an overseer must be above reproach” (v. 2). This does not mean that a pastor must be sinless or perfect. If that were the case, there would be no pastors! But it means there must be no major moral defects in a pastor. Many commentators believe that what follows in Paul’s list provides the definition of what it means to be “above reproach.”

Paul says he must be “the husband of one wife,” or, more literally, a “one-woman man.” Some people think this means a pastor must never have been divorced, or that pastor couldn’t remarry if his first wife died. Paul could have used words like “divorce” to describe a pastor’s qualities. But he didn’t. It’s more likely that Paul means a pastor should be faithful to his wife. Divorce in many cases is a sin, but it’s not an unforgivable sin. Yet the pastor must have a track record of being faithful to his wife.

He should also be “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” That seems self-explanatory. A pastor should be level-headed, with the ability to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

He must be “respectable,” worthy of respecting, as well as “hospitable.” Literally, this means a “lover of strangers.” He must be willing to open his life and his home to new people, which is true of all Christians (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).

He also must be “able to teach.” Besides the fact that Paul calls these leaders “overseers,” which suggests what the job is about, this is the qualification in the list that suggests what overseers do. They must be able to teach. Specifically, they must be able to teach God’s Word. As we study other passages related to overseers/elders/pastors, we’ll see that not every one of these is a regular teacher. But every overseer must be able to teach. Why is that necessary?

Often, we think of leaders as different from teachers. Think of the Patriots. I don’t know how much Bob Kraft knows about football. I’m sure I wouldn’t want him coaching the Patriots. But he’s the owner and if he wanted, he could fire Bill Belichick. Belichick is more of the teacher. We tend to separate these functions when we think of leadership. But the Bible doesn’t. According to the Bible, the church’s leaders are teachers, even if they aren’t always engaged in teaching. Why is that necessary? Because leaders of a church must lead biblically. They must lead according to what the Bible says. And I have seen that many people don’t know how to interpret the Bible well. That’s why God has given the church some people who can. But it’s often the case that some leaders in a church are not teachers, and that’s probably why many churches are not healthy.

In verse 3, Paul says that an overseer is “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Much of that is self-explanatory. A pastor can’t be sober-minded if he is drunk. Violence, or being a very argumentative person, is not what Christianity is about. Gentle does not mean never disagreeing, or never saying a strong word. We can say that Jesus was gentle, but he was not afraid to rebuke, to cry out in a loud voice, or to overturn some tables and crack a whip to drive sinful practices out of the temple. But being gentle must be the opposite of being violent and quarrelsome. He must be careful how he treats people. He must be patient and gracious. Again, this doesn’t mean he puts up with just anything, or puts up with problematic people forever. See all of Paul’s letters. He was not afraid to remove people from churches and speak strong words.

A pastor or overseer must not be a “lover of money.” I’ll speak a bit about this next week, too, but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit repetitive. Pastors who are “in it for the money” will be far more likely to do anything to get people into the church, so that the church can grow and more money will come in. Those pastors won’t preach unpopular passages. They may not contradict what the Bible says, but they won’t preach the fullness of what the Bible says. Though, of course, it may be the case that pastors who are in it for the money change their doctrine so that it matches with what the people want to hear. They may refuse to correct or confront people who are wealthy, because the church might lose a significant donor.

This is true of not just pastors, but all of us. Whatever we love the most will dictate the course of our lives. If we love Jesus most, we’ll love truth. We’ll obey Jesus’ commandments. We’ll love God with all our being and we’ll love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But if we love money or power more than we love God, we’ll be willing to make all kinds of compromises. The same is true if our treasure is comfort or entertainment or a relationship. What we love the most is our object of worship, our functional god. And if we worship anything other than the true God, we’ll bend moral rules to keep our god.

The world has many pastors and priests who have compromised in order to please people or to earn money. The world has many priests and pastors who have made sex their god, and have cheated on wives or who have sexually abused children. None of this means Christianity is false. It means that people are sinners, even within the church, and that at any given moment any of us can do what is wrong. That is why we must all be careful to watch what we love the most, what we believe to be true, just as much as we must watch our behaviors. Our desires will dictate our lives. Pastors must love God, and the truth of God, found in God’s Word, more than they love pleasing people, earning accolades, or making money.

There are three more things that Paul says about overseers, or elders or pastors. First, a pastor “must manage his own household well.” The reason is simple: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” This shows that an overseer is a leader, one who manages the church. If he can’t first manage his own home, including his children, why should we expect him to do better with the church? If his children are unruly, if his home is a mess, if his finances are out of order—well, who would want that for the church?

This does not mean that every pastor must have a wife and children. If that were so, Jesus couldn’t be a pastor, and neither could Paul! But it’s generally expected that pastors will be married and have children. This, too, shows that the Catholic Church is wrong to forbid its leaders to marry. Marriage is a good thing, something that teaches us many lessons about faithfulness and forgiveness and loving someone else when we don’t feel like it, or when that person doesn’t seem particularly lovable. Having children teaches many lessons, too, and both are gifts from God. A pastor must handle these gifts well if he wants to handle the gift of leading a church well.

In verse 6, Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” I suppose “recent” might be a bit relative. When the church was young, elders must have been appointed to churches not long after becoming Christians. But the point is that the new converts can be proud of their spirituality, or proud of their doctrine. Life has a way of humbling people and tempering their pride over time, and this is true of pastors, too. It’s best for them to have time being led after becoming a Christian instead of jumping into a position of leadership. If not, pastors may become like Satan, whose pride led him to rebel against God and therefore fall into condemnation.

Finally, Paul says that an overseer “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Paul is concerned about the reputation of the church. An overseer who has a bad reputation outside of the church makes the church, and therefore Jesus, look bad. Satan would love nothing more than to destroy the church, to ruin its reputation. So, he has laid many snares, many traps for pastors. Some involve money, some involve marriage and sex, some involve compromising their theology. All lead to a bad reputation for Jesus and his church.

So, those are the basic qualifications for pastors. But, if you think about it, most of these qualities should apply to all Christians. The only one that doesn’t is the ability to teach and, if people are single, the descriptions of marriage and a home life. In other words, pastors should be ideal Christians—not perfect Christians, because there’s no such thing. But they should be model Christians.

These qualities are probably the very opposite of the qualities that the false teachers have. If you read this letter carefully, it’s not hard to see that they were lovers of money (1 Tim. 6:3–10). It’s possible they were sexually promiscuous (2 Tim. 3:6). They were certainly not able to teach, and it seems they were quarreling over foolish things, like myths and genealogies (Tit. 3:9). In order to protect the health of the church, churches first need to have healthy leaders.

Paul knew this well, that’s why he had warned the elders in Ephesus about this several years earlier. We have already asked, “what is an overseer?” and “what are the qualifications of an overseer?” Now we should ask, “what does an overseer do?”

I’ll answer this in more detail next week. But for now, I want us to look at that passage in Acts 20, when Paul addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus. I preached on this a couple of years ago, and you can find the whole series of sermons on Acts online.[2] Therefore, I won’t dig into the details. But I want us to see a few important things in this passage. So, I’ll read Acts 20:17–31:

17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”

I could go on, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop there.

I want to point out four things. First, Paul emphasizes his teaching. He says declared “what was profitable . . . the whole counsel of God.” He probably doesn’t mean he literally preached the whole Bible. After all, the entire Bible hadn’t been written yet. But he taught the fullness of God’s plan for his creation. He taught about who God is, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the perfect, eternal, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, gracious, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity. He taught that God made the universe for his glory and that he made human beings in his image, to reflect his glory, to represent who he is, to worship him, to rule over the world, and to love and obey him. He also taught that from the beginning human beings have rebelled against God. They have failed to love and trust him. They have rejected his word. In short, they have sinned. But he taught that at the right time, God sent his unique Son, Jesus, who lived a perfect human life and died in place of sinful human beings. Anyone who turns from sin to Jesus can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

That brings us to the second thing Paul mentions: his message. He taught “the gospel of the grace of God.” He taught “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He taught that “the church of God” was “obtained with his own blood.” That verse, verse 28, shows that Jesus is God. And it shows that he redeemed a people through his sacrifice on the cross. He made them his own. Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sin. As a righteous judge, God cannot let the guilty go free without someone paying the penalty for their crimes. Jesus paid that penalty in full on the cross for anyone who would turn to him in faith, trusting that his life, death, and resurrection is what reconciles us to God.

The third thing that Paul says is also found in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” He tells the elders to pay attention to themselves. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). He tells them to shepherd the flock, to care for them. He also says that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.

The fourth thing Paul says is “be alert.” He says that “fierce wolves” will attack the flock. These “wolves” will include people within the church, even some elders: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” False teachers, people who “speak twisted things,” can destroy the church. These people may not look fierce at all. They may be the nicest people you know. But anyone who rejects God’s Word, or leads people away from following it, is a “wolf.” People who attack the sheep or who attack a faithful shepherd are wolves.

From this passage in Acts, we get a good sense of what overseers do. They teach God’s Word—the fullness of it, not just popular passages. They care and protect the flock. And they watch out for false teachers or other enemies. Of course, they exercise oversight, too. They lead, teach, and protect.

The reason I spend so much time reading Scripture in my sermons and showing where I get my ideas from is because I want to teach “the whole counsel of God.” Some churches don’t spend a lot of time with Scripture. Some churches focus only on the more “practical” passages, the ones that seem to apply to everyone, not just pastors or people concerned about church leadership. But I think it’s important to teach all of God’s Word to all of God’s people. I think we should view all of God’s world through the lens of all of God’s Word. And that means focusing on the Bible, not spending a lot of time on my opinions or on cute stories.

So, we’ve looked at a lot of Scripture and thought a bit about overseers/elders/pastors. What should we do with this information?

First, I want to speak to anyone who might not be a Christian. Thanks for being here. Today’s passage may not seem to apply at all to you. But I hope it’s given you some insight into what’s important about Christianity. You’ve heard the central message of Christianity: Jesus came to save sinners, people who have been enemies of God. You may not see yourself as an enemy of God, but if you don’t love God more than anything else, and if that isn’t truly apparent in your life, you’re at odds with God. The fact is that all of us start out as rebels. We don’t love, trust, and obey God the way that we should. We have all sinned. And therefore, we deserve condemnation. But God sent his Son, who came willingly, to die on our place, if we would only trust him. I would love to talk to you more about what it means to follow Jesus. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you first have to be perfect. But when we come to Jesus, we must do life God’s way, and that means living the way a model Christian should live. We will not all be pastors, but many of the qualities of a pastor should be apparent in a Christian’s life.

Second, I want us a church to think about what all these passages say. There are two offices of the church: overseer/elder/shepherd and deacon. The two are not the same. They don’t perform the same roles. Deacons aren’t junior pastors or assistant pastors. Deacons are not shepherds or overseers. We need to have a correct understanding of both offices, and this should be reflected in our by-laws. Right now, they are not. If you look at our by-laws, nowhere in the description of the pastor’s role does it include the language of leading, overseeing, shepherding, or watching over. Yet in the description of the deacons, we’re told they should “watch over” the congregation and serve as “overseeing” members of committees. I’ll have more to say about all of this, but the by-laws of this church are not fully biblical, and therefore, they need to change.

Three, I would like to see this church have multiple overseers/elders/pastors. This does not mean the church has to hire more staff. Many healthy churches that are similar in doctrine have multiple elders, some of whom are paid staff, and others who are lay leaders. They all have the same office, though perhaps they don’t all devote as much time to the job. The paid staff do more of the teaching and do more administrative oversight. But all the elders are responsible for shepherding the flock. The role of the deacons is to serve in practical manners, often through physical acts of service, but also through distributing financial aid to those in need. I’ll say much more about these roles over the coming weeks. For now, I just want to have us think about that model, because it’s biblical.

We should all care about the leadership of the church because the church is “the household of God . . . a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Being part of God’s family means being part of a church. And a healthy church needs faithful leaders. Please pray that I would be a faithful shepherd and that we would all follow the chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://wbcommunity.org/acts.

 

The Office of Overseer (1 Timothy 3:1-7)

As a leader goes, so goes any organization. The same is true for the church. That’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the qualifications for church leaders. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:1-7, with a quick look at some of Acts 20:17-31. This message takes a look at the office of overseer/elder/pastor and why this matters for the church.